Finger limes (Citrus australasica) are a small, elongated, mini-cigar shaped fruit, around 8cm in length. This variety is indigenous to a particular region of the northeast coast of New South Wales and southeast Queensland. They can weigh as little as five grams each, with small caviar-sized pearls of flesh. Unlike most other varieties of other citrus fruit, there is no internal pith, segmentation or seeds, and the individual pearls of fruit can be scooped out with a teaspoon. In its native habitat, in can produce fruit all year round, with a major fruiting period in mid-summer, from January to March in the southern hemisphere.
It must be harvested by hand, with great care taken in order to avoid the plant’s sharp spikes. Its flavor is slightly sweeter than a lemon, without the sharp acidity. Its individual, tiny juice vesicles, or “pearls,” explode in the mouth, releasing a most pleasing citrus flavor-burst on the tongue. It resembles the effect of eating fish roe, and is often described as “citrus caviar.” It is indeed a unique experience, which is increasingly being favored by chefs.
This species, one of six Australian native citruses, existed in Gondwana (the former supercontinent containing the landmasses of today’s southern hemisphere) millions of years ago. It would have been harvested and eaten by the continent’s first human populations, the Aborigines, who arrived on the continent between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago. With the colonization by Europeans in the early 19th century, the bushes on which the finger limes grew - with their sharp spiky thorns - were cleared to make way for European agriculture, endangering their existence. It is only within the past decade that it has been recognized by growers and chefs for its potential to be a truly wonderful gastronomic product. It is currently largely cultivated in the Byron Bay and Bangalow area of northern New South Wales.
It is still now only grown by a very limited number of horticulturalists specializing in Australian native species, locally known as “bush tucker“ specialists. There is a cooperative of fifteen growers in New South Wales. Without more attention, finger limes risk disappearing due to land clearance for introduced agriculture or to establish grazing land for European dairy cattle.