Brightly scented, sprightly cool, with an intense, agreeable sour taste, lemon is generally considered the symbol of the Mediterranean warmth, nevertheless it has Asian origins and comes precisely from the Far East (India and China) were it was found growing wild.
Known in China, India and in the Mesopotamian civilizations for its antiseptic, anti-rheumatic and refreshing properties and considered sacred in Muslim countries, it was mainly used as an antidote against poisons, as an astringent against dysenteric and haemorrhagic symptoms as well as to keep the Devil away from homes. Ancient Egyptians used it to embalm their mummies and they often put it in tombs with dates and figs.
The first clear descriptions of the usage of lemon for therapeutic purposes date back to the works of Theophrastus, Aristotle’s pupil, who is considered the founder of phyto-therapy. Also Plinio spoke about the lemon in his treatments and prescribed it, moreover, as an antidote against various poisons.
In the West the lemon had become more widespread around the year 1000 thanks to Arabs who brought it to Sicily. The first description of the lemon, introduced from India two centuries before, appeared in fact in Arab writings in the twelfth century. The origins of the name come from the Persian (لیمو Limu).
In Europe the first real cultivation of lemons was planted in Genoa in the middle of the fifteenth Century. In 1494 lemons appeared in the Azores, while in America lemon and other citrus trees were brought by the Spanish and by the missionaries after Christopher Columbus discovery.
In the XV century they also discovered that lemon juice treated and kept away scurvy, a disease widespread among sailors who lived for long periods only on flours, preserved food and other food lacking in vitamin C. Eventually they ascertained that scurvy was due to the extended and massive lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) present in fruit and fresh vegetables and this also explains why they started to use lemons in large quantities on board ships.
The fruit was also introduced in Northern European countries by means of sea voyages. The ships which arrived in the Mediterranean stocked up on lemons, paying for them with valuable goods or even gold. The fruits bought were resold at very high prices in the countries of the North, where lemon was considered a luxury product, but mainly used as an ornament and a medicine. Only in the XVIII Century lemon started to be used in cooking to flavour foods and drinks.