When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. So the saying goes. What about when life gives you one of the strongest El Niños on record, floods the city in which you live and numerous others across your country, veils the sun in a shroud of grey fug so thick that it takes three months to emerge again, smothers your house in a perpetual coat of damp that sees a bloom of bright algae spread like a butterfly across your kitchen window, has you hiding under your duvet for a good forty-five minutes every morning willing the sun to rise properly, none of this pallid half-light please, and bestows upon you a case of seasonal affective disorder so violent that no number of light boxes, sunrise clocks, daytime walks or Vitamin D pills can encourage it to dissipate and leave you feeling like a normal human being again?
If depression is often personified as a black dog, Seasonal Affective Disorder is surely a grey dog. A huge, shaggy one with matted fur damp from constant drizzle, clotted with the Dickensian mud that glazes every visible surface like a miserable varnish. It slopes around at your heels, rubbing its filthy coat against your legs, shivering its damp fur in your face and demanding your constant attention. It lies splayed across your chest in the morning, a dark dead weight that leaves your limbs heavy and makes movement impossible, and it bounds up to you, unexpectedly, wagging its grimy tail, at even the most ostensibly cheerful moments.
On the second of January, I bought some beautiful lemons from the little grocery shop near our house in the Dales. I’d nearly missed them completely, because I assumed they were oranges. I had been hunting for the telltale creamy pale yellow and unmistakable tapered ends of a tray of lemons, and these specimens didn’t fit the bill at all. They were huge, the size and shape of oranges, with deep, deep golden skins. The lady in the shop assured me that they were, in fact, lemons, just ‘funny-looking’. I bought a couple, took them home, then returned the next day and bought ten more. These are like no lemons I have ever tasted. They have golden flesh, somewhere between an unripe standard lemon and a pale orange, littered with seeds but brimming with so much juice that barely twitching the fruit within your palm causes it to spill out in rivulets. What is most remarkable, though, is their fragrance. Rather than the clean bite of a normal lemon, these have a sweet, musky perfume, somewhere between an orange and a mandarin, with a floral note. They have something of the pomelo, the bergamot or the yuzu fruit about them, and I have always been fascinated by the amazing complexity of the citrus family and its strange hybrids (a ‘citrangequat’, for example - yes it's a real thing).
The internet has not enlightened me as to the true nature of my luscious lemons. I thought they might be Meyer lemons, so popular in the food world of North America, but I think they are too big. They’re certainly not finger lemons, although I am so grateful that my search led me to discover that weird alien specimen. They definitely have a lemon sourness about them, but are almost palatable raw, which you couldn’t say about regular lemons. I’ve been amazed by how their fragrance lingers: zesting one for dinner leaves my kitchen and living room smelling of exotic tropical bounty for days afterwards, and a spritz of the juice has brought a new dimension to much of my cooking for the last few days. I’ve layered paper-thin slices of these lemons over a goat’s cheese, garlicky spinach and prosciutto sourdough pizza, seared slices in a hot pan to serve with fried halloumi and a dill dressing, squeezed them over a plate of sea bream with tahini and pomegranate sauce, and spritzed their fragrant juice over a fillet of salmon rubbed with orange and lime zest and sumac. I’ve been slowly counting down as I get through my supply, reluctant to squander even a single drop of this magical juice or a single curl of perfumed zest, dreading the day I have to return to bullet-hard, mouth-puckering supermarket lemons.
Anyway, I decided I wanted to write about these lemons, so I needed to take some photos of them to go on the blog. I try and take all my photos in natural light, where I can, so I waited for the sun to come out in order to take my photos. That was on the third of January. I finally managed to take said photos on the tenth. The sun did not emerge for an entire week, which I spent largely in a cocoon of misery, staring at the algae on the kitchen window, brushing splatters of mud off my jeans, feeling some primitive mammalian urge to hibernate and crying at unreasonable things. I’m normally able to cope pretty well with seasonal depression: my simulated sunrise clock and light box got me through last winter without a hitch, and I believe strongly in, and utilise, the magical remedial powers of a good walk and a cup of tea. (Plus the ‘Emergency Kittens’ twitter account – let that not be forgotten).
This winter, though, has been a real struggle. Widely acknowledged to be one of the worst on record for gloom and rain, it has probably witnessed about two hours of sunshine in total since I came back from Greece in late September. I like to think of myself as a fairly resilient person, but I think I may finally have to admit that I am struggling. My life, my surroundings and my future all seem startlingly bleak, and while I know it is simply because I need a bit more sunlight and warmth, it’s hard to shake that constant feeling of dread, misery and listlessness. It probably doesn’t help that the last three months have been pretty stressful, what with finishing a PhD, attempting to juggle six different freelance jobs and two teaching positions and somehow, on top of all that, having to figure out what on earth I am going to do next. I feel isolated, swamped in a veil of gloom and wondering why I am wasting my life in what my dear friend Chris once referred to, perfectly, as ‘this seeping dishcloth of a country’.
