Key Limes and tales of the eponymous pie

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Its difficult to get hold of fresh Key Limes outside of the Americas. The memory of the fruits hanging in clusters on the rows of trees in Mexican orchards and the fruit, ripe and fallen in the front yards of the houses that edge the sandy streets of Florida’s Estero Beach torment me. I am back home in cold old England, vainly emailing Waitrose to ask if they will stock them and pestering my local market stall to look for them when they are next at New Covent Garden.

What makes the Key Lime even more valuable (and costly) is that it takes between 10-18 of the fruits to produce a small cup of the juice as opposed to the more easily available Persian lime which yields 2-3 tablespoons of juice from just one of them. And what juice the Key Lime has- both tawny and citrus sharp, like a lime with a suntan. Add to this, the aromatic oils contained within the fragile rind which itself turns a shade of arylide yellow when it is fully ripe.

Consider foods made with it- the eponymous pie and pound cake, the latter sturdy and born of the homesteader yet flavoured with a fruit very far removed from a workaday staple; the granddaddy of Floridian sauces,  ‘Old Sour,’ a fiery tincture of chile, lime juice and salt; the Mulata cocktail with its deep base of creme de cacao lifted by the zing of citrus and vanilla warmth of rum. All of them wonderful hybrids, the culinary offspring of a much travelled fruit.

The journey from tree to plate is hard won though.  Workers harvest the fruit wearing thick leather gauntlets (if they are lucky enough to be given them) to protect against the vicious thorns that the trees arm themselves with. Twiggy stems flex, pierce and spike pickers in the face as they push their way into the crown of the tree where the best, sunripened fruit is located. Then, once on the chopping board the battle is yet to be resolved with flesh that defies being cut into neat segments and a centre thick with seeds.

For these reasons, it is not easy to get a slice of Key Lime Pie made with the real thing these days. As Raymond Sokolov wrote in the ‘Fading Feast’ (1981):

” I drove down from Miami,, impelled by a lifelong desire to taste an authentic Key Lime Pie. As I crossed the last bridge from Stock Island onto Key West, I assumed I was only minutes from enjoying a rich slice of Florida’s most famous regional speciality. But after a week of stuffing down piece after piece of one so- called Key Lime Pie after another, I came to realise that probably none of these pies contained a single drop of freshly squeezed juice. Indeed, after some serious enquiry among local experts, I am now morally certain that virtually all ‘Key Lime Pies’ are actually made with the juice of the Tahiti (or Persian or Bearss) lime, which is not a true lime at all.”

Sokolov was not alone in his concerns and earlier attempts to ratify its ingredients had been made by the state government in 1965 when Bernie Papy Jr introduced legislation calling for a $100 fine to be ‘levied against anyone advertising Key Lime Pie which was not made with the real fruit.’ Unsurprisingly the bill was not passed. Then in 1994, the State Legislature officially recognized the pie as ‘an important symbol of Florida’ even though North Floridian lawmakers had argued against this, calling instead for the pecan pie, with nuts grown in state, be afforded this recognition. On July 2006, House Bill 453 and Senate Bill 676 of the Florida Legislature’s Regular 2006 Session made the pie the official Florida state pie- and who doesn’t love the idea of a state (or county) having a state pie, especially one made with such an alluring ingredient, far more than the sum of its very great historical parts?

Likely to be a three way hybrid involving three plant species and at least two different genera) of citron (Citrus medica), pummelo (Citrus grandis), and a microcitrus species, Citrus micrantha, the Key Lime was carried by the Arabs across North Africa into Spain and Portugal, finally ending up in the Americas after being brought along for the ride by the Spanish and Portugese who themselves rocked up there in the early part of the sixteenth century. The lime took to the climate of the Deep South with the result that it went on to flourish throughout the Caribbean and the east coast of Mexico, migrating through Central America down to the more tropical areas of South America and, not least, the Florida Keys where it flourished under the mulches of seaweed, beggarweed and velvet beans laid down by orchard owners each year.

Part of their harvest was placed in wooden barrels, pickled in saltwater and shipped to Boston where they became a popular snack for school children; who remembers the mention of pickled limes in ‘Little Women’ and ‘What Katy Did?’ Youngsters were fortified with much needed vitamin C as were the sailors who took the preserved limes with them on long voyages, the practice a nod to the pickling, salting and drying of limes and other citrus which has been long practised across the Levant and Arab countries, the latter being the original home of the lime.

Sadly, commercial production of Key Limes across the south of Florida and its west coast islands near Fort Myers and Estero Beach, along with the Keys, was halted by the 1926 hurricane which wiped out the citrus groves along with a substantial acreage of pineapple plantations. The growers replanted with Persian Lime trees which are easier to grow and pick and sturdier to transport because of their thicker skin. The peel of the Key Lime, by contrast, lacks the toughness and verdancy of its Persian cousin, becoming yellow, (called ‘yallery’ by locals in Estero), at maturity and producing that tawny, pale yellow juice that is higher in acidity than other lime varieties and flesh that is stubbornly resistant to serving in segments. The thinner the skin, the juicier the pulp is a good rule of thumb and the best limes have rind that can be pierced with a sharp thumb nail and scraped back sans knife if necessary, something appreciated by the conch divers of Florida.

