Winter in California lasts about two months and consists of day upon day of sunshine and blue skies punctuated by rain storms rolling off the Pacific. These might lash the windows, flood some low-lying streets and down branches for a day or two before the glorious weather makes its reappearance. But even the short(er), dark(er) days of a California winter bring their own sunshine. In winter, the citrus trees go crazy; even small trees yield fruit by the basketful.
When I first lived in California, during grad school, it took me weeks to internalize the fact that when I needed a lemon I could simply walk outside. Our Berkeley rental, recently renovated but haunted — literally haunted, according to the home’s longtime plumber, a psychic who had a side gig assisting the police on especially tricky cases; (ultimately my roommates and I and our houseguests became believers, but that’s another story) — had a sole lemon tree in the backyard. The first time I was whipping up some guacamole against a dinner party deadline involving friends from Tahoe and found myself wishing for a lemon was a revelation. At first I upbraided myself for forgetting them at the store. Then I realized I didn’t need to go to the store. I tripped down the steps to the garden, then to the tree. I reached up, choosing one of the yellower orbs amidst sharp green leaves against a backdrop of blue sky. I grasped it in my hand and gently twisted.
When you cut into a lemon, its essence is released into the air. The citrusy tang meets your face in one exuberant, aromatherapeutic spritz of acidity and freshness — an instant mood lift. Citrus juice can elevate almost any dish, almost any cuisine, adding that high note to dishes that need a touch of the divine. And when you have too many lemons, limes and oranges to keep up with them by chugging juice or cranking out batches of lemon bars (both of which can be frozen), it’s time for marmalade or lemon/lime curd (both of which make great gifts and last for ages in the fridge).
I’m far from my garden right now. It’s winter and I could do with the instant mood elevator. But I know when I return the trees will be waiting, dotted with color, promising light, no matter the weather. At this point I guess I have internalized the wonder of being able to walk outside and pick a lemon any time of the year. But I won’t ever take it for granted that even in a rainstorm, California sunshine is just a few steps away.