Key or Mexican lime: Citrus aurantifiola
The smaller, rounder, yellower, seedier fruit, grown on wonky, thorny trees.

Bearss, Persian, or Tahiti lime: Citrus latifiola
The larger, greener, seedless fruit, grown on mercifully thornless trees.

Kaffir, Thai, or Wild lime: Citrus hystrix
The knobbly, dark green fruit with aromatic leaves.

What, exactly, are we going to do with 100 limes, Ella?
Ehm, I'll think of something.

arieh and The Debutante, February 2003.

Origins of the lime

The lime is native to the tropical regions of Southeast Asia, which contrasts to its subtropical relative the lemon. Limes were introduced to Europe and North Africa around the time of the Crusades, hence the derivation of the word 'lime' from the Arabic limah. The fruit was brought to the Americas via the West Indies by Spanish explorers. Now the predominant lime-growing countries are India, Italy, Mexico, Spain, and the United States. The original variety of lime is thought to be the Key, or Mexican, lime. The Persian, or Bearss or Tahiti lime, is believed to be a hybrid of the Key lime and a citron.

Origins of our limes

ascorbic had introduced the residents of the Bristol noder flat to the wonders of the caipirinha. We liked it that much we decided that we were going to serve it at the ball we were organising. Unfortunately, I managed to significantly over-order limes from our local greengrocer. Consequently, we were left with an entire box of limes at our disposal.

Uses of the lime

The fragrant acidity of the lime allows its juice and zest a variety of culinary uses, savoury and sweet. Its flavour marries particularly well with chicken and fish, whether it be poulet yassa (a Senegalese dish of chicken cooked in lime), or South American ceviche, which uses the acidity of the lime to 'cook' meat or fish. That same acidity can also be used to stop peeled or sliced apples or pears from discolouring. Limey-sourness acts as great contrast to spicy flavours, for example chili or ginger. Lime marmalade is wonderful spread on toast, and lime sorbet is a fantastically refreshing dessert. Let's not forget lime pie, or chocolate-lime sweets, either. Much like salt on a tomato, lime enhances the flavour of other fruits, for example avocado, guava, and papaya. You can pretty-much take a lime anywhere you would a lemon, for example mayonnaise, and that means it can also act as a substitute for vinegar in hollandaise. However, remember that a lime is stronger in both flavour and acidity than a lemon, so you won't need as much juice or zest.

If you're not so interested in food, and prefer a drink, then lime is an essential ingredient for various drinks and cocktails: gin and tonic, caipirinha, mojito, margarita, and Cuba Libre. Yes, that's right I have used 'essential', 'lime', and 'gin and tonic' in the same sentence. Lime beats lemon hands down in a g&t; there is no comparison.

Moving away from the culinary experience, Kaffir lime juice is great for keeping hair shiny and soft, whilst lime essential oil has a range of uses associated with its antiseptic, anti-viral, antibacterial, and uplifting properties. Applied topically, it helps to treat oily skin and acne. However, it shouldn't be used for at least six hours before exposure to sunlight, as it does induce photosensitivity. When put in the bath it helps to maintain bronchial health and can refresh tired minds and, as with many citrus oils, lift people who feel slightly depressed. As one of the few essential oils that can be taken internally, it can be used to help relieve sore throats. Of course, none of this is any substitute for consulting a doctor, and if you do use essential oils, ensure that you do it with proper guidance.

Being rich in vitamin C limes are anti-scorbutic. This gave rise to British sailors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries being known as limeys. Scottish surgeon James Lind didn't know how or why limes prevented scurvy, but he knew that they worked, so they were packed onto ships and administered to seamen to prevent subcutaneous bleeding, general weakness, anaemia, bleeding and receding gums, and their teeth dropping out.

Uses of our limes

Well, obviously, we drank a lot of caipirinhas. And gin and tonic. I also made lime marmalade. ascorbic's recipe for lime sorbet is still embedded amongst my /msgs. I made lime pie, and a lime roulade, filled with spiced mango. Every salad that we ate was dressed with lime juice and olive oil. Oh, and I made everyone eat grated carrots mixed with sultanas, a tiny bit of mayonnaise to bind, and lime juice.

Cultivation, selection, and storage of limes

Limes grow on shrubby trees. The Persian lime tends to be the larger tree, reaching about seven metres, whereas Key limes and Kaffir limes don't get much larger than five metres, but their branches are covered with thorns. The trees typically flower in May (in the northern hemisphere) with yellowish-white blossom tinged with purple, yielding fruit until about September. All lime trees require well-drained soil. The Persian lime produces very few seeds, and seedlings are notoriously difficult to transplant. Key limes, on the other hand, are far easier to cultivate from seed.

Whether you are going for a larger, slightly less bitter, thicker skinned Persian lime, a smaller, thinner skinned, more distinctive Key lime, or a knobbly Kaffir lime, the fruit should be firm — but with a little give — and the skin shouldn't be dry or wrinkled.

Limes keep very well, particularly if stored in dry, cool, dark conditions: it was what enabled them to be used to prevent scurvy on those long sea voyages. Given that we are now blessed with refrigeration, we can keep our limes for even longer than nineteenth century sailors. If you intend to store limes in the refrigerator, be sure to keep them in a plastic bag: fridges do nasty, drying things to fresh foods. To ensure that you always have lime available for the essential pre-dinner gin and tonic, cut a lime into quarters, place in a freezer bag, and store in the freezer. Alternatively, juice your lime, pour into an ice cube tray, and freeze to make limecubes.

Cultivation, selection, and storage of our limes

I confess that I didn't grow our limes. Instead I ordered them from our ever-friendly local greengrocer. I didn't even attempt to grow some limes from the seeds (apparently, that might have been possible with judicious use of the airing cupboard), for which I am now rather sorry. They arrived in two cardboard boxes. This was reduced to one box after the ball. Said box was stored behind the kitchen door until such time that all the limes had been used. This took us a good few months.

Time for a gin and tonic, methinks.

Bowing out with:

  • Grigson, J: Jane Grigson's Fruit Book (Penguin, London, 1982).