Spotlight on: Citron

Like its cousins, the lemon and lime, the citron (Citrus medica) originated in northeastern India, where it was early on prized for its smell and medicinal properties. It arrived in Persia by 600BCE, and then continued its journey to the Mediterranean, reaching Spain by the 5th century. The fruit was not available to the ancient Greeks but they knew of it and was known as the Persian apple (Περσικὸν μῆλον), or Median apple (Μηδικὸν μῆλον), in reference to the Medes who ruled Persia. Both of these also denoted the peach. The Romans used the fruit in cooking, mainly the thick peel, though Apicius’ cookery book has a recipe with citron leaves in wine.

The Arabic word for the citron is utrunj (أترنج), alongside utrujj (أترج) and turunj (ترنج), all of which go back to the Persian bāzārang (باذارنگ , ‘citron, quince’) and turunj (‘orange’). In addition, it was sometimes also referred to as tuffāḥ mā’ī (تفاح مائي), which translates as ‘water apple’, though it is likely that it is a corruption of the Persian tuffāḥi māhī (moon-apple), which was a word for ‘orange’ or ‘lemon’. Alternatively, it could be a misspelling for mādī (‘Median’), thus retaining a Greek connection. In Arabic, utrunj and its variants could also refer to lemons, alongside laymūn (ليمون).

In medieval Arab cuisine, it is found in many recipes, both its rind (in preserves) and pulp (as a souring agent in stews). Palestine and Susa were particularly renowned for their high-quality citron. The fruit was a frequent ingredient in fragrances, perfumes and as a breath sweetener.

In medicine, citron was used to strengthen the stomach, suppress yellow bile, to arouse appetite, against poisonous bites and stings, jaundice and haemorrhoids, and as a digestive, anti-diarrhoeal, and anti-emetic. The flesh of citron was said to be harmful to the stomach, to slow down digestion, and cause colic. However, those who, nevertheless, wish to enjoy its flesh should eat it before meals and chew it well with its peel and honey, whereas one should avoid eating anything else before the citron has been fully digested.

Citron (utrujj) in al-Ghafiqi’s Herbal (11th century).

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