I feel summer leaving and I hear fall knocking. It’s less than a month away, and let me tell you, I’m ready for it: Apple cider slushies from County Line Orchard, autumn-colored mums on stoops, fuzzy sweaters, and making my Halloween costume… However, we have a lot of stuff to do before summer disappears completely. We have a BIG September coming up. We’re going to be traveling a lot. And I’m trying not to think about it all, lest my anxiety goes into overdrive.
But before September arrives, let’s pucker up: It’s National Lemon Juice Day!
I had no grand plan going into this post. Mostly, I wanted to share a sunny lemon recipe before summer ends. But then I fell down a rabbit hole reading about the history of lemon juice and medical science. We’re going to talk about scurvy first, and then I’m going to give you a lemon tart recipe. Sound good? That all goes hand in hand, right?
Before the 1800’s, there was a deadly scourge plaguing the British Navy’s sailors: scurvy. Scurvy was a disease caused by a severe Vitamin C deficiency. Those inflicted would suffer from things like hallucinations, bleeding gums, weakness, and wounds that wouldn’t heal. Untreated, scurvy would eventually lead to death and it is estimated that, between the years of 1500-1800, 2 million sailors died of the disease. Far fewer were killed during combat.
It wasn’t until 1747 that Dr. James Lind, a Scot and ship’s surgeon aboard the HMS Salisbury, discovered that lemons could be used to prevent scurvy. Lind’s fellow crewmembers were afflicted with an outbreak of scurvy, so the doctor began an experiment using 12 sick sailors. One group was given seawater, while others were given sulfuric acid or cider. Two of the men were given two oranges and lemon. While most of the other sailors remained ill, one of the sailors given citrus was healed, and the other had greatly improved by the end of the six day trial. Using this information, Lind published A Treatise of the Scurvy in 1753. The work linked a lack of scurvy with citrus fruit, as well as other fruits and vegetables, though at this time, Vitamin C was not pinpointed as the key.
But Lind’s discovery was ignored! To give you an idea of the cost: During the Seven Years War, which began three years after Lind wrote his Treatise, of the almost 185,000 men who enlisted in the Royal Navy, around 1,500 died in combat, while another 133,000 died from disease, mostly scurvy. It wasn’t until years later that the wider community learned the secret, after another Scottish physician in the Royal Navy, Sir Gilbert Blane, wrote a pamphlet entitled On the most effective means for preserving the health of seamen, particularly in the Royal Navy. He also pushed for monthly health updates from sailors, and began advocating for sailors to be given citrus during times at sea. The suggestion was finally implemented in 1795, almost 50 years after Lind’s first scurvy treatment experiment.
Incredibly, it turns out that Lind’s discovery and lack of traction was not even the first time this had happened. In 2016, a cure for scurvy was found written in a book of household remedies in 1707 by housewife Ebot Mitchell, from Gloucester, England. Mitchell’s “Recp.t for the Scurvy” includes alcohol and a healthy serving of orange juice to combat the illness. Had her recipe been more widespread, thousands of lives could have been saved.
I found it amazing that the use of citrus juice to combat scurvy has been forgotten and rediscovered more than once in the history of seafaring. The disease killed thousands before knowledge of its treatment became widespread. Eventually, however, the cure became very closely associated with the British Navy: If you’ve ever heard a British person referred to as a “limey,” that nickname comes from the practice of British sailors eating lemons, and eventually limes, from the Caribbean while at sea. Meanwhile, in the United States, the citrus cure for scurvy wasn’t commonly used until after the American Civil War, when many men succumbed to the disease.
So, you could basically consider this lemon tart a health food recipe.
Makes one 8-inch tart.
For shortbread crust:
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp whole milk
1 1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
10 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed and very cold
For curd filling:
3/4 cup lemon juice
2/3 cup sugar
1/8 tsp salt
zest of 1 lemon (about 1 & 1/2 tsp)
8 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed and room temperature
In a small bowl, combine the vanilla, egg yolk, and milk. Whisk to combine.
In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Pulse to combine. Add in the butter and pulse until butter is in pea-sized pieces. Add in your egg-milk mixture and pulse until the mixture combines and begins to pull away from the sides of the processor bowl.
Pour the mixture out onto a lightly floured surface. Pull the dough together, kneading a few times until all dry streaks are combined. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 35-40 minutes.
Once rested, press the dough into an 8-inch pie pan using your fingers. Using a fork, poke holes all over the top of the dough. Refrigerate the dough as you preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Before putting in the oven, fill the pastry shell with parchment paper held down by dried beans or pie weights. Bake for 20 minutes, remove parchment and pie weights, and continue baking for about 15 minutes, or until lightly golden brown.
Allow the tart crust to cool for at least half an hour before beginning the curd.
For the filling, add the lemon juice, sugar, lemon zest, and eggs to a heavy-bottomed saucepan and whisk to combine. Place over medium heat and begin continually whisking, adding a few cubes of butter at a time. Continue whisking after all the butter has been added, until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat.
Pour curd through a metal strainer straight into the cooled tart crust. Use the back of a spoon to push the curd through the strainer.
Allow the curd to cool to room temperature and then refrigerate for at least 2 hours as the curd sets.
Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar (optional), and enjoy!
It’s quite lemony, which is my favorite. If you’d rather make it a bit sweeter and less tart, you can use equal parts lemon and sugar. Also, if you’re looking for more lemon juice recipes, might I suggest one of my favorite summer desserts of all time (to squeeze in before summer is completely over): Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie.
I wish you fair winds and following seas!