Words by Christina Dean

The ever-worsening climate crisis means that, for food and drink businesses, recycling waste, using paper straws or adopting a nose-to-tail cookery ethos just isn’t enough 

We’re now at the point where sustainability can’t just be paid lip service, it needs to be embedded into every area of operations. That means business owners have to seriously look at where their ingredients come from and how they’re grown, and not just what their teams do with them when they arrive at their bar or restaurant. It is happening, as evidenced by the restaurants that are participating in the regenerative farming movement and the chefs choosing to source hyper-local or by-product ingredients. Just as regenerative farming has entered into the mainstream, citrus fruit is also coming under the spotlight, and not for a positive reason.

According to the OEC, Observatory of Economic Complexity, in 2021 the UK imported $771 million of citrus fruit, mainly coming from Spain, South Africa, Peru, Morocco and Egypt, giving those limes, lemons and oranges in your fruit bowl quite the carbon footprint. Of course they can only get into your fruit bowl if they’re stocked in the shops – in February of this year, there were serious shortages of salads and citrus fruits following poor weather in Spain and Morocco, highlighting just how dependent we’ve become on these long supply chains. 

There’s also a huge issue with wastage when it comes to citrus, particularly in bars. Lots of cocktails call for fresh juice in their recipes, meaning lots of husks left behind, and just think of all the lime and lemon wedges used as garnishes that sit in glasses long after the liquid has been drunk. Fortunately, there are innovators leading the move away from traditional uses of citrus in an effort to be more sustainable. Places like Dandelyan, Silo and Papi employ extremely creative methods to repurpose leftovers destined for the bin, like drying and powdering citrus husks and producing citrus waste vinegars. The now-closed cocktail bar White Lyan, from drinks supremo Mr Lyan, notably had a policy of no citrus and no ice behind the bar, and there’s a new wave of chefs and bartenders who are ditching the citrus and turning towards more planet-friendly ingredients to replicate the same flavour profiles.

Verjus, the highly acidic juice made from pressing unripe grapes (it can also be made from fruits like rhubarb, crab apples and gooseberries), is becoming an increasingly popular option. In fact, it was the popular option several centuries ago before citrus began to arrive on these shores, and only came back into fashion thanks to Australian cook, vintner and writer Maggie Beer, who began producing it commercially in 1984. Verjus delivers the same crisp tartness as you’d get from a lemon and has the added benefit of being a byproduct of the winemaking process, as it’s made from the high-acid, low-sugar grapes removed during the thinning of a vineyard. 

John Javier, Executive Chef at The Tent (at the end of the universe), is a verjus fan, calling it a “very good alternative (and in some cases better) to citrus”. He uses it to season raw fish and cold broths as well as in granitas and other desserts, and its concentrated flavour means you can use much less than you would need to with citrus juice to achieve the same result. And if you make your own, you have much more control over the final flavour as well.

Verjus is also a winner in drinks – Kevin Price Houghton, Head Bartender at Christina’s Shoreditch, which has an ethos of using foraged, wild, locally-sourced and sustainable ingredients, uses it in cocktails like the Coastal Margarita, Fig Leaf Colada and Elderpine Spritz. “One of the advantages of using verjus in cocktails is its shelf stability. Once opened, it can last up to two to three months without refrigeration. This makes it easy to prepare large batches of cocktails ahead of time, and it also reduces waste,” he explains. “Verjus also offers the benefit of creating very clear drinks. Unlike citrus juices, which can create a cloudy appearance in cocktails, verjus can be added directly to a cocktail without needing to be shaken. This results in cocktails with a crystal-clear appearance, which can be especially desirable in visually-focused drinks.”

Swapping citrus for grapes doesn’t stop at verjus; Andy Beynon of Michelin-starred Behind favours ice wine vinegar, made from frozen grapes that are harvested when temperatures fall below -8 degrees celsius and pressed to extract the juice. “With added depth and complexity compared to its balsamic and Sherry-based cousins, ice wine is typically much sweeter, so naturally pairs well with desserts or very fatty foods such as halibut or aged Chalk Farm trout,” he says. 

Sea buckthorn is another fruit alternative to citrus and one that’s had a resurgence in popularity over the last decade or so, just as the Scandi/Nordic style of cookery using local, foraged ingredients came into vogue. As well as offering lots of sour sharpness, the bright orange berries have the bonus of being native to the UK and they keep their vivid colour too, ticking off the aesthetically pleasing factor.

Tom Oxford and Oliver Coysh of The Exploding Bakery, which is based in Exeter but delivers its cakes nationwide, included a sea buckthorn cheesecake recipe in their cookbook Bake It, Slice It, Eat It, because “it’s got an incredible flavour that’s half Solero sunshine and half screw-your-face-up sharpness. It’s a rare berry that’s native to the UK. You can get sea buckthorn from various health-food shops as dried berries or juice, or order frozen berries online. This recipe incorporates it with just the right level of sweetness through the cheesecake mixture, and the bright orange topping gives it that vibrant panache that really turns heads.”

When it comes to finishing dishes, as you would with a squeeze of lime juice or a grating of lemon zest, there’s only one option for Casa, Paco Tapas and Decimo’s Peter Sanchez Iglesias – sumac. “It grows everywhere – there are actually a few trees around if you look for them. I’d finish a piece of fish with olive oil and sumac – lots of it, maybe a heaped tablespoon, depending on how sharp your sumac is,” he explains. “ I think this is the best way to replicate that citrus flavour without tasting pickly. It’s a bit more interesting than vinegar, too, and works on everything – eggs, rice and salad in particular.”

If a pickly taste is the goal however, there’s one surefire way to achieve that; use the pickle juices, from a jar of kimchi or pickled onions for example, to bring the acidity to a dish. Even if it wasn’t the primary reason behind buying said jar, the juice has already been paid for and it’s a hell of a lot better than pouring it down the drain – plus you can recycle the jar to really tick all the eco boxes.