These divers have Anglo Saxon Bahamian descent and now live in the Keys, eking a living from the archipelago waters by turtling, fishing and sponging. On days when the wind is ‘walking right’ the waters become ‘as crystal as gin’ (Conch speak) and the spongers, peering through buckets with a glass base, bring up sponges and conchs from depths as great as 60 feet although many of them also free dive. Some eat their conch raw, bouncing the glutinous, milky flesh around their mouths after using a knife blade to enter the shell and sever the muscle that binds it. Grasping the muscly protruding heel of the flesh, they draw it out and slice it into thin, gelatinous sashimi that quivers as it is prepared. Seasoning can be as simple as a dip in the seawater over the side of the boat or a squirt of Key Lime juice which cooks in the manner of ceviche.

Alongside the conch, another popular fish is the ‘Grunt.’ so called because of the noise this small bottom feeder emits as it is pulled from the deep. Being rather tiny, a considerable number are required to make a meal and after flash frying, they are eaten with a seasoning of ‘sour,’ the name for the bottled Key Lime juice that is squirted onto them (Nellie & Joes is often used). First their heads are whipped off between finger and thumb and after some dextrous plucking, the cerebral cavity of the grunt is exposed so the brains can be sucked out followed by the nibbling away of the crust, strips of dorsal flesh, tails and fins. These are nose to tail eating leaving little behind, not even enough for Hemingways famous polydactyl cats that prowl the island.

Years ago, the sponge and conch fishermen would have to remain at sea for some time and rations aboard could have included sweetened, condensed milk and key limes alongside eggs, the milk having been created in 1856 by Gail Borden to compensate for a lack of refrigeration. It wasn’t until the opening of the Overseas Highway in 1930 that tank trucks were able to transport ice, milk and refrigerated goods to the Keys. The terrain of the Florida Keys is not conducive to cattle farming; indeed a lot of the state is not, being largely reclaimed swamp and old Native American hunting grounds and historically, dairy was not a food group easily available to people living there. These food stuffs, milk, eggs and limes handily make up the ‘trinity’ of the pie but how we got from a larder of ingredients to the finished pie is unclear.

The origins of the classic Key Lime Pie are not conclusive with stories, in the main, appearing apocryphal at best, downright presumptious at worst. The first written reference to this pie that I can trace is in some of the writings by the Works Progress Administration (WPA)  published in the 1930’s. Set up to create employment for unemployed writers during the Great Depression, the WPA created many art related programs for the relief of artists, writers and theatrical professionals, including the Federal Writers Project and in the later years of the programme, writers were sent out on assignments with photographers to document how America was eating.

Not a cookbook (in fact cookbook writers were banned from contributing), but rather ‘an account of group eating as an important American social institution and its part in the development of American cookery as an authentic art.’ The WPA writers filed thousands of stories that captured, as never before, the role food played in the formation of the countries society from possum dinners at Elk Lodges to the conch and key lime juice eating fishermen and divers of this old Spanish colony dangling off the right hand side of the contigious United States.

A ‘Promotional’ from the WPA, published in the 1930s, mentions the “world-famous” key lime pie yet a cook book by the Key West Womans Club published nearly ten years earlier in 1920, omits any mention of the recipe. Locals state that this may be due to the ubiquity of the pie being such that the editors felt nobody was in need of a written recipe (the teaching granny to suck eggs defence), but this doesn’t make sense when you consider that most Little League cookbooks feature their regions most popular and iconic recipes. Can you imagine a Charleston Little League cookbook without a recipe for benne wafers, pecan pralines and she-crab soup or its Texan equivalent lacking a recipe for a Bowl ‘O Red (chile)? Additionally, when it comes to a famous recipe that is such a vital part of a regional cuisine, everybody thinks that their recipe is the definitive one. I find it hard to believe that the editors of the Key West Womans Club recipe book were in possession of ego’s immune to such fancies.

Local Keys history tells that sometime towards the end of the 1800s, a prominent resident of Key West named William Curry, a Bahamian born immigrant to the USA who went on to become Florida’s first millionaire via his ship salvaging business, employed a cook called ‘Aunt Sally,’ also from the Bahamas, who is said to have created the first Key Lime Pie from the fruit. The story of how the recipe arose does not appear terribly likely because of the odd thing that happens when you combine lime juice and sweetened, condensed milk. They curdle and appear to ‘cook’ sans heat; without prior knowledge of what is happening and that this is meant to happen, it is quite likely that a cook would throw the whole thing out and start over. Or could Sally have been intending to bake a lemon icebox pie which also uses egg yolk and condensed milk and decided to try out the key lime instead of a lemon- in which case she’d know what to expect when milk hits citrus.

