From peaches and apricots to plums and cherries, seasonal stone fruits are given a silky, sophisticated edge when cooked, says Tom Norrington-Davies.
The other week my greengrocer asked me if I’d like to try some donut peaches. I had no idea what he was talking about. “Is that their real name?”
I asked. “Wait until you see them,” he replied. Saturn (or, if you like, donut) peaches are slightly ‘squashed’ looking. The sweet flesh forms a loose ring around the stone, from which it literally falls away. Hence the nicknames. Saturn peaches are fantastic with young cheeses like ricotta, and even better with nutty Serrano-style hams.
Once upon a time, fruit like this would have been impossible to find further than a few miles from where it grew, at altitude, in the south of France. It is still a relatively rare treat now. The season is brief: a couple of months at the most. I also suspect its knobbly shape and easy bruising will keep it off most supermarket shelves. But, if you know where to look, you can usually find almost any fruit your heart desires.
Of all the foods we import, fruit is a firm favourite. We grow some of the finest apples and plums on the planet. Forced Yorkshire rhubarb and Scottish raspberries are world famous. But our summers are brief and our winters long. Being a trading nation, the UK has had its eye on more exotic stuff for a long time. Bananas started making their way to these shores in the 18th century. They were an instant hit, probably because they travelled well. Not everything did. Queen Victoria is rumoured to have offered a reward to anyone who could fetch her a mangosteen from Malaysia, and bring it home in an edible condition.
It is no surprise that the British became very good at cooking and bottling fruit. The local stuff needed to be eked out over the colder months, and the imports often needed preserving to get them here without going off. Today, with fruit being flown in, it has become almost unfashionable to cook it. Why poach an apple when you can juice it?
It is true that cooking fruit is no longer a necessity and, for me, that makes it more of a pleasure. I love the sharp fruits that need a good nudge in the direction of sweetness. Rhubarb and gooseberries are the best examples. But then there are those that I call the ‘lottery fruits’. Peaches or plums that do everything they are supposed to on the shelf. They look right, smell ripe, feel giving…then you get them home and they are delinquents: hard-hearted and bitter. These unpromising specimens can always be rescued with the gentle use of a classic syrup. That’s water, sugar and, maybe, a vanilla pod or a twist of lemon.
Not that fruit needs to be a disaster before you cook it. Sometimes, however much modern wisdom dictates eating it raw, cooked fruit is true comfort food. It’s soft and velvety instead of crunchy and zingy. What’s more, poaching some fruits and capturing their essence in a syrup can also intensify their flavour. The backseat, highly perfumed notes in stone fruit like plums, apricots and peaches can really come to the fore when they are cooked. It’s amazing how sophisticated such fruits can be, poached and served next to simple vanilla ice cream.
The following recipes will suit fruits that are perfectly ripe just as well as the delinquent types I have mentioned. You could also swap in dried, frozen or canned versions if any are not available fresh. The lamb recipe and the jelly will work with canned apricots or peaches. Americans have a sweet tooth, and the sugary hit of American cherry pie is best tempered with more sour, ‘cooking’ cherries. If these are hard to find fresh, use canned or frozen.
And, while we are on the subject of shopping, if your greengrocer, or nearest supermarket are not offering gooseberries this year, ask why on earth not! Let’s start a campaign to revive the fortunes of the poor, much maligned ‘green and hairy’ one.