Citrus are some of our most useful fruit trees. They include cumquats, limes, lemons, oranges, mandarins and less common fruits like buddha’s hand, pomelos, finger limes and the japanese yuzu, popular in Asian cuisine. They earn their place in your backyard with divine white scented blooms and winter fruits that help combat colds with their high Vitamin C content.
You can enjoy them juiced, jammed, salted or eaten fresh. Planting to preserving is easy if you know how.
Citrus are perfect backyard trees with their fragrant blossom, evergreen foliage and attractive winter fruits. They grow in many climates except where winters are very cold – but if potted, citrus can see the winter through in a glasshouse (or traditionally in an orangery), or just in a bright sunroom.
The varieties that are most tolerant of cold include the cumquat, seville orange, mandarin and meyer lemon (a less acidic and more orange-coloured lemon than the lisbon or the eureka).
Citrus like a rich, slightly acidic soil that drains well and a sunny position. Care needs to be taken to remove low-hanging branches (called ‘lifting the crown’) so that air can flow around the trees, ensuring they don’t get collar rot.
You should also remove any swollen stems in winter as these are caused by the citrus gall wasp.
Feed citrus regularly with a combination of citrus fertiliser and pelletised manure, and use an oil-based spray throughout spring, summer and early autumn to help control pests such as aphids, scale, leafminer and bronze orange bug.
Crops should be thinned, especially when the trees are young, so that branches don’t break under the weight. If you are thinning oranges, you might consider using rather than discarding your green oranges as they have their own unique scent and flavour.
Different citrus trees have different ripening styles. Mandarins and limes tend to have a shorter harvesting window, whereas eureka and lisbon lemons can be held on the tree for months, and navel oranges actually sweeten if left on the tree until after the first frost.
Most citrus fruit should remain on the tree until it is fully coloured, apart from limes, which should be picked before they turn yellow and drop.
When harvesting citrus fruit, don’t just pull the fruit off the branch, because when the stem comes out it leaves a small hole. This is fine if you’re going to use the fruit immediately, but for storage you should avoid this wound that lets in fungi or bacteria and causes the fruit to rot.
The solution is to use scissors to snip the fruit off the tree with some stem attached. The shelf life of the fruit can also be extended by not picking when it’s particularly cold or wet.
Citrus fruit should keep in a perforated plastic bag in the crisper for at least a month. If short of space, the alternative is packing them in a box with newspaper between the layers, or in dry sand, and storing in a well-ventilated, cool, dark place.
The fruit should keep for many weeks, with lemons lasting the best this way.
Storing lemons actually increases their juiciness. Often when you pick and use a lemon immediately, you find the pith is thick and there is little juice. Storing for at least a week reduces the thickness of the pith and gives you a lot more juice.
If you are using any citrus fruit whole or for its skin, you should give it a good wash first to remove any scale. If scale is hard to remove, try rubbing with an oiled cloth.
Lemons can also be frozen whole in bags for up to 6 months and then defrosted in cold water for 10 minutes before use. Alternatively, you can cut up wedges of lemon and freeze them in ziplock bags, or squeeze lemon juice into ice-cube trays then transfer the cubes to zip-lock bags once frozen.
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To make dehydrated lemon slices (or orange, grapefruit or lime slices), cut the fruit as thin as possible and place on trays lined with baking paper. Dry in an oven heated to its lowest temperature with the fan on and with the door slightly ajar. Flip the slices after about 2 hours and keep cooking until there is no moisture left in them.
Leave the slices to cool in the oven. Store in a jar in a cool, dark place for up to 12 months. These slices can be used in flavoured teas or in soups, or blended into rubs for meat or seafood.
The peel of both mandarins and oranges can be candied (navel oranges are particularly fragrant) or dried in strips to add to stocks and stews. To dry peel, use a vegetable peeler to remove strips of rind with as little pith as possible. Place the strips in a single layer on a wire rack and leave at room temperature for a few days.
To candy citrus peel, use a vegetable peeler to remove strips of rind with as little pith as possible from about 6 oranges (or the equivalent of any citrus fruit, even a mixture).
Put in a saucepan with 190 ml (6 ½ fl oz/ ¾ cup) of water and ½ teaspoon of salt and bring to the boil.
Simmer for 10 minutes, then drain and repeat in fresh salted water. Drain for a second time, then put 460 g (1 lb / 2 cups) of caster (superfine) sugar into the saucepan with 500 ml (17 fl oz / 2 cups) of water.
Bring to the boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Add the rind and simmer for 40–60 minutes, then lift from the syrup with a slotted spoon and place on lightly oiled baking paper.
Once dry, store the peel in a sterilised jar in a cool, dark place for up to 12 months.
You can use the peel in cakes, desserts or as a garnish, or dip it into chocolate as an after dinner treat. You can also use the syrup like a cordial – just add soda water (club soda).
Cumquats are excellent for candying and are a traditional food of Chinese New Year – especially when made with the marumi variety. Cumquats are a symbol of prosperity and good luck.
Alternatively, the rind can be threaded onto cotton and hung as garlands to dry (you can even cut the rind into shapes with a cookie cutter). Once dry, store the rind in a jar in a cool, dark place for up to 12 months.
Preserving lemons and other citrus fruit in salt is another great way of keeping them.
To salt cumquats, wash them and lay them out in the sun for a few days (bringing them in at night) until their skins wrinkle. Layer with generous salt in a sterilised jar with a plastic-lined lid (salt corrodes metal).
Leave in a cool, dark place for at least 1 month, turning the cumquats over in the juice that the salt extracts every few days. You can add spices like bay leaves, thyme and cumin seeds.
Use the cumquats whole or chopped in Chinese stews and soups, or add them to soda water (club soda) for a refreshing and therapeutic drink.
Photos and text taken from The Produce Companion by Meredith Kirton and Mandy Sinclair, $49.95. Available from September 2015.