Even though our Nordic climate doesn’t allow us to plant them in our fields, citrus fruit are an integral part of Canadian culinary culture. What if lemons weren’t the only thing that could tickle our taste buds?
Photos—Marie des Neiges Magnan
Staghorn sumac bushes grow near the train tracks beside my house. It’s August, and their red fruits, which grow in clusters, are covered in fine little hairs rich in acidic molecules. My Egyptian grandmother uses them as spice in several dishes she’s been cooking for me since as long as I can remember, like fattoush salad.
Armed with clippers, I gather a few bunches, place them in a bowl of cold water, and then knead the decoction. After three to five minutes, I strain the pinkish liquid and bring it to my lips. Revelation! This sumacade (lemonade made of sumac) is as fragrant and sour as the drink we make with lemons.
How is it that this indigenous plant, which has been able to adapt so well to urban environments and which grows freely in vacant lots, isn’t found more often on our menus? Why are we so attached to limes from Mexico and oranges from Florida?
Why don’t young Canadians make their entrepreneurial debuts by setting up sumacade stands on the sidewalk?
A lime in my highball
If I search the word “apples”—one of the food emblems of Québec—on Canadian celebrity chef Ricardo’s site, I get 833 recipes. “Citrus” turns up 896 results. It’s undeniable: citrus fruits are also part of our culinary culture. Statistics Canada estimates that in 2019, every adult consumed a little more than 15 kilos of fresh citrus, not counting juice.
Unlike apples, we don’t grow citrus on a large scale in our Nordic climate. And yet I’ve never been afraid of running out of limes. Even with three feet of snow outside, I have no trouble making a Dark and Stormy, a cocktail of dark rum, ginger beer, and lime. These fruits are grown in warmer climes, in the United States, China, Mexico, Vietnam, and Spain, and then travel great distances to end up squeezed in the houses of Canadians. Cheers to the international exchanges that liven up our cocktail hour!
In the context of globalization, I can understand how citrus fruits became such a fixture of our cuisine. But what if we look back a few centuries? Menus were dictated far more by the seasons. The food supply was lower.
How did our ancestors satisfy their taste for acidity—and, especially, at what point in our history did we become dependent on citrus?
An orange in my stocking
Lemons and limes are originally from India, and oranges from China and India. These fruits were introduced into the Middle East by Arab merchants, and from there spread throughout Europe. Two thousand years ago lemons were already being cultivated in Italy and the south of France.
On this side of the Atlantic, Indigenous peoples used several acidic plants, like berries and sumac, in their food and drink. For example, mountain sorrel, a very sour boreal plant, was served with fish and meat.
As for citrus, these fruits were introduced into the Americas by colonizers. “Christopher Columbus brought lemons on his second voyage in 1493. These were transported in barrels on board to fight scurvy,” says Michel Lambert, author of Histoire de la cuisine familiale du Québec (The History of Home Cooking in Québec). From as early as the 17th century, recipe books show the use of lemon zest and juice. This fruit accompanied fish, flavoured jams, and made lemonade sour. “At first, it was mostly for rich people or artisans who could afford it,” says the historian.
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Encyclopédie de la cuisine de Nouvelle-France (Encyclopedia of the Cuisine of New France) by Jean-Marie Francoeur notes other acidic elements that were consumed at the time, such as rhubarb and vinegars. The most common forms of the latter were wine, cider, and maple vinegars, which were either imported or produced locally. Oxalis, or wood sorrel, which is also called false shamrock or sourgrass, was (and still is) often used as an ingredient in salads. Even if it’s a plant that most of us don’t recognize, it can often be found growing in yards and gardens—and is sometimes mistakenly labelled a weed.
In New France, fresh lemons were shipped in the final overseas cargo in autumn and conserved until the spring. After Canada was acquired by Great Britain, the fruits were easier to procure thanks to steamboats and the proximity of new crops planted by colonizers in the Antilles and Florida. Limes were the standard citrus fruit in the Antilles, which explains why they are most often associated with dark-rum–based cocktails.
Like me, you’ve surely witnessed people looking back nostalgically on a time when we gave oranges to children at the holidays. I’ve always wondered if this were not an urban legend, meant to inculcate a bit of gratitude in spoiled children. “It’s true,” Michel confirms. “When I was little, my mother would slip an orange into my stocking on New Year’s Eve. My father also remembers this tradition.”
So earlier generations were already fond of citrus fruits, even at a time when they were much rarer than they are today. But this fondness has always been dependent on importation.
During the pandemic, which has shaken up many elements of our food supply, the question of food autonomy has resurfaced. If the borders were to close tomorrow, could I still make myself a Dark and Stormy?
Yuzu at -40 °C
When I travel on four wheels, it’s usually because I’m on a farm. “Get in, I have to go show the tomato U-Pick field to some clients,” says Vyckie Vaillancourt, who calls herself a “happiness producer” on her LinkedIn profile.
