A Festival of Lemons

Tarte au Citron

To me, lemons symbolize early spring and a brightness at the end of a lingering winter season.  Mind you, I live in California now, and our winter has been unseasonably warm and dry to this point, but as I think about lemons for a moment, I am transported back to Northern Europe where by the end of January, the dark and drizzle of the long winter season would be wearing thin. The knowledge of approaching spring and lengthening days would be shrugged off in a moment of impatience when we would impulsively book a quick escape in February to somewhere south in search of warmth and light.  A favorite destination would be the south of France, for, while Scandinavia and the UK would be shrouded in chilly mist and shadow, our southern counterparts would be basking in sunshine, enjoying the blooming daffodils and mimosa, and partaking in the festivities of Carnival in Nice and the Fête du Citron in Menton.

Fête du Citron?  Yes, that would be a Lemon Festival, and each year for 6 weeks from February to March, the  city of Menton devotes a celebration to all things citrus and yellow.  Situated halfway between Monte Carlo and the Italian border along the riviera, Menton is blessed with a warm micro-climate that is conducive to growing citrus.  Its history of cultivating lemons dates back to the 15th century, and by the early 19th century Menton was a main exporter of lemons to Europe and America.  Its prominence declined following a frost and increased competition from neighboring Italy and Spain, and, in 1934, the Lemon Festival was established in order to call attention to the replanting of Menton’s lemon trees and the re-establishment of their citrus production.

And what a festival it is.  Over the course of 6 weeks the town has celebrations, parades, and fireworks. Lemons, lemons are everywhere.  Parade floats are made of lemons, statues and decorations consist of lemons, food revolves around lemons, and tours and exhibitions are held throughout the city and at private estates to view lemon and citrus groves.  Typically, this festival coincides with the Carnival celebration in nearby Nice, so If you happen to be in the area for this double whammy of festivals, you can rest assured that you will have your fill of sun, fun and celebration – a perfect antidote for the winter doldrums.

Now, for those of us far away from the village of Menton and unable to hop on a short flight to the south of France, a little imagination is necessary to visualize this event and transport ourselves away from snowdrifts and frigid temperatures.  What I can offer you in tangibles, however,  is the following dessert. This lemon tart is simple to make and very, very lemony.  Its brightness is guarranteed to add a little sunshine to  your day, wherever you are.

Lemon Tart – Tarte au Citron

Makes one 9-inch tart

For the pastry – Pâte Sucrée
1 1/4 cup flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut in 1/2″ pieces
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon ice water

Combine flour, sugar and salt in bowl of food processor.  Add butter, using on/off turns until the mixture becomes crumbly.
Stir together egg yolk and water in small bowl.  Add to flour mixture.  Pulse until dough begins to clump together.
Press dough into bottom and up sides of 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom.  Trim edges.  Pierce crust all over with fork.  Freeze 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Line crust with foil.  Fill with dried beans or pie weights.  Bake until crust is set, about 15 minutes.  Remove foil and beans or weights.  Continue baking until crust is lightly golden, about 20 minutes.  Transfer to rack to cool while preparing the filling.

For the Lemon Filling:

6 egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (2-3 lemons)
6 tablespoons butter, softened
pinch of salt
2 teaspoons lemon zest

In a medium sauce pan, combine egg yolks and sugar.  Mix well to combine.  Add remaining ingredients, except for the lemon zest.  Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.  (Do not allow to boil or the mixture will curdle.)
When the mixture changes to a bright yellow color, and thickly coats the wooden spoon, remove from heat.  Pour through a fine strainer.  Discard the residue.  Stir in lemon zest.
Pour the filling into the cooled tart shell; it will continue to thicken as it sets.  Let it sit at least one hour.  Serve at room temperature or cold.

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