Tuesday, June 12, 2012

FRUITS OF BRAZIL - Limes (Limões)

The citrus fruit that is most important in Brazilian cooking and gastronomy is, by far, that small, round, sharply-acidic green ball called a lime (limão in Portuguese, limões in the plural). Oranges might outweigh limes when it comes to export statistics, and there's no question that Brazilians drink a lot of orange juice, most of it unfortunately highly-sugared. But if you look in Brazilian cookbook indexes  recipes that call for limes vastly outnumber those that call for other citrus fruits.

Interestingly, botanists tell us that limes (including lemons) are the closest living relatives to the wild fruit trees of sub-Himalayan and Southeast Asia and were the first citrus fruits domesticated and cultivated by mankind. Even such important citrus fruits as oranges, tangerines and grapefruits are either natural or cultivated hydrids of the original lime-like citrus and came into cultivation much later.

Citrus fruits made their first appearance in the West in the hands of Muslim traders sometime between the 7th and the 9th centuries. There is some evidence that Romans were aware of limes and used them medicinally, but there was never a commercial citrus crop in Europe during Roman times. In any case, citrus cultivation and consupmtion was firmly established in the Mediterranean basin by the beginning of the second millennium CE.

From Europe, citrus fruits made their way to American shores in the holds of ships carrying the first European explorers and colonists in the decades following Columbus and other early explorers. Limes took very well to Brazilian soil and climatic conditions - they can successfully be cultivated in most of Brazil. From its earliest days, Brazilian cuisine made use of the fruit - particularly the juice, which adds a fresh, acidic note to any dish containing it. Although they had no knowledge of why it worked, sailors discovered that drinking lime juice daily prevented the onset of scurvy and limes were carried on all long sea voyages. The British Navy mandated a daily drink of lime juice, thoughtfully mixed with rum, which is the origin of the nickname of British sailors - limeys.

On land as on well as at sea, cooks discovered the many ways in which limes could be employed in the kitchen. Lime juice is essential in many traditional Brazilian sweets and dessert, as well as in cold drinks. It's also used in conjunction with fish and seafood dishes. There's a particular affinity between limes and foods from the sea, although traditional cooks in Brazil seem not to have discovered the "cooking" effect that lime juice has on seafood - the effect which is the basis for Peruvian and Mexican ceviche.

Today in Brazil, there are two main varieties of limes sold commercially, and in most markets and supermarkets you'll always find both. In Brazilian Portuguese they are called limão Tahiti and limão Galego. Although they are similar in color, size and taste, one is very close to the original citrus fruit of prehistoric Asia and one is a hybrid of fairly recent origin.

Limão Galego (Citrus aurantifolia) is the oldster, the ur-lime. In English it's known as the Key lime, due to its association with the Florida Keys. Its color is a light green, often edging toward yellow. It is smaller, seedier, has a higher acidity, a stronger aroma, and a thinner peel than the limão Tahiti and is the lime of choice when making Brazil's famed caipirinha cocktail. It is very juicy. In Brazil is it grown commercially mostly in the northeast and center-west regions of the country and it bears fruit throughout the year, having no distinctive season. Up until recently, it was the most common lime in Brazil, though in recent years, it's given way to the limão Tahiti.
Left Limão Tahiti - Right Limão Galego

Limão Tahiti (Citrus latiifolia) is the upstart hybrid in the family of Brazilian limes. In English it's called the Persian lime and it's the garden-variety lime of supermarkets throughout North America and Europe. Its color is vivid strong green. It is less acidic than the limão Galego, has a thicker peel which can be nubbly, is slightly larger in most cases, and being a hybrid it is seedless, or virtually so. It is a very robust species. Today it is the most valuable member of the lime family in the export market, due to its seedlessness, its thicker peel which makes it less fragile, and its aroma which is considered exotic in northern climates. Like its ancestor, the limão Galego, it bears fruit all year.

In Brazil these two varieties alone are considered lime limes - that is, when a recipe calls for lime, unmodified, it means that either of these two may be used. If another member of the family is required, it will be indicated by a modifying name. These two are also what the English-speaking world thinks of as limes. There are other members of this family, though, and in upcoming posts, we'll discuss them as well as provide some Brazilian recipes which use this marvelous fruit.

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