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Fort on food: fruit

Fort on food: fruit

by Matthew Fort 01 May 2014

Food writer Matthew Fort shares his musings on some of his favourite fruits, from the whimsical names of British apples to the sweetness of Scottish strawberries.

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Matthew is a source of infinite wisdom in the world of food.

Raspberries

I’ve always been a late or autumn raspberry man, myself. They seem to have a headier perfume, a fuller, richer flavour, fatter, juicier fruits, and come in greater numbers than early or summer raspberries. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for early raspberries, too, with their sharper, crisper edge, needing a heavier weight of cream (double; unpasteurised; Jersey; yellow as buttercups for preference) and sugar than the later arrivals. But I grow autumn raspberries for choice, and the canes are flowering nicely.

Himbo is the variety. It doesn’t much poetry about it, does Himbo. Not like Malling Admiral (late) or Malling Delight (early), Autumn Bliss (late), Glen Moy (early). But its flavour is up there with the finest, matching its copious production, which is not always the case. The deep scarlet fruits should be on song just when I get back from my holidays in September, finding their way into fools, tarts, jams, ice creams, sorbets or just plain with cream and sugar (see above) and even sometimes without cream.

There are also yellow raspberries (Golden Everest, Allgold) and even black or purple raspberries, I’m told. I suspect these to be raspberry frou-frou. I’ve always found yellow raspberries long on promise and short on delivery. They look pretty enough, particularly when mixed with their redder cousins, but their definitely lightweights when it comes to eating.

The finest raspberries I can ever remember eating were some I found growing wild on the banks of the River Spey in Scotland. I picked them into my hat, and ate them as a pudding after grilling a steak and frying up some chanterelles I had found near the raspberries in butter. The raspberries had a sweetness and intensity that lives in my memory.

NB Not to be confused with Tayberries, a blackberry/raspberry cross, loganberry (another blackberry/raspberry cross, named after Judge James Logan of Santa Cruz, California), or a host of other hybrids such as Dewberry, Boysenberry, Youngberry Tummelberry, Sunberry or Silvaberry.

The names of British apples have a certain poetry to them, a sense of fantasy. They are a testament to a peculiarly rich apple culture.

Apples

Ashmeads Kernel, Ellison’s Orange, Adam’s Pearmain, Beauty of Bath, Catshead, Peasgood Nonsuch – the names of British apples have a certain poetry to them, a sense of fantasy. They are a testament to a peculiarly rich apple culture. There are apples for eating (e.g. Ashmead’s Kernel, Chivers Delight, Cornish Gilliflower) there are apples for cooking (Newton’s Wonder, Howgate Wonder, Keswick Codlin). There are apples that are good for both cooking and eating (Gascoigne’s’ Scarlet, Hunter’s Majestic).

There are apples for turning into cider (King of Pippins, Kingston Black, Foxwhelp). There are apples that are indigenous to particular parts of the country (Tewkesbury Baron, Kerry Pippin, Taunton Nonpareil) and apples that have very precise seasons. There are sweet apples and tangy apples, savoury apples and apples that taste of aniseed. There are crunchy apples and soft, moussy apples, apples for every day and any day.

Of course, you might not know any of this by the tired selections served up by most supermarkets. Even chefs are partly to blame. Seemingly there is only one cooking apple, the blessed Bramley. At its best the Bramley can be a very fine apple, but how about trying Howgate Wonder or Cole’s Quince apple or the Galloway Pippin, for heaven’s sake.

Rhubarb

