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A devilishly fine juicer

John Carswell solves the mystery of the ‘lemon squeezer’ that wasn’t

A couple of years ago at a preview of an Islamic sale at Bonhams, I spied an object on the floor of a vitrine. It seemed familiar, and could it be…? Closer inspection revealed that, yes, it appeared to be a lemon-squeezer, but 400 years earlier than those made by Armenian potters at Kütahya in the early 18th century.

The same size as its successors, it had a boss at the centre and a hole drilled in the base. What was different was that instead of the usual facets, the boss had a head with two protuberant eyes and horns, looking rather like the devil incarnate. Apart from its evil appearance, the horns had a practical function, which was to scour the lemon.

When its unique qualities were pointed out to the owner, Martin Snowdon, he withdrew it from the sale, and I am indebted to him for allowing it to be studied in more detail. What is fascinating is the length of time between the Seljuk example and its reappearance in the lemon-squeezers at Kütahya 600 years later, both of which are based on the same technology. In turn, this can be traced back to a series of Islamic medieval acquamaniles, the earliest of which is dated 796/7 and the latest from Khorosan dated 1206. The hydraulic principle continues in medieval European acquamaniles, of which the Nuremberg lion, c1400, is a splendid example.

The humble pottery lemon-squeezers might seem insignificant compared to their bronze ancestors, but they have their own special interest as the survival of an ingenious idea. As with the later Kütahya examples, the only way to ascertain that the principle was the same was to x-ray the Seljuk squeezer. This was accomplished by the Department of Radiology at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London. The result showed there was an identical central cylinder within the boss. So far, so good.

This led in turn to other questions, such as what was it used for, and what was its function? Up until this point I had assumed it was to produce a quantity of lemon juice, but for what purpose? Lemon juice was certainly used in Islamic cookery in the medieval period, but in Persia a much more important commodity was pomegranate juice. Pomegranates were commended several times by the Prophet Mohammed in the Koran (surat l-an’am). In a unique Chinese treatise of ad1330 (Yin-Shan Cheng-Ya, A Soup for the Qan, London, 2000), pomegranates are mentioned many times, particularly as of Western origin, for the manufacture of a syrup to be diluted and drunk, and in cooking as an ingredient of mudaqqaqat hamida, a stew of meatballs, herbs and condiments. To bring things up to date, pomegranate syrup is an essential ingredient of fesenjan, a tart stew of chicken and walnuts, in Iran today.

To return to the “Seljuk lemon-squeezer” in light of the above, it should now be relabelled as a Persian pomegranate-squeezer. Those devilish horns would be ideal for separating the seeds from the pith.

John Carswell’s latest book, ‘Mantai: City by the Sea’, co-edited with Siran Deraniyagala and Alan Graham (Linden Soft, £56), records excavations in Sri Lanka between 1980 and 1984 and is now available.

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