cédrat (French), Zitronat-Zitrone (German), cedro (Italian), cidra (Spanish/Portuguese), sukaattisitruuna (Finnish), tsitron/sladkiy limon (Russian), cedrat (Polish), citromsárga (Hungarian), chitru/citra (Romanian), kitron (Greek), agackavunu (Turkish), etrog (Hebrew), ju yuan (Chinese), bushukan (Buddha’s hand type) (Japanese)
Like its relatives, the lemon and lime, citron is believed to be native to northeastern India, but now thought to have originated in Hadramaut, the only well-watered, mountainous region of the Arabian peninsula.
Since early times, citron has been used both as a perfume and a medicine. The earliest reference to it is found within a collection of religious texts dating from about 800 BCE, where it is referred to as “jambila”.
It is one of the oldest fruits known to the western world, having been introduced to Europe around 500 BCE. As part of its “sacred” roots, the citron is alleged to have been used as an antidote to virtually any poison known to mankind.
Since citron was the first of the citrus fruits to arrive in Europe, it lent its name to a whole group of citrus fruits that followed.
There was also some confusion with its smaller and juicier relative, the lemon, as is shown in the French word “citron” and the German “Zitrone” used for that fruit. There does remain some evidence that the confusion extended to the cedar cone.
After the citron reached China in the 4th century AD, a freak form (var. sarcodactyla) developed in which the fruit separated into multi lobes, looking like the fingers of a hand and named Buddha’s hand.
Consequently, it became popular in the religions of China and Japan, as well as in the Orthodox Jewish religion, being used during the Feast of Tabernacles.
In the book of Leviticus, the “original” command was given for the use of citron. However, scholars believe that this text was composed at a time when the Jews could not have known about the citron and that the cedar cone was meant and substituted. It is specifically the citron (etrog) that was struck on one side of the Jewish coin in the period of the first revolt (66-77 CE).
The citron tree is not particularly ornamental, and its fruit almost inedible; but, still, it was popular. The plant itself is a scraggly, thorny shrub that is highly sensitive to cold and tends to be short-lived.
Citron is a large melon-shaped fruit that can reach a foot in length; but most of its bulk is caused by the thick, knobbly, greenish rind that tends to be tightly folded, much like the human brain. Because of this, they tend to be hard to peel.
Unlike most citrus fruits, the citron has pithy (albedo) tissue that extends between the segments and separates them. The flesh is firm, but dry; and, if there is juice, it tends to be acidic or sweet, depending on the variety. It also has numerous seeds.
Oil from the peel is quite aromatic and pleasant, and the peel tends to be the most used part of the fruit. Salt-soaked and candied peel is used in cakes and confections, but most commonly in fruitcake. The peel is also used in air fresheners and as a moth repellent, as well as being made into jams or marmalades.
Although not a juicy fruit, juice can be extracted, which was the precursor to lemonade. Citron was used in Italy for a refreshing drink called ‘acquacedrata’; and, in the 17th and 18th centuries, vendors would carry tanks on their backs in order to sell this type of “lemonade”. The term ‘acquacedrata’ can still occasionally be heard when referring to lemonade.
Early use of the citron was strictly religious or medical; and, up to the time of Pliny the Elder (about 75 CE), citron was not used as a food. After that time, the practice of cutting the peel into strips for culinary use began.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the citron remained important in Arab cuisine. The citrons of today are almost exclusively grown for the manufacture of candied peel.
There are many fruits that are made into various condiments or sweets and said to be citron. Pumpkin rind is often candied and passed off as citron. There is also a type of melon called the ‘citron-melon’, which is often confused with the fruit.
In Mexico, the cushion cactus (Echinocactus grandis) is candied and then called “acitrón”. No doubt citron was originally used at one time, and the cactus became a substitute for the real candied citron.
Today, candied citron is imported into Central and North America from Puerto Rico, where the large round varieties of citron grow very well.
The main producers are Italy, Greece, Israel, and Corsica, and, to a lesser extent, the US. Two interesting products are made from citron.
One is a sort of jellied paste called “pâte de cédrat”, a specialty of Bayonne in France; and the other is from India, where the raw flesh is pickled or cooked and preserved in mustard seed oil.
Ponderosa is a lemon-citron hybrid that is highly acidic and difficult to peel.