Unraveling the Mysteries of My Grandmother's Lemon Butter
I don't know how my grandmother felt about immigrating to Australia, or when she started cooking. But I know the four ingredients that defined my time with her.
Illustration by Adam Waito
Springtime in southern Sydney is, I guess, no different to spring in any other coastal place—though I can’t be certain, as it’s the only spring I’ve known. I was raised in one of the city’s drowsier corners, near enough, via my parents’ white Corolla, to goodly expanses of both bushland and beach, where the air smelled of exactly five things on rotation (Banana Boat sunscreen, mildewed neoprene, frangipani, eucalypt, vinegar-doused fries). On weekends, braver kids than I went ‘bush-bashing’ on foot, using crooked branches to beat away kangaroo grass, wonga vines, and spiny mat rushes, or the stout, prickly shrubs nurseries referred to as dillwynia retorta (but everyone else calls eggs and bacon).
I wasn’t allowed to go exploring unsupervised. On Sunday mornings—my dad’s only day off work—our family would drive to the nearest Westfield shopping mall, where we’d dine at ‘French inspired’ café chain Délifrance on Level 2, and where I tried my first croissant and felt intensely European. After that, we’d visit my grandparents’ place. It was there I discovered lemon butter. (More on that soon.)
It tasted like breakfast and dessert rolled into one, light and elegant—like spring. I was not aware you could buy lemon butter in shops, readymade, and so it also felt rarefied—there was only as much as my grandmother had time to prepare.
My grandparents’ single-story house, surrounded by gardens on all sides, appeared gargantuan and manor-like in the way that even modest architecture can to children under ten. A sign at the entrance read ‘GLENDENNIS’, which sounds as whimsical as an Impressionist paint daub, conjuring a vast, bucolic property of rolling hills and buttercup-strewn banks. (In reality, it was an amalgam of Glenys and Dennis, their rhyming given names.) There was a lanky gum tree close to the front gate, with bark that peeled in strips like string cheese. A greenhouse in the back contained tropical palms and painted gnomes; a stone table sat near my grandfather’s woodworking shed (where, during retirement, he spent hours fashioning small sculptures of platypus), its surface adorned with bonsai; and there was a birdbath and a sundial, both of which seemed very exotic. The lawn was soft enough to run over barefoot.
Some of the garden’s finest spectacles were fleeting. Sydney’s climate, year-round, is humid subtropical—much like Louisiana or South Carolina. Its winters are mild and cool; summer is blistering. In springtime, temperatures range from 55 to 72 Fahrenheit, weather that’s conducive to growing certain types of fruit: cherries and nectarines; plump, fleshy peaches; plums and strawberries. Spring is the season lemon trees bear ripe, astringent bounty. My grandparents, who seemed to grow everything in their garden, had planted a lemon tree, too. For a few months of the year it looked like something from a Mediterranean grove, adorned with hordes of gleaming, aureolin fruit, each shaped like a tiny football. My late grandmother would pluck these, and turn them into a preserve.
We’d eat this lemon butter with pikelets (crumpet-like pancakes), or slather it in thick, greedy layers across microwaved bread rolls. We gorged upon it in a dark, cool dining room overlooking the garden, while the adults around my brother and me drank multiple cups of tea and dealt cards.
My grandmother’s recipe was a hand-me-down from her mother (and possibly her mother before that—no one’s sure). It involved just four ingredients: one tablespoon of sugar, half a tablespoon of butter, the juice of four or five lemons, five eggs. She’d combine the sugar, butter, and juice in a pan, and simmer until the sugar granules liquified. The mixture was left to cool. The eggs (whites and yolks) were beaten and added. The whole thing was then stewed until velvety and thick.
To my nascent tastebuds, the resulting conserve felt expensive, like pearls of caviar you could smear. It was synchronously sweet and sharp to the tongue; the lemon’s initial sting blunted by the creaminess of butter and eggs. I’d take a bite of my bread roll, and move it slowly around my mouth, letting the zingy flavor marinate. It tasted like breakfast and dessert rolled into one, light and elegant—like spring. I was not aware you could buy lemon butter in shops, readymade, and so it also felt rarefied—there was only as much as my grandmother had time to prepare.
Lemon butter doesn’t belong to my grandmother—food can never, after all, belong to any one person, just as a perfume cannot—I associate it with her so closely that I haven’t eaten it since her death.
The dessert spread is, obviously, much older than my family’s formula. Its popularity in Australia and the States is a hangover from colonialism; lemon butter was devised in Victorian England, where it was used as a filling in cakes. It’s unclear when it first appeared in recipe books—you’ll often read it described as lemon curd, lemon honey, or in very early iterations, lemon cheese—but we know for certain it existed by 1747. (It’s mentioned, under the name ‘clear lemon cream’ with near-identical ingredients, in Hannah Glasse’s century-long bestseller The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy of that year.) By 1844, it made a cameo as ‘lemon curd’ in The Lady’s Own Cookery Book, penned by Lady Charlotte Campbell Bury. Her take was trickier, and more literal: lemon acidulating cream to form curds, which were separated from the whey with cheesecloth.
By the 1870s, the availability of cheap sugar, imported fruits, and the newly invented can opener saw marmalade, lemon curd, and table jellies produced en masse. According to culinary historian Andrea Broomfield, the industrialization of cooking meant middle-class housewives opted to buy preserves from dry-goods grocers, rather than making them. “By the end of the nineteenth century,” she writes, “some cookbooks and guidebooks … went so far as to chide women for bad economy if they insisted on producing such goods in their own kitchen—even if the final product from one’s garden was superior to what one purchased at the store.”
My grandmother was not a late-19th-century housewife, but she was from the UK: a small village in North Yorkshire called Cross Hills. I’d later learn she immigrated to Australia at age 14 after the second World War, most likely under the ten-pound assisted passage scheme that lured hordes of other Brits. There are many things—most things, actually—that I don’t know about her early life: how she felt about leaving England, what she packed, if she tanned or shied from the sun. I don’t know when she began to cook, and why she made (instead of purchased) lemon butter, if she got those curd portions right the first time. Even my memory of her last decades has become uncertain and abstracted: a handful of images and half-recalled conversations, the smell of a wool sweater, a certain type of soap.
And so, as much as lemon butter doesn’t belong to my grandmother—food can never, after all, belong to any one person, just as a perfume cannot—I associate it with her so closely that I haven’t eaten it since her death. My mum has grown, and killed, one lemon tree (when I asked her about it on the phone, she chuckled and admitted to “neglect”), her second attempt birthed one single green lemon, which isn’t remotely near ripening.
According to Google’s approximations, I now reside 9,940.7 miles from the house of GLENDENNIS—assuming a direct route across the Pacific—9,940.7 miles from the camellia bushes and pink rhododendron, from the Daphne shrubs and impudent gnomes, from my grandfather, who is still alive, from the lemons. A certain paradox is not lost on me: While I spent my teens plotting my exit from Sydney, there’s not much I wouldn’t do to sit in that house right this moment, playing cards with my late grandmother. I would scoop a liberal dose of her citrus butter onto white bread, and think of nothing other than than how good it tasted.