Who knows. But for now, I’m stuck here amidst the swamps and the floods, so I figured I may as well make the best of it. In order to do that, I took my fabulous lemon bounty (citrus: nature’s bold and beautiful cure for SAD) and combined it with things that are supposed to be bad for you but, call me crazy, I find very good for my mental and physical wellbeing: butter and sugar. I think there are two good ways to preserve the tang and freshness of lemons: ice cream or sorbet, and curd. It’s far too cold for the former, and apparently it’s not acceptable to eat ice cream for breakfast. Curd, however – legitimate at any time of day (which, in England at the moment, simply alternates between ‘dark’ and ‘a bit less dark’).
This simple lemon curd recipe is adapted from Nigel Slater, whom I completely believe and trust when he says he has perfected it over many years for the ideal tang-sweetness ratio. I used a little less sugar, as my mystery lemons were sweeter than standard lemons, and because I love sour things. Otherwise, it’s a simple case of whisking butter, sugar, lemon zest and juice over a pan of simmering water, adding eggs, and whisking slowly, therapeutically, for a little while until it all thickens and becomes glossy and spreadable. It’s a glorious colour, daffodil yellow, whispering (dare I hope) of spring and better weather to come. Like lemons in a fruit bowl, these jars of bright curd bestow a very welcome splash of colour to the day every time I open my fridge. Rather like an insect trapped in amber, curd preserves all the freshness and perfume of the lemon juice and zest, but in a way that can be spread all over carbohydrates. Result.
For said carbohydrate, I decided to do a variation on the old lemon and poppy seed theme. Rather than a tragic Starbucks muffin, however, you have a hearty, crumbly loaf of fresh soda bread, packed with a fiendish amount of delicate, nubbly blue seeds that give it an irresistible crunchiness and a nutty bite. It’s enriched with spelt flour, to emphasise that toasty, earthy flavour, and is a perfectly textured foil to the smooth, vibrant lemon curd. One of the wonderful things about soda bread (at least, the way I make it) is that it has the soft, moist texture of cake, so this basically feels like eating a lemon and poppy seed muffin for breakfast, but richer, thicker, tangier, with a slightly earthy, sour note from the bread (buttermilk is traditional in soda bread, but I often make it with milk that has started to go sour in the fridge, or random odds and ends of yoghurt – it’s a great way to make sure you don’t waste anything and gives a glorious moist loaf).
As luck would have it, the sun came out yesterday morning, just when I wanted to take some photos of this breakfast. Perhaps it’s an omen that things are looking up, but since I just cycled to work in sleet and freezing winds, and discovered that there is also algae growing on my side gate which is now ON MY GLOVE, perhaps not. Still, if you really do have to get out of bed on a soul-destroyingly grey and drizzly weekday morning, you may as well make it as bearable as you can. Spending some time pottering around the kitchen is the best way I can think of to do this (or you could also try my friend's technique of 'getting dressed while still in bed'), particularly if it involves taking advantage of the wonderful citrus fruit that mother nature so kindly blesses us with at this time of year, as if to say ‘sorry that everything sucks, but look, pretty fruits’.
When life gives you lemons, and all that.
Spelt and poppy seed soda bread with homemade lemon curd (serves 1 person with SAD):
For the bread (makes 1 large loaf):
- 100g rolled or porridge oats
- 300g spelt flour
- 200g white or wholemeal plain flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 30g cold butter, cubed
- 100g poppy seeds (reserve 1 tbsp for sprinkling)
- 500ml buttermilk, sour milk, or runny yoghurt (or a mixture of all the above)
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Put the oats, flours, salt and bicarb in a large mixing bowl. Rub the butter into the flour with your hands until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the poppy seeds. Pour in the buttermilk/milk/yoghurt and mix to a slightly sticky, but firm, dough.
Line a baking sheet with non-stick paper. Shape the dough into a round and place in the middle of the baking sheet. Using a sharp knife, cut a deep cross in the loaf, cutting nearly all the way down (this helps it bake evenly, or lets the devil out, if you believe in Irish tradition). Sprinkle with the remaining poppy seeds.
Bake for 35 minutes, or until the bottom sounds hollow when tapped. Leave to cool on a wire rack. Eat warm or toasted.
For the curd (makes 2 x 250g jars):
- Zest and juice of 4 large lemons
- 170g golden caster sugar
- 100g cold butter, cubed
- 3 large eggs and 1 egg yolk
Put the lemon juice, zest, sugar and butter in a large heatproof mixing bowl. Put on top of a pan of simmering water (don’t let the bottom of the bowl touch the water). Whisk the mixture gently as it heats up, until the butter has melted.
Whisk the eggs and egg yolk briefly, then add to the mixture in the bowl. Cook for around 15-20 minutes over a medium heat, whisking frequently, until the curd thickens and leaves ribbons when you remove the whisk from it. Remove the bowl from the pan and leave to cool, whisking occasionally, until lukewarm. Pot in sterilized jars. It will keep in the fridge for a week or so, but also freezes very well (unlike me).