When life gives you lemons…


By Hermann Adolf Köhler (1834–79) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Many manuscript recipe books were compiled over time and in a fairly random order, so sometimes a grouping of recipes leads you to think about why they are arranged that way. In a book noted as being ‘in the handwriting of the Honorable Mrs Monson’ (1), the following three recipes are written together, the first two on one page and the other on the verso.

The first, for ‘Lemon mince pies’, is typically vague about method, with its mentions of ‘as for other pies’ and ‘as usual’. Lemons were included in other recipes for mincemeat (see my earlier post on this, https://18thcenturyrecipes.wordpress.com/2012/11/25/all-i-want-for-christmas/), but this one is interesting in that it no longer contains any meat, just the kind of ingredients we are used to today (that probably puts it to the later end of the dating range suggested).

Squeeze a large lemon; boil the outside till tender enough to beat to a mass add to it three large apples chopped and four ounces of suet, half a pound of currants and four ounces of sugar – put the juice of the lemon and candied fruits as for other pies – make short crust and fill the patty pans as usual

Lemon is again a key ingredient in a recipe for ‘Rice & lemon pudding’. This also includes isinglass, a type of collagen that was used in a similar way to gelatine and was obtained from the air bladder of a fish (2). It is very similar to a modern recipe for rice pudding and looks as if it would be good to eat.

To a pint of rice, put a quart of milk the yolk of one egg, a small stick of cinnamon & some lump sugar, let them boil till the rice is quite tender, add a little melted isinglass to make it a proper stiffness, and put it into the mould. Cut the peeling of two lemons into long narrow strips & boil them with the juice of the lemon in sugar & water. Pour the syrup over the rice. Garnish the rice with the narrow slips of boil’d pelling – to be sent to the table cold.

The final recipe is for ‘Lemon pickle’, a variant of the preserved lemons common in Moroccan cookery. Note the glass used to score the lemons before salting. Pickles had been a common way of preserving food since the Middle Ages, and recipes such as this would have been a tasty addition to the table.

Take one doz of small lemons, scrape them with a bit of common glass, quarter them but not to part, and out a good quantity of salt, let them lay for 3 days – turn them every day. Pound 2 ozes of mustard seed & sift it thro’ a hair sieve, 2 oz of ginger, 6 heads of garlic & 3 of echalots, put them in pickle as the lemons, the garlic & echalots must be scalded – a small quantity of kyan [cayenne] pepper must be put between every quarter of the lemons – put them all into a jar, & fill the jar with cold vinegar.

So why all the lemons? Was the lemon a particularly fashionable ingredient at that point in time (a sort of Delia Smith cranberry effect)? Lemons had to be imported, thus would have been relatively expensive, so was it a show-off ingredient (the equivalent of truffles or Kobe beef)? Lemons had many medicinal uses, so maybe this was an attempt to improve the family’s health through their diet, although there is no hint of this in the recipes. Or was it simply that the compiler or donor of the recipes really liked the flavour of lemons? We will never know, but we can enjoy trying the results… as an alternative to making limoncello.

(1) MON 16/2/3 in Lincolnshire Archives; the Monsons were a prominent Lincoln family, but there is no further information as to who precisely compiled the book. The manuscript is not dated, although the archive dating is 1760–1840.

(2) The fish was originally sturgeon, but at the very end of the eighteenth century a way was found to use cod instead, which again may hint to a later date for the recipe.

2 thoughts on “When life gives you lemons…

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