“You put the lime in the coconut, you drink ‘em both together…” Oops. That 1971 Harry Nilsson song may have to be rewritten. Substituting lemons for limes is all the rage, and not just as a new foodie fashion.
A leap in the price of limes imported from Mexico earlier this spring created a dilemma for chefs, bartenders, and any American who enjoys a squeeze of the tart citrus fruit in his or her Corona beer. According to the May 9 United States Department of Agriculture National Fruit and Vegetable Retail Report, the average cost of one lime is currently 43 cents; a year ago, the same lime was only 26 cents. It adds up quickly for restaurateurs and cocktail lounges.
A variety of factors have contributed to the price jump. Storms and droughts in the areas of Mexico from which more than 90 percent of the limes used across America come from, coupled with the spread of the citrus disease, huanglongbing, affected the output. Added to that was the strong-arming of lime farmers and exporters by drug cartels eager to benefit from the high prices.
Locally, food industry business people have felt the sting of the lime prices in varying ways. Angelo Marini of Sal e Pepe Contemporary Italian Bistro on South Main Street has seen a 110 percent increase in the price of limes he buys for his business. Because the use of limes at Sal e Pepe is primarily in the bar area, he has opted to absorb the increased cost for now, rather than pass it on to customers. To minimize waste, he has asked bartenders to cut only what is needed per shift.
In Bethel, Loree’s Catering has not yet felt the pain of increased prices or less availability, said owner Loree Ogan. If challenged, however, she suggested that cooks opt to stretch fresh lime juice with bottled, at a ratio of one-third bottled to two-third fresh lime juice. It is a tip that works with cooking, she cautioned, but not so well with mixed drinks.
“We go through a lot of limes here,” said Chris Bruno, owner of Foundry Kitchen & Tavern in Sandy Hook. “We have the standards with which we have to offer limes, like our Margarita, or the gin and tonic,” he said. A gin and tonic, he pointed out, is just not the same without a lime garnish. The Foundry has made a point of developing new, lime-free drinks, Mr Bruno said.
The Foundry did put a moratorium on using lime garnishes for a couple of weeks this spring, but not because of the tripling of the price the pasts four months. “It was a quality issue, so we stopped using them,” he said. The quality has stabilized now, though, and limes have returned to the edges of the cocktail glasses.
Because they do their menus in-house, The Foundry is able to adjust the menu to accommodate fluctuations in the market, such as this lime issue, Mr Bruno said. “Some things, like our Smoked Jalepeno Salsa, we don’t want to alter the recipe. Unfortunately, in this economy, the guest isn’t willing to pay the higher price difference on something like a lime, so we don’t pass [the higher cost] on to them. But we’re nimble. We can move with the market,” he said.
The saddest thing about this spring’s soaring lime prices, Mr Bruno said, is that it will result in a new price threshold, even after the lime production returns to normal. “We won’t see the prices we saw [before this winter] ever again,” he predicted.
While numerous news agencies posted alarming stories about the scarcity and high price of limes in February and March, April and May brought more assuring news from The New York Times and CNN Money, both of which noted that lime prices were already dropping and that seasonal late winter surges in price were not uncommon.
Jay Lanza, bartender at McGuire’s Ale House in Newtown, said that they have no problems right now getting limes and have not experienced any substantial increase in price from his provider. “We just cut ‘em up. If the drink calls for lime, we put it in,” he said.
Get the coconuts ready. There might be limes to add, after all.