To add lemon or not to add lemon to food: we analyse one of the most acidic debates in gastronomy

Lemon is shelter or summer. It kills dullness or enlivens the imagination.

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One of the lessons of age is that there is no pleasure in holidays like getting up early. The alarm takes revenge for the time hijacked by working hours, from nine to five, from nine to seven, from nine to nine, and the day is then unrolled and fresh in front of the holidaymaker, ready to be shaped as he chooses.

Another lesson that the years have taught us is that elegance cannot be deciphered in the folds of a white shirt rolled up properly (four fingers below the elbow) or in the exact centimetres of the vamp of a pair of loafers (which does not completely cover the metatarsus) or in the choice of a sober and distinguished manicure colour (never pastel). With time, elegance is discovered as a form of respect, as a way of being with others. It consists – if the hieroglyphic of time is being solved correctly – in that presence does not impose itself and absence is missed, in that in a group one’s own appearance greases the conversation and relaxes the jaws, in that it never makes the stomach bubble, in that an early withdrawal does not make others feel relieved. In a better with you than without you.

Queen Victoria of England said that when Prince Albert died, the only person who contradicted him died too, and that life had therefore lost its salt. Understanding that acidity can both invigorate and sour the person in front of you is the path of a life. To get on track towards the aurea mediocritas should allow one to sense when one is needed and when one is surplus, when to insist with a message to finally have a coffee with someone who seems to be always up to his ears or when to give up on friendship, when to accept one more round before going home or when to give up, when to distribute a squeeze of lemon on some fried squid or when it is urgent to put the fruit in the nearest rubbish bin. Rejoinders must be weighed up. Excessive ambition can crumble existence. The answer to the last cavil, with luck, can be found without making the king of the English a widower. If one has been raised by the seaweed, the answer is “never”. If the person who is confronted with fried cuttlefish or skate considers the act of putting it between two loaves of bread worthy of celebration, even homage, the answer will be “often”, because the people of the mesetas have in their little squeezing fingers the inherited habit of refreshing a fish that, trapped by the laws of physics, does not arrive fresh from the sea, fresh from the sea, in the kitchen. Near the coast, although in the bars the fountain is accompanied by half a lemon, the idea is somewhat criminal. It is a completely unworthy gustatory disguise, like a squirt of ketchup on a potato omelette. Anyone who grew up an hour from the beach knows that the lemon divorces the fried coating from the fish, moistens it awkwardly, and gives the flavour such a powerful jolt that the taste buds are disconnected from the brain file that leads to the concept of fish. It becomes, in short, an aberration.

● On the table, the lemon must be controlled, watched over. It must be guarded until it reaches the territory that by nature belongs to it, where its irremediable shingles will gain access to the tongue without, at last, unhinging the scale of flavours. “In the lemon they cut/ the knives/ a small cathedral,/ the hidden apse/ opened to the light the acid stained-glass windows/ and in drops/ the topazes slipped,/ the altars,/ the fresh architecture”. The little cathedral that Neruda found in the yellow citrus fruit should be squeezed wherever the textures and flavours are, without seasoning, somewhat insipid.

Without squeezing half a lemon over an avocado, tomato and prawn salad before popping it in his mouth, the average human head will conclude that its bearer has returned to the nursery and has just restarted, albeit with a certain marine aftertaste, on the plasticine diet. In such a case, then, the juice is a matter of urgency.

The poet’s fresh architecture becomes necessary. The New York Times Cooking recipes sprinkle lemon on salmon, asparagus, chicken and even cauliflower, and around those who study the photo of the result – golden, a little crispy, a little crunchy – rises a cozy, tiny country house, like Cameron Diaz’s in The Holiday, or a balconied courtyard on the Mediterranean, a cascade, a little further on, of rose bougainvillea, cicadas on discs, blue and white striped tablecloth, hair pulled back, swimming costume under the dress, like Christy Turlington peeling courgettes in that image for Arthur Elgort. The lemon then becomes an idea. Lemon is shelter or summer. It kills dullness and enlivens the imagination.

A hint of lemon brings order to the excess of sugar in confectionery. It mediates between the taste coma that white chocolate might induce in the body and calms the honeyed tendencies of an apple tart.

