Ah, the fragrant citron.
You might not be growing them in your garden, but the chances are that you’ve got products around your home that get their wonderful citrusy smell from the skin of this lesser-known cousin to the lemon.
Whilst the lemon is familiar to us because of its flesh and juice which we prize for eating, drinking and cooking, the citron is a comparatively dry, pulpless fruit. The bright yellow fruits of the citron’s true wealth lies in their skin. The oils in the zest have been used in medicines for centuries and these days they are used in everything from household air fresheners to expensive designer perfumes.
NB: Just to confuse matters, citron is lemon in French. However, for the purposes of this article, we are talking about a specific group of citrus plants.
‘Citron’ – Citrus Medica
There is evidence that the ancient Medes and Persians of what we now think of as Iran used the oils of the ‘Citron’ medicinally more than 2,700 years ago. Indeed, there are stories of Alexander the Great storming through what was Iran and Pakistan and taking the ‘Citron’ to the west as they defeated and plundered.
These days, it is more widely used in Asian cooking that in that of the west. Countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Indian have jams and chutneys which use the thick white rind, though you may find it in dried fruit cakes in the US – especially around Christmas time.
Many Asian cultures also grow it as an ingredient in traditional medicines – scurvy, intestinal issues and seasickness are amongst the ailments that ‘Citron’ has been used to treat across the generations. It also has a place as a religious offering. In particular, Judaism prizes varieties of ‘Citron’ for rituals.
The fruit of the ‘Citron’ plant is large and usually has an elongated oval shape. Its skin is thick and bumpy and if you cut one in half, you’ll generally find that there is a dense, white portion just under the thin, fragrant outer layer. The ‘Citron’ doesn’t have a lots of pulp, if any, and it tends to be dry.
The fruit can grow to be quite big and as it doesn’t fall from the tree, needs to be picked or the branches of the shrub may be weighed down and even sap under the weight.
‘Etrog’ (‘Sour Citron’)
In Hebrew ‘Etrog’ is a ‘Sour Citron’. It is of a similar size and shape as a ‘Lisbon‘ lemon.
It has special significance in Jewish culture as it is used during the harvest holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, in a ritual. Great care is taken over the selection of the ‘Etrog’ and is it tended like a precious jewel. As a result, many consider it to be a Jewish symbol.
To read more about the Etrog citron and particularly it’s place in Jewish culture, see here.
Beyond its religious importance, it is used mainly in candied peel.
Once a rarity here in Australia, this curiously shaped fruit is becoming more common is grocers.
It takes its name from the numerous finger-like fruit segments that sprout from its base – so resembling the hand of Buddha. Due to this, they are sometimes called ‘fingered’ or ‘finger-shaped’ citron. There are both ‘open-hand’ varieties – where the ‘fingers’ splay outwards – and ‘closed-hand’ varieties – where they clump inwards.
The ‘Buddha’s Hand’ yield no flesh or juice. Their main appeal lies in their unique appearance and their scent, though they are used in cooking and traditional medicine in some Asian cultures.
My first introduction to this striking citrus was in Buddhist temples in Thailand, many years ago when I was backpacking. It is often used as an offering, with a ‘closed’ fruit preferred as it is see as symbolising a hand closed in prayer.
In China, it is valued as a symbol of good luck and long life.