Pammy came home yesterday with a lovely present from her old friend Antonio – these amazing looking Thai 'kaffir lime' fruits. Antonio and his wife Louise live just around the corner from us and they've become keen, and very good, gardeners in recent years. Antonio has always been a brilliant cook long before he became a qualified chef in recent years, and so they love to grow their food plants: citrus and herbs in particular. And haven't they done a wonderful job with their Thai limes!
These limes are not so hot for squeezing. Juiciness is not their thing. Instead, it's the fragrant skin which you grate or zest which is what's valued with this wrinkled fruit. It's also really the foliage of the plant which is what most cooks use from this tree most of the time. The leaves are finely shredded and added to salads, soups, stir-fries and dressings, and they really are one of the signature flavours of Thai cuisine, right up there with fish sauce, chillies and smelly old shrimp paste.
I had always intended to buy a Thai lime tree to grow in a pot, as a few years back I nursed back to health my sister-in-law Laura's potted Thai lime tree, which had endured a bad winter on a shady apartment balcony and had been turned into bare (but thorny) sticks. In my sunny backyard, with some TLC it bounced back beautifully and returned to live with Laura once more. Antonio's gift of these fruit spurred us into action, and so this morning Pammy and I went to a big, flash garden centre in northern Sydney and picked one out from the good selection there.
Here it is, just a tiddler now, but that's how I like to start with potted fruit trees: not too big, so they haven't become pot-bound and unhappy at the garden centre. This one was $35, but you could buy advanced Thai lime trees there, with fruit on, for $200, if you were silly enough. Thai limes (Cistrus hystrix) are probably one of the best potted citrus, as the tree is naturally small, only 1-1.5m tall at best. Its only drawback is that it's a thorny thing, but if you harvest either fruit or foliage with both care and respect you should survive unscathed.
And for readers not familiar with Thai limes, here are their wonderfully distinctive leaves. They are called 'waisted' leaves, as they look like two leaves but in fact are one, with a 'waist' in the middle. I always have Thai lime leaves on hand in my kitchen, but that's only because they freeze brilliantly well, and thaw out in less than a minute. So, I buy them fresh at the local Asian stores, and put the unused ones in a Tupperware container and freeze them. Maybe that 'frozen' discovery is what has made me a bit slow to get my own supply of fresh leaves. But when I saw Antonio and Louise's glorious fruit, that was it. No more procrastination, boy. Buy a Thai lime tree this Saturday, you slacker!
Speaking of slackers, this is what I fully intended to buy and plant this time last year: an edible fig tree, destined for a large pot. So, today we also bought a 'Brown Turkey' fig. Tomorrow is planting day, and then we wait. The figs have finished fruiting in Sydney (or are winding down over autumn) and they'll be bare over the winter. That first shoot of spring will be a thrill, and it's almost odds-on that eagle-eyed Pammy, who doesn't miss a thing out in our backyard, will be the one to come bounding in with that "guess what I spotted" gleam in her eyes.
As for the Thai limes, we fully expect our latest addition to get growing straight away and never look back. However, we'll have to wait till this time next year for the first of those wrinkly wonders to be ready for zesting.