Certainly condensed milk allows cooks to make a custard without actually cooking it, a boon to a busy ships cook in a confined galley space. A boon to anyone really who is short of time or equipment. In fact, the spongers probably bought their cans of condensed milk from Curry after he began importing them to the islands to use on their hook boats, named for the hooking methods used to harvest the sponges. They would mix the milk with pelican eggs snaffled from under the bills of these huge sea birds which populate the coast of Florida so densely.

Key West is home to historian David L Sloan who is a bit of a Key Lime and pie expert. He possesses what he claims to be the ‘original’ recipe and cautions against muddling history with authenticity, a common pitfall of the food historian. Founder of a local ghost tour, it was his research into the islands ghosts that led him to the mansion of William Curry and the recipe belonging to Sally, found in the pantry. Much of the debate around the pie is binary: Graham Cracker crust or traditional pastry crust; a topping of cream or lofts of meringue; peaks toasted under the grill or blow torched big hair style. Aunt Sally opted for the former and a filling made with the condensed sweetened milk which Sloan claims Curry would have brought back to the island, fully aware as a ship salvager of how useful it would be to a ships cook alongside his own house cook. Yet despite finding what could be seen as recipe for THE ur pie, Sloan comes down on the side of the spongers as creators of it and goes as far as claiming that their version probably did not have a cracker crust either. Fighting talk there.

Here are a few of my favourite recipes made using the Key Lime. We’ll start with a drink and work our way through a (semi) complete menu. 

The Mulata

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A more sophisticated adult sibling to those chocolate and lime sweets (candies), the combination works well in this cocktail which is traditionally served straight up although you can also serve it frozen by pureeing the ingredients in a blender.

1 and 1/2 oz Light Rum / 3/4 oz dark cème de cacao / a tbsp fresh Key Lime juice or to taste / 1 cup ice cubes

Combine all the ingredients in a bar shaker, cover and shake well then strain into a martini glass.

Old Sour

The venerable grandparent of old Floridian sauces, this is a snappy and piquant mixture of very few ingredients that combine to form a multi purpose seasoning for both raw and cooked foods. Make a batch of it and keep in a sealed jar. It will keep unrefrigerated for several months and becomes better with age.

1-2 peppers (use Bird, Datil, Scotch Bonnet or other super hot chiles) / 1 cup fresh Key Lime juice / 2 tsp salt (I use a good Maldon, crushed in a pestle and mortar).

Leave chiles whole for a less potent sauce and slice thinly if you want it hotter. Combine all the ingredients in a sterilised jar and cover tightly. Shake well to dissolve the salt. Let the Sour stand for a week at room temperature before using then smear all over meat, seafood, fruit and vegetables.

Key Lime Pie

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Needs no introduction other than by setting out my Key Lime stall, I am going to invite a chorus of “That’s not authentic!”

1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs or digestive biscuits, crushed  / 1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar / 1/3 cup butter, melted  / 2 (14-ounce) cans sweetened condensed milk / 1 cup fresh Key lime juice / 2 egg whites  / 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar / 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Combine the cracker crumbs, the brown sugar and melted butter then press into a 9-inch pie plate and bake piecrust at 350° for 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Allow to cool. Stir together the sweetened condensed milk and lime juice until blended. Pour into prepared crust. Set aside. Beat egg whites and cream of tartar at high speed with an electric mixer just until foamy. Add granulated sugar gradually, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until soft peaks form and sugar dissolves (2 to 4 minutes).

Spread meringue over filling. Bake at 325° for 25 to 28 minutes. Chill 8 hours.

Key Lime Pound Cake

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This recipe was inspired by Fran Gage’s Meyer Lemon Pound Cake in her book ‘Bread and Chocolate’ which I bought years ago and read regularly. I swapped the lemons for Key Limes because in my opinion, a Meyer lemon is to an everyday lemon what a Key Lime is to its Persian relatives.

Glaze

8-10 Key Limes (use ordinary limes if you cannot get the Keys but you’ll only need 3 of them) / 1/2 cup water / 1/2 cup sugar

Zest the limes and put them in a small pot with sugar and water, bring to a boil and simmer for 1 minute. Cover and refrigerate overnight (or up to a week). Juice the limes to collect 1/3 cup of their juice, and reserve for cake.

Cake

1 1/4 cup flour /  tsp baking powder / 10 tbsp (5 oz) butter / 1 cup caster sugar / 2 eggs, beaten / 1/3 cup lime juice / prepared lime zest, drained (syrup reserved)

Preheat oven to 350F. Mix flour and baking soda and set aside. Cream butter with sugar until fluffy. Add eggs a little at a time then add the dry ingredients alternately with lime juice. Stir in zest. Pour batter into a buttered loaf pan and bake about 1 hour. While cake is still warm, poke with skewer and drizzle with reserved lime syrup. Cool, then remove from pan.

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