Spring never leaves this lovely place in Emek Hefer. Amid the foliage, citrus fruit trees are always in bloom, even out of season. Surrounded by orchards ringed with olive trees and flower hothouses stands a modest green shed used for storing tools. A grapevine winds around the walls of the shed, and peeking out from the rich green leaves are shrubs of mint, basil and sage. Beneath a shady arbor sits Uri Alon, known around these parts as “Uri Lemon,” eating his breakfast: an omelet made with herbs and hot peppers, dark rye bread, bonito fish (lakerda), olives and coarsely chopped vegetables with homemade olive oil and fresh lemon juice. The day is short and the work is plentiful, but the pleasure of a relaxed breakfast amid the orchards is never to be missed.
The last time we visited the citrus kingdom of the Lemon family in 2013, the father, a third-generation citrus grower in Emek Hefer, was accompanied by his sons Gal and Ben. This time, he was alone, and couldn’t hide his excitement at the reason for the absence of Ben, who normally works alongside him in the family orchard every day. “Ben left at three in the morning today to fly to Amsterdam to meet with chefs of three-star Michelin restaurants there to show them our yuzu. It’s quite thrilling. In the 1930s and ’40s, this whole area was filled with packing houses for oranges that shipped their produce to the world via the Jaffa port. For nearly a whole generation, since the 1980s, citrus fruit has been disappearing from this country, but now my son is traveling overseas again to sell high-quality citrus.”
The family got its nickname from the chefs and restaurant owners who receive daily deliveries of fresh citrus fruit from them – mostly different varieties of lemons and limes. In 2008, Uri and his two sons planted young citrus trees in the land their forebears had purchased back in the 1930s. The special growing method that Uri instituted, the variety of species they planted in the new-old orchard (no small matter in a world of homogenous industrial agriculture), the hard work and close attention to the needs of their culinary clients, all these turned them into the kind of food suppliers who could alter local patterns of consumption.
The first challenge they dealt with was how to market the lime – a marvelous agent of tartness that’s less familiar around here than the standard lemon – locally and to stretch its season from three months to an entire year. “For the past year and a half we’ve been supplying fresh limes to restaurants daily,” says Gal Alon, the elder son and family finance minister. “The success has given us the confidence to be bolder, but I admit that when the idea of growing yuzu first came up, I was firmly against it. We don’t have a surplus of land, and to plant yuzu trees we had to uproot profitable mandarin trees. My father, who is just as stubborn as the yuzu tree, insisted that we include the yuzu in our future plans. Now I admit I was wrong and I’m more excited than anyone by this new and pioneering crop.”
The yuzu, a member of the citrus family, is a more-than-millienium-old hybrid between different varieties of sour mandarin and the Ichang papeda (also known as “Chinese citron”). It has lately become one of the ingredients most closely identified with Japanese cuisine. The rising popularity of Asian cuisines, along with the difficulty of growing the yuzu outside the regions where it was first produced, has made it a pricey and coveted ingredient on the world culinary scene.
“It’s an incredibly stubborn tree. For good reason it’s not easy to find outside of Japan and Korea, which are the two leading growers,” says Uri. “Like most citrus trees, it needs cold temperatures at night, but it also needs the warmth of the morning’s first light.” Gal adds: “In Israel it’s nearly impossible to find these conditions during the growing season. I asked them – What are we going to do? Go out and hug the trees every morning?” Further challenges to growing them include the large, long thorns that make it hard to get at the fruit. Mr. Lemon offers to demonstrate how one picks a yuzu and ends up yelping in pain when one of the thorns pierces his finger. The yuzu also has a hearty appetite for natural fertilizers like phosphorus, and is susceptible to all kinds of pests, diseases and other mysterious phenomena that keep some of the trees from bearing fruit for many years after they’ve struck roots in the ground.
“Growing this crop is a slow process,” says Uri Alon, “and in the modern world, when people invest money they want a quick return. My grandfather planted an orchard with the thought that it would support him for all of his short lifespan. Nowadays, lifespans have increased but patience has decreased. The yuzu is a fruit that takes blood, sweat and tears before you see profit from it.”
It’s all in the peel
The family planted their first yuzu trees four and a half years ago. Last week, some of the trees – others have yet to bear fruit – yielded a small initial crop. The fruits of this first harvest made their way to chefs such as Meir Adoni of Catit. “I’m very happy about it,” says Uri. “We’re in the midst of attempts to integrate it into different dishes. If only there were more people like them who would pick up the gauntlet to advance the culinary scene in Israel,” he adds, refering to Roi Sofer of Bindella, Matan Abrahams of Hudson Brasserie, Matan Abrahams of Hudson Brasserie, the cocktail folks at Imperial Bar, and others.
“Up to now, in Israel we’ve mostly only been familiar with yuzu juice imported from Japan,” says chef Yuval Ben Neriah of Taizu, one of the chefs who were seriously involved in the growing attempts and shared in the tense anticipation of the first local crop. Since the Japanese are not keen on exporting fresh fruit outside their country, and the yuzu-growing industry in America and Europe is still in its infancy, yuzu juice – highly diluted and preserved with salt – is the main product known on the local and international market. But most of the yuzu’s flavor and fragrance elements – which are wonderfully different from the more familiar members of the citrus family – are to be found in the peel of the fresh fruit. “I squeezed the fresh fruit,” says Ben Neriah, “and I got just a few drops that were nothing like the processed juice I was familiar with, and then I realized that the real intensity and flavor is found in the peel and that the juice is less interesting. So far, we’re using fresh grated peel in a variety of raw and steamed fish dishes, and we’ve also pickled fresh yuzu to be used later on in cooking – most of the processed yuzu products involve some sort of fermentation process – and we’re still exploring the possibilities and potential of the fresh fruit.”
In Europe, fresh yuzu can sell for as much as 100 euros per kilo. For now, the Lemon family is selling their small crop of locally grown yuzu for 70-80 shekels per kilo (“We could have charged a higher price, but we’re still in the learning stage and we don’t want to go overboard”). If the fruit is available in a given week, it can be found at the Aleh Aleh stand at the farmer’s market in Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv on Thursdays.