As the fresh air of the countryside—or, at least, of suburban Laval, where I myself grew up—whips my face, Vyckie tells me about her journey to become a farmer. After studying and working in communications for several years, she returned to her roots; the young woman is the seventh generation in her family to take care of this land without interruption, since 1823. Three years ago she grafted a new branch onto the business, the O’Citrus farm, which specializes in locally grown citrus fruit. She grows several varieties such as yuzu, Calamondin orange, Buddha’s hand, bergamot, kumquat, and sudachi.
From the outside, nothing betrays what’s happening in the greenhouse: it looks the same as all the others. The only clue is the two potted banana trees that decorate the entrance.
When we open the door, the scent is a little disappointing—I was expecting to be assailed by the typical perfume of orange flower water, used in Middle Eastern desserts. But sadly the scented blossoms, which bloom mainly in February, were long gone.
The exotic trees live indoors all year round. “In winter, it’s very expensive to heat. We heat with natural gas, which is not a super clean energy, but electricity wouldn’t be able to hack it in the month of January. The greenhouse has to be at 15 degrees even if it’s -40oC outside. We’d love to upgrade the facilities, but everything has a price. For example, if I put geothermal energy in all my greenhouses, it would cost $350,000. I can’t afford that,” explains Vyckie. According to her, the high costs of heating represent a major roadblock to the cultivation of citrus fruits here.
She chose fruits that are rare in Canada, especially in fresh form, in order to be able to sell them for a realistic price and make the production profitable. “It varies between $30 per kilo and $70 per kilo. A large Buddha’s hand can be as much as $70,” she tells me. At the time of my writing this article, supermarkets were advertising lemons at $4/kg.
At these prices, it’s understandable that her clientele is largely made up of high-end restaurants. “You can always find takers for the produce. The yuzu is my biggest seller. You can make sauce, butter, chocolate, salt, ice cream . . . ” she says. When I ask about its acidity, she explains that, more than the juice, it’s mainly the zest that’s used.
The proof is right before my eyes: it is possible to grow citrus in a Nordic country. But this level of production can’t meet the needs of Canadians.
And I don’t have the budget to mix myself a cocktail with $30 of local juice. So what could replace the lime in my drink?
A lemon pie, minus the lemon
From the outset, John Winter Russell—chef and co-owner of Candide restaurant, which uses only local ingredients—crushes my preconceptions. “We try precisely not to try to replace citrus fruits with something else. Citrus is not just about acidity. There’s also a lot of bitterness, and there’s still some sweetness too. You can’t replace lemon with vinegar. For us it’s not the same thing,” he explains.
According to him, Québec’s berries—such as raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, and blueberries—all have a certain degree of acidity, as well as a gorgeous diversity of flavours. When they’re in season, crabapples are also an interesting local option. “On the other hand, the balance between acidity and sweetness in these fruits tends more toward the sweet, unlike lemon, which tends more toward sour. So you need to add a little vinegar to balance it.”
We all have a certain attachment to particular foods. “If you say you’ve made a lemonless lemon pie, people will be disappointed. It will never taste like lemon pie. So just put that out of your mind,” he recommends. When using lemons in a dessert, the sweetness needs to be dialed up to balance the sour citrus. John illustrates an alternative: juicing raspberries and incorporating the juice into the recipe. By adding less sugar, you’d be able to achieve a similarly sour result. “You could finish it with lemon thyme if you have some in your garden. That adds bitterness, an aromatic complexity, and a little hint of something reminiscent of lemon, even if just for a second,” he explains.
To bring a little acidity to his dishes year-round using local ingredients, the chef has recourse to an arsenal of techniques, including lacto-fermentation of vegetables.
He also likes infusing vinegar with aromatic plants—lemon verbena, elderberry flowers, lovage, citronella, and lavender—which would otherwise be more challenging to incorporate into the recipes.
When I get home I see that the fall raspberries I grow on my balcony are waiting patiently to be picked. I could freeze them to eat this winter, but I have another idea. Inspired by John’s method, I crush and strain them to extract the juice. I pour the liquid into my glass, add a little (Québec-made) rum and a few drops of bitters. Then I balance the mix with ginger beer to reach the desired degree of acidity. No, it’s not a Dark and Stormy; raspberry will never taste like lime. But to my great delight, I’ve managed to concoct a sour cocktail without citrus.
Maybe I’ll set up a sidewalk stand of my own—competition for the lemonade stand of the little girl next door.
Bernard Lavallée is a Registered Dietician, columnist, and author of two books: Sauver la planète une bouchée à la fois (2015) and N’avalez pas tout ce qu’on vous dit (2018). He co-hosts the podcast On s’appelle et on déjeune on Radio-Canada and is interested in food as links between human beings and nature.
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