I mentioned in the last post, as an aside, that I’d bought two citron in Testaccio’s market on my flying visit to Rome. Because my hand luggage of books and artichokes needed filling out, and because who knows if I’ll be able to bring wonderful things back from European markets, once Brexit gets done and throws up the walls of insularity around little England.
Citron are the Neanderthal throwback of the citrus world. One of the ancestral species of citrus fruit who’s genes went rogue, diversifying and hybridising into the pantheon we have today. They are beasts, swollen, pock-marked, without symmetry, or grace, or panache. It is unlikely you will ever encounter one in the UK; another fantastic thing that doesn’t make it over the Channel. But, if you are in Italy in the winter, and you visit a market, you may spot them; steroidal lemons hulking in an almost visible haze of citrus tang. They’re called Cedro (pronounced Chedro) in Italian, and first impressions can be baffling and confusing. But buy one anyway, and smuggle it back for the thrill of it.
Slice open your citron/cedro, and what you’ll find is several inches of thick white, spongy pith, dense and softly corky, encasing an entirely normal, lemon-sized heart of flesh. This flesh is the least important part of the whole thing, indeed, most recipes tell you to just discard it immediately. So, flesh discarded, you’re left with the meat. You’re not in Kansas anymore.
Now, I bought mine for a specific reason – to practice the dark arts of candying. I have been trying (and mostly failing) to produce crystallised fruit for four years now. It’s a long and drawn out process of sugar syrups and repeated heating and coolings. It involves commitment and attention to detail. Ask the Sicilian, neither of these could be truthfully be included in any list of my attributes. I have managed to turn many clementines and lemons to caramel and marmalade, but never have I produced a solid slab of fruit turned sugar to adorn my cassatas.
But when citron is involved, it all gets a hell of a lot easier. All that pith, I think it evolved to be candied. It is the Candying 101 of the candying world.
The process is simple, you take your citron, prick it all over, and then soak in cold water for a week, changing the water every day. This removes any lingering bitterness it may possess about having been relocated from Rome to Birmingham.
Get a big pan of water on the boil and now peel your citron; try to keep as much of the pith and peel intact as possible, aim for hunky chunks. Slide these into your boiling pan and let them simmer for 20 minutes. You’ll see a change, the pith will shift from opaque white to the creamy translucence of the cartilage you dig out of a roasted chicken. The yellow ping of the skin will dull, but, worry not, the flavour won’t
Make up a sugar syrup by dissolving 300g of sugar in 1 litre of boiling water and slip your cooked citron into it. Immediately turn off the heat. Now walk away for 24 hours.
For the next week, you’ll be living a deja-vu existence. Take the citron out of the syrup, bring that back up to the boil. Return the citron, turn off the heat and walk away.
At the end of the week, the syrup will be so concentrated that (science alert) it will have sucked all the water from the citron, and replaced it with liquid sugar. Osmosis will have worked its magic.
Take the slabs of sugar fruit from their bath, and let them drain and dry in the air for a couple of days. They will now keep indefinitely – sugar is a marvellous preservative, nothing will dare touch these babies. If you can leave them for a few weeks, all the residual water will dry off, and you’ll have solidity, sourness, sweetness. Alchemy.
And what to do with them? I’d advise having some adventures. I found an Elizabeth David piece about Christmas Puddings and the importance of candied citron – she was such a show off, but I made it anyway; I gave some to a friend who wants to make a Tudor mincemeat; I sent some to an instagram friend – because I love instagram and the people on it and good things should be shared. I made a Sicilian conserve that I’ve been wanting to try for ages. And the rest, the rest – that is reserved for a cassata of cassatas. I can’t wait.