I’ll bet that’s what you’re thinking. I know, because that’s what I thought when it dawned on me that citron (Citrus medica) really counted as one of the Thirteen Desserts of Provence. You’ve no doubt seen (and eaten) the chewy, rock-like squares of “citron” sold in your local grocery store, there to be entombed in a noisome Christmas fruitcake.
“What on earth were they thinking?”
That’s all I could say about those people in the past who added candied citron as one of the chosen for the celebration of Christmas. Take your pick for the name of the tree/shrub that produces this thick-skinned, bumpy, toadish fruit: cédrat, cédratier, citronnier des Juifs, or succade (one of the Four Species).
But if you lived in the fourteenth century and your choices for fresh fruits were nil in December, you’d probably devise a method to preserve anything you could, too. Using an ancient method, cooks boil the fruit, remove the pulp (if there is any), and then brine/ferment the mixture for several weeks. After that, washed and de-salted, it’s time for the sugaring part of the process. Once the skin is completely free of salt, cook submerge the peel in a sugar solution, the sugar filling in the shrunken membrane of the fruit. As a matter of fact, the elderly male author of a well-known medieval French cookbook, Le Ménagier de Paris (1393) (The Good Wife’s Guide), included a recipe for candied orange peel, no doubt something he liked and wished for his new fifteen-year-old wife to make for him.
The art of confiserie continues to this day, as artisans plunge whole fruits into sugar baths, scooping up all the glistening strips, bits, and orbs of red, green, and many other colors.
Prepared in the traditional ways introduced by the Arabs, as well as Jews, when sugar became more plentiful, candied citron/cédrat tastes nothing like those little pellets you visualize when you hear the word “citron.” Nothing.
In France, the citrusy aroma of citron might waft through the air, not only because of food, but also from the perfumes many people wear.
Since you’re unlikely to find fresh citron in your local supermarket, you’ll probably have to order it online. Just in case you find some, here’s a highly simplified way to make it:
Peel three citrons. Scrape the bitter white pith from the peels and discard. Cut the peel into narrow strips and simmer the strips in boiling water until they’re tender, then drain off the water from the saucepan. In a separate saucepan, prepare a sugar syrup by combining one cup each of granulated sugar and water, and simmering until the sugar is dissolved. Add enough syrup to the peels so that they are completely covered, and then simmer the mixture until the peels are translucent. Drain, cool, and store in the refrigerator.
Arranged on a plate, candied citron glimmers like a queen’s jewels, and especially so in the candlelight surrounding the Thirteen Desserts buffet.
*In French, citron means “lemon.”
To be continued …
Be sure to read other posts on Provence’s Thirteen Desserts:
No Partridges, Just Thirteen Desserts HERE
Lillet by Another Means: Vin d’Orange, or, French Christmas Spirit HERE
One of the Thirteen, the Tangerine HERE
Panis focacius, la Gibacié, and la Pompe à l’huîle, Kin Under the Crust, One of the Thirteen HERE
Begging the Question: Les Quatre Mendiants and Provence’s Thirteen Christmas Desserts HERE
© 2010 C. Bertelsen