insalata di cedro – citron salad

It’s the citrus time of year, as heralded in by my last post. This time it’s the turn of citrons to fall under the knife, but lemons and oranges beware, you may well be next in line for the chop…. I remember the first time I saw (read: gawked at aghast in disbelief) citrons. I presumed they were lemons, albeit lemons which were possibly the result of genetic modification or a nuclear incident. At the very best, they were lemons with third-degree cellulite that should probably cut down on the cheeseburgers and chips. The specimen I used for today’s recipe was average, weighing in at about half a kilo, but you can come across some three times that, the size of a mini rugby ball. These are the bouncers of the fruit world. If you were a raspberry, you would give them a very wide berth.

As if the sight of them was not enough, the way the locals ate them was even stranger, cutting off slices and then dipping them in salt or sugar before popping them in their mouth. I knew by this point that they were not actually lemons, but was convinced they would taste like them. They looked too similar not to. Eating them for pleasure struck me as madness. Who in their right minds wants to chew on a lemon? As it turned out, citrons are much milder than their smaller cousins, and the thick layer of pith has an extremely delicate taste, which beautifully offsets their sour heart.

Today’s recipe promotes a fruit which is usually turned into candied peel to the higher echelons of salad. It can be eaten as an accompaniment (especially good with smoked fish), or on its own as a post-main course mouth freshener, rather like a sorbet. This is has all the hallmarks of the perfect salad. Extremely quick to make, full of flavour, and refreshing yet filling. The juicy tartness of the citrus centre plays off against the mild pith and olive oil, with further contrast provided by tangy strips of zest, pungent black pepper and refreshing mint. The pith also has a unique texture, marshmallowy yet crunchy, if that makes sense (as I reread it, I realize it clearly doesn’t, but as you will have gathered, the citron is a fruit of paradox, so you’ll just have to live with it).

There are two schools of thought with regard to citron salad. OK, “schools of thought” is pushing it, since this is hardly mainstream cooking. Even in Sicily, it’s hard-core granny-generation traditional, and of course limited to citron’s short season. Anyway, the two “schools of thought” are: leave the rind on, or take it off. Nothing like a thorny philosophical dilemma to whet your appetite. Nearly all recipes remove it, which makes sense, since it is tough. The problem is that the rind is where we find the essential oils, and thus much of the flavour. Hence my untraditional but recommended solution: peel the citrons but then put the julienned zest back into the salad.

For 4:

  • 1 medium citron, about 500g
  • Handful of fresh mint leaves
  • 1½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Good pinch each of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  1. Peel the citron using a potato peeler. Keep a strip (about 10 cm) of the zest and julienne.
  2. Cut the citron in half lengthways and cut into slices and then segments.
  3. Delicately mix with the salt, pepper and olive oil.
  4. Arrange on a plate, garnishing with the mint leaves and julienned citron zest

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