Lemon brings the taste buds back to sanity. It tempers the sense of taste. After the days of gastronomic overabundance, those of a trip or a week at the April Fair, the pulse is lost in the neck and jumps to the feet, tired, hammering the blood without losing the rhythm where for hours the tip of the shoe pressed them. A pang runs through the hips even as the body rests on the bed, the knees seek to complete another step, and the mouth, dry, demands to be reconfigured. At the end of the tour abroad or the forays into the fairground stalls, enough glasses of rebujitos, ham, aperol, pasta, crêpes, fried fish, tacos, niguiris and potatoes have passed through my mouth for my tongue to always get me out of bed in search of a lemon soda. It pulls me by the bell with an absurd and anxious thirst. Above all things, to complete the resurrection and peel away my fatigue, I need the citrus and the gas to wake up the little fibres of my mouth, to revive them. Lemon, as the embodiment of the definition of acidity, has the ability to cover the demands of the tongue’s most primordial receptors in one fell swoop. Its flavour reboots them. The citrus cleanly attaches itself to one of the simplest sensations that, through the tongue, the brain can process. The tongue confirms its function as an instrument for getting to know the world, as a cerebral shortcut, and the lightning of the lemon, now invited, galvanises it.

● The untrained eye would believe that the lemon, because of its apparent honesty, embodies in its segments one of the most fundamental of all citrus families. The eye, in need of a fruit-growing gymnasium, would be wrong. Citrus fruits, notes garden expert Helena Attlee, cross-pollinate with each other with extraordinary ease. A graft here and a graft there and, with a little skill, a new species will sprout from the soil. The elementary seeds are reduced to three: grapefruit, mandarin and citron. From this triangle of exploding segments and little white skins, all species branch out. The lemon, with its ability to gum up our face until it turns in on itself, is born from the cross between the citron and the grapefruit. The crater-like roughness of the first family, deformed and barbaric, like a mutant, is softened by the second, smooth and round. The yellow peel remains full of essential oils that scare away insects in general and the mosquito, the main accomplice of the summer vigil and stubborn monochromatic tattooer, in particular. The harshness of the lemon is the custodian of vitamin C, which in the 16th century the Sevillian doctor Fray Agustín Farfán intuited as a remedy for scurvy and which two centuries later the British James Lind confirmed as such when he scared the disease away from ships crossing the Atlantic. To cure and prevent unpleasantness, he ordered the sailors to mix sugar and lemon juice every two weeks and fifteen days.

Deaths and hospital admissions for scurvy vanished from the list of risks involved in crossing the oceans by ship. They could join the sea-trading adventure without bleeding gums, thrombi in their legs or, between fevers, yellowing of their skin. They believed that medical victory was the merit of acidity. When they substituted limes from the British colonies for the Spanish and Italian lemons they had been using until then, the cases increased. Limes, unknown to them, contain a lower percentage of ascorbic acid than oranges and lemons.

And than guava, kiwi, broccoli or red pepper. In fact, Nobel laureate Szent Györgyi realised the biological significance of vitamin C when he was studying paprika. Nevertheless, it is still not recommended to replace the weekly plate of broccoli with a daily serving of Galician octopus.

● For all these reasons, the lemon is not a common fruit. It needs grace and dexterity to be enjoyed. It is not consumed directly like apples or bananas, nor like mandarins, strawberries or pears. Lemon, to be enjoyed, must be processed. It has to be mixed with other ingredients, such as sugar or cucumber, in such a way that the tongue gets used to it, so that it is better tolerated. Man, in the daily handling of his splashy segments, tames a pinch of nature.

In the use of her flowers, she also conquered the garden. In the 17th century, after being widowed by the Count of Bracciano and Prince of Orsini, the Frenchwoman Maria Anna de La Trémoille left Nerola, Italy, and, having become Princess of the Ursins, arrived in Spain to serve at the court of Philip V. While weaving and unweaving conspiracies and ruses with instructions from Versailles, the aristocrat left a dense and spicy trail in her wake, transparent and hypnotic, like a crystal exposed to the light. From the oils of the citrus fruits that surrounded her in Italy, de La Trémoille had extracted the perfume in which she infused the water of her baths. Nerola, then, only needed to change the last vowel. Neroli was born.

The French woman must have learned that for a lemon tree to grow and bear fruit, light must be constant and watering frequent. Low temperatures cannot fiddle with frost if you want to grow a healthy and fruitful tree. With a blanket of clouds in the sky, the “wild gold” of which Neruda spoke will not shed the green of its youth. Without light, the chromatic ripening will be interrupted, the yellow, the joy of the lemon will fade from the fruit. But when the light soaks it and the transition is complete, with it on the tongue, the eyes also grow dimmer. There is room for the sun in a lemon.