If you live in the East Bay, chances are your Meyer lemon tree is covered with ripe fruit—or your neighbor’s is. This unique, golden yellow, heavenly smelling citrus fruit grows beautifully here, but the cold-tolerant Meyer didn’t originate in the East Bay.
In 1908, USDA plant collector and explorer Frank Meyer discovered a dwarf lemon tree near Beijing. The tree soon became popular in California as an ornamental, but because it carried a virus that attacked other citrus, large-scale growers avoided it.
In the 1950s, nurseryman Don Dillon, of Four Winds Growers in Fremont, discovered a disease-free clone, which is the one widely grown today.
In the early 1980s, Alice Waters and other East Bay chefs began to experiment with Meyer lemons in the kitchen. Founding Chez Panisse pastry chef Lindsey Shere says she served a Meyer lemon mousse for the first time in early 1981.
"I really don’t remember where they came from," says Shere, "probably from one of our backyards. Meyer lemons are more subtle than regular lemons. They have a softer flavor. They’re not quite as acid, and there’s a lot of fragrance."
By the early 1990s, commercial growers were cultivating the variety, and Meyer lemons are now sold at specialty markets all over the country.
East Bay restaurants still regularly feature Meyer lemons—and not just in desserts. Actress Isabella Rossellini memorably discovered this when dining at Chez Panisse: She ordered seared ahi tuna with Meyer lemon–olive relish and loved it so much she ordered a second … and then a third.
Peak season for Meyer lemons is December–March. Whole Foods, Andronico’s, and farmers markets carry the fruit. For Meyer lemon recipes, visit http://www.diablomag.com .