The journey of the lemon: From a a luxury item in Rome to a Mediterranean staple

Time & Us
Last Updated: August 23, 2017 at 2:51 am

The humble citrus fruit lemon, a cash crop, was introduced in ancient Rome from Israel and was once considered an item of luxury as well as a status symbol for the ruling elite, a study has found. Initially, the Romans only had access to rough-skinned citrons, also known as etrogim — mostly rind and dry, tasteless flesh. While citrus orchards are common in Mediterranean regions, the fruits are not native to the Mediterranean. Instead, they came from South East Asia.
According to the study, the citron arrived in Rome from what is now Israel and the earliest botanical remains of the citron were identified in a Persian royal garden near Jerusalem and dated to the 5th-4th centuries BC. “The first remains of the earliest lemon, found in the Roman Forum, date to right around the time of Jesus Christ, the end of the first century BC and early first century AD,” said Dafna Langgut, an archaeobotanist at the Tel Aviv University in Israel.
“My findings show that citrons and lemons were the first citrus fruits to arrive in the Mediterranean and were status symbols for the elite. All other citrus fruits most probably spread more than a millennium later for economic reasons,” Langgut said.“It appears that the citron was considered a valuable commodity due to its healing qualities, symbolic use, pleasant odour and rarity. Only the rich could have afforded it. Its spread, therefore, was helped more by its high social status, its significance in religion and its unique features, rather than its culinary qualities,” Langgut added.
The study, published in the journal HortScience, is based on a collection of ancient texts, art, artifacts and archaeo-botanical remains such as fossil pollen grains, charcoals, seeds and other fruit remnants. It plots the route and evolution of the citrus trade in the ancient Mediterranean. Moreover, the sweet orange presently associated with Israel dates as far back as the 15th century and was the product of a trade route established by the Genoese and later the Portuguese. The sticky-sweet mandarin was introduced to the Mediterranean only in the beginning of the 19th century, Langgut noted.
“It wasn’t until the 15th century that the sweet orange arrived on European tables. By the time mandarins appeared in the 19th century, citrus fruits were considered commonplace. They became cash crops rather than luxury items,” Langgut said.