If life won't give you limes, you'll just have to drink your sparkling water plain, or make lemonade.
As the world faces a giant lime shortage, your basic glass of Gerolsteiner or Perrier; your bottle of Corona; your margaritas, mojitos, sangria and guacamole — just about all of them are missing the fragrant spritz of fresh lime these days. Either that or you're paying a premium to provide it.
Severe winter conditions along with drought and hurricanes in Mexico; a citrus disease with the unlikely name of huanglongbing, or yellow dragon disease, which originated in China, now making its way around the world, withering citrus crops in Florida and Latin America; the even more unlikely scenario of Mexico’s drug warlords turning to limes — and avocadoes — as a source of revenue (“oro verde” or “green gold” they’re called): All these factors are driving down lime supplies, especially those from Mexico, the largest exporter of limes in the world and the Numero Uno supplier of limes to North America.
And when supplies dwindle, we know what happens to prices. Earlier this month, CNN Money asked online readers to tweet or email what they were paying for limes in their neck of the woods. Prices ranged from $1.54 a pop in Calgary — el último high — to 44 cents in Austin, Texas, and 10 cents in Rockford, Illinois.
Who knows why that Rockford price is so ridiculously low (are those people nuts?). But the Calgary case is pretty representative of what's happening in North America, where wholesale prices have nearly quadrupled.
I haven't been buying limes lately only because I haven't seen them around. Then last week I spotted a basket full at Save-On-Foods — a basket without a sign or price. Turned out my singular little lime, which used to ring in at two or three for a buck, cost $1.29. This when we can buy three pounds of fat, juicy organic lemons for about five dollars.
So if life gives us lemons, we can only ditch the Key lime pie and go for lemon meringue, or use lemon juice in the guacamole.
But what do we lose by using lemons instead of limes?
Acidity, for one. Limes, chemist and food expert Harold McGee tells us, are the most acidic citrus fruit, with as much as eight per cent of their weight coming from citric acid. The acidity of lemons, by comparison, is about five per cent of the juice. So if you're substituting lemons for limes in something like guacamole, you might want to use a bit more.
But then there's that wonderfully distinctive flavour of limes. Their fragrant pine, floral, spicy notes come from terpenes — volatile unsaturated hydrocarbons found in the essential oils of plants, particularly conifers and citrus trees, ergo turpentine.
Yes, lemons are bright and refreshing, and even strike some of the same terpene notes as limes: citrus (limonene); pine (pinene) and herbaceous (terpinene). But they lack other limey terpenoids, so when it comes to something like a margarita, where the lime flavour is so predominant and essential, even limes' closest cousins aren't up to the job. This is a little sad, especially since lemons come to us via limes.
As for anything made with Key limes, like the eponymous pie well worth pursuing if you've never had a slice, they're in their own special class. The smaller, rounder, seedier, more acidic Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia) is about the size and shape of a golf ball. It's also known as the Mexican or West Indian lime, and for years was the standard lime grown in the American tropics.
It has its own distinctive lime flavour and, no, the limes don't have to come from the Florida Keys, which gave them their name after the trees were brought there from Latin America. Either way, Key limes and their juice are rare in this part of the world as they're seldom grown commercially any more. Apparently the trees are "ferocious."
It's the bigger, greener, more ovoid Persian, Tahiti or Bearss lime (Citrus Latifolia) that we're more familiar with in Canada, the U.S. and Europe because that's what commercial producers are fixed on growing now, even in Mexico. As for the lumpy Southeast Asia's kaffir or makrut lime (Citrus hystrix), the leaves of which you use in Thai curry, that's also another flavour zone, and story. One of its more interesting anecdotes is that "kaffir" is Arabic for "infidel" or "nonbeliever," a word with derogatory tones, especially in South Africa where it's an insulting term for black Africans.
But back to the provenance of lemons, which can double for regular limes: According to McGee, they may have originated as a two-stage hybrid. In step one, which happened in the area of northwest India and Pakistan, lime was crossed with citron, which is native to the Himalayan foothills and the first citrus fruit to reach the Middle East. The second step in lemon hybridization likely occurred in the Middle East, where the lime/citron hybrid was crossed with pummelo, that big, fat, yellow grapefruit-like citrus you'll find in Bangkok markets, and local Chinese stores.
The first lemons, with that lime DNA coursing through their cells, arrived in the Mediterranean around 100 CE. From there they made their way to Moorish Spain, then on to Spanish colonies in the Americas, where they took up residency alongside the now-scarce limes.
So if you aren't up for paying a 50-cent surcharge for a wedge of lime with that next Corona, see if a free lemon wedge can be a suitable doppelgänger.
In the meantime, summer's on simmer, so if you haven't tried this wonderful recipe for lavender mint lemonade from Delaney and Alisha Zayac at Ice Cap Organics in Pemberton, do. It's wonderful — guaranteed to take the sting out of any limes MIA.
Lavender mint syrup
In a pot bring to a boil 1/2 c. honey and 1 c. water. Add four sprigs of fresh mint and four sprigs of lavender. Simmer for 15 minutes. Let the mixture cool then drain it, squeezing out all the goodness from the mint and lavender. To make the lemonade, add one tbsp. of the syrup and the juice from half a lemon to one glass with ice in it. Top up with water, stir and garnish with fresh mint.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who's played switcheroo with lemons and limes for years.