Extremadura’s moon lemons

Hoyos is a collection of granite houses tucked under a wooded sierra, where rivers rush through rocky gorges. In the wilds of Extremadura, where Spain’s south meets the tougher landscape of Castile, the village looks like an idyllic survivor of the old Europe. There is the grape harvest in September, olives in November, the pig slaughter in December. Donkey carts go by in the square; women carry the washing on their heads.

When I moved to this remote village 15 years ago, I was an outsider. There were fights in bars, and “gays out” graffiti appeared on my car. In the early days I kept myself to myself and ventured out to explore in the dawn light, when the alleys of Hoyos were deserted.

One of the first things I noticed on my walks were the lemon trees – planted behind stone walls to protect them from the hard winters of the sierra, with boughs so high you would have needed a stepladder to reach the hanging lemons. Not that anyone seemed to be interested in picking them. Mostly they fell and lay sadly on the cobbles, to be squashed by passing cars.

I asked around and discovered that these were limones de luna – “moon lemons”, so-called because the trees flower every month, rather than the usual once or twice a year. They were of a variety possibly unique to Extremadura, whose high sierras mark the limit of citrus cultivation in western Spain. Unlike the lemons we find in UK markets, these were either big and blowsy or bullet-like and stunted. Their skin was rough and pitted, a pale, matt yellow. And even as you pulled them from the tree, they gave off a fragrance. Pierce the unwaxed skin with a thumbnail and tiny drops of perfumed oil came bursting through the broken pores. The quality was extraordinary.

Spain is a global power in the lemon business: it grew 970,000 tonnes last year. Yet I wouldn’t say the Spanish are in love with the limón – unlike the Italians, who express their passion in a plethora of gelati and granite, liqueurs like the famous limoncello and in the fragrant oil made by chucking in whole lemons to be milled and pressed along with olives.

In Spain the lemon appears in predictable guises: squeezed on fish, as part of the fruit garnish in a sangria, or with oil and salt in a simple dressing for lettuce. But it can still surprise: a dish from Murcia called paparajotes doesn’t even use the fruit itself but the leaves – coated in a light, sweet batter and fried, then dredged with sugar. The leaf is not eaten but impregnates the crispy batter with a haunting citrus flavour. In Elche, near Alicante, I have seen half-lemons placed, cut side up, in a dish of baked rice with rabbit and vegetables.

It puzzled me that in Hoyos’s few small supermarkets the lemons came from Valencia – 650km away, on the opposite side of the country. Just as it bemused me to see industrial mortadela and slimy pink ham (this in the heartland of jamón ibérico) and sliced Velveeta in a region famous for its goat’s cheese. My arguments in favour of local moon lemons over these shiny, non-organic ones were met with a strange kind of disapproval, reminding me of the looks I got when I went out into the lanes of Hoyos with a rubbish bag to pick up litter. These were the eccentricities of a do-gooding foreigner.

The realities of food here turned out to be a good deal more complex than I’d anticipated. There was decent olive oil and sensational morcilla calabacera – a chorizo-like sausage made with pumpkin and pimentón. Many families still kept a pig and practised the art of the matanza slaughter. But just as in the UK, there was a gulf between those who had access to good food, culturally and physically, and those who did not. If the village survived economically it was mainly thanks to the paro (state benefit) and EU agriculture handouts. It was true there was no work to be had, but for some of my neighbours it made sense to do nothing.

As winters in Hoyos turned to spring, the lemons made circles on the ground under the trees, filling the air with a musty smell of neglect. The fruit was treated as if it had no value, yet picking a few unauthorised (the trees were on private property) was tantamount to stealing. I took to knocking on doors. Many of the stone village houses lay empty, their owners having “emigrated” to look for work in Madrid or Bilbao. But sometimes an elderly person would open the door and agree to sell me a bagful for a euro or two, if I would pick them myself.

These lemons were different: they yielded a little less juice than the shop-bought kind, but the flavour of the juice had far greater pungency. A simple limonada with sugar, ice and spring water quickly became my favourite defence against the broiling heats of the Spanish summer. I began experimenting with the peel, adding a squeezed sliver to a café solo and grating the zest over risotto. A single slice did something dramatic to a vermouth on the rocks. I raided my cookbooks to find recipes for Moroccan salted lemons, Sussex pond pudding and tarte au citron.

Locals were surprised when I gave out jars of my fine-cut lemon marmalade – a novelty in a part of the world where boiling citrus fruit with sugar sounds like a peculiar idea.

But then it was my turn to be surprised by the Hoyos lemon salad. This local plato típico, almost unknown outside the village, was originally a country dish for winter days when fresh vegetables were scarce. Marga González-Jubete, whose version I first tasted, is an architect and politician who grew up in Hoyos and remembers how the ensalada de limónes was taken out to the olive groves as part of a harvest lunch. In Marga’s recipe, the moon lemons are peeled and chopped, removing both the pips and the thin segmental skin, and mixed with chopped boiled potato, salad green pepper (a thinner-skinned, milder-flavoured variety is best), cooked egg white and a little shredded salt cod, for added substance. The dressing is a creamy emulsion of the boiled egg yolk with salt, garlic and extra virgin olive oil. It is a beautiful side dish for barbecued lamb chops or strips of crisp panceta.

Talking about food and eating are good ways of building bridges. Nowadays the village butcher, once he’s sold me the lamb chops and panceta, gives me tips to make my pig-killing go with a swing. My neighbour the goatherd’s wife, who makes a sublime cheese in her top-floor kitchen, has told me most of what I know about the culinary life of Extremadura.

So I have made my peace with Hoyos. With my Spanish partner I’ve spent the past decade on a farm outside the village, producing olive oil, wine, hams and sausages, eggs, rabbits and vegetables for our own consumption and for bartering with. Our marriage in the town hall in 2010 was the first and, so far, only same-sex union to have been celebrated here. Villagers now ask after my husband and offer me fruit without my having to beg for it.

As for the limones de luna, I tell anyone who will listen about their aromatic properties and multiple uses, and I’ve brought boxes of them to London to put under the noses of Spanish food importers; one day we may sell them here. My hope is that before too long we won’t see those carpets of wasted lemons, rotting in the orchards of Hoyos.

Paul Richardson is the author of ‘A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain’ (Bloomsbury)

Illustrations by Lara Harwood

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