Nick and Liz Swain bought a cottage in Barton in 2006. I met them in February this year and heard the story of the Meyer lemon tree. Last week, I was invited to see the 70-year-old tree which is thriving and laden with fruit. The Swains wonder if it is Canberra's first Meyer lemon tree - if you know of another with similar historic interest, please email me at email@example.com.
Nick, who is secretary of the Canberra and District Historical Society, wrote a story about the tree in the society's newsletter last December.
From 1933 Maurice and Doreen Myers rented the house which they bought from the government in 1955. They lived there for their 56 years of married life. The house was put up for sale and Marion Frith wrote in The Canberra Times on July 20, 1990: "Lemon lovers take note. When an old Barton house changes hands next month so, too, will a piece of horticultural history - the original grafted plant, from which they very first Meyer lemon grew ... the hybrid was planted in 1952 and the first lemon - now the variety most suited to Canberra's chilly climes - was picked triumphantly from the frost-hardy and thornless bush four years later. So when the house opens for inspection on Saturday it's understood that a bevy of horticulturists and garden writers will be posing as potential buyers."
Nick Swain checked the origins of the Meyer lemon, a hybrid citrus native to China, a cross between a citron and a mandarin/pomelo. It was introduced to the United States in 1908 by the agricultural explorer Frank Meyer. A 1956 article in the Central Queensland Herald discusses experimentation with a range of rootstocks, including sweet orange and rough lemon. Nick says a significant characteristic of their tree is that fruit can be left on the tree for extended periods which is consistent with the rootstock being sweet orange.
In the Swain garden cottage plants abound, including salvia bushes with flowers of varying vibrant colours, masses of geraniums in bloom in a protected corner, a huge old buddleia with impressive trunks which Liz likened to spreading lava, the trunk of an aged weeping cherry tree and a sprawling Chilean vine with white flowers.
In a back area is a vegetable garden where self-sown bright orange round pumpkins are ready to harvest - one is sitting atop a bucket filled with straw to protect its base. The vine has woven through the possum-deterring wire "roof" of the vegie bed and another pumpkin is growing there. Red and yellow tomatoes are scrambling above Warrigal greens.
There was massive hail damage in the Barton area in the storm of 2020 and the Swains, like all their neighbours, had to replace their handsome tiled roofs. Some plants were stripped but Mr Lincoln roses soar again and an almost luminous purple bougainvillea frames the house above a garden table.
We sat there for a taste of limoncello made from the lemon tree's fruit. The Swain's former neighbour, Sebastian Rosenberg, (who appeared in this column years ago) has a brother who lives in Italy and he and family often visited. Sebastian is an enthusiast so the Swains happily agreed to his request for lemons in exchange for the limoncello. As Nick says, win win!
The recipe was based on vodka. We had a small sip from little glasses purchased by the Swains on a walking trip along the Amalfi Coast in 2015 where the lemons are vast. Their best version of limoncello came from Sapori di Positano who have a mouth watering website at saporidipositano.com
Liz has shared her oft-made recipe for Meyer lemon delicious pudding which has been adapted from Stephanie Alexander. It makes generous servings for six people but Liz usually does double the mixture and uses less sugar (2-2.5 cups of sugar for double mixture).
3 tbsp butter (60g)
grated zest of 1 Meyer lemon
5 cups castor sugar
3 eggs, separated
3 tbsp self-raising flour
5 cups milk
juice of 1.5 Meyer lemons,
fresh or frozen
1. In a food processor cream the butter with the grated lemon rind and the sugar. When thoroughly creamed, add the egg yolks. Add the flour and milk alternately to make a smooth batter.
2. Scrape the mixture from the sides of the food processor and then blend in the lemon juice.
3. Beat the egg whites until a firm snow and delicately fold them into the batter.
4. Pour into buttered individual moulds and bake for 40 minutes at 180C in a bain-marie.
5. Serve with pouring cream.
Note: This old-fashioned pudding has a creamy lemon sauce under the golden sponge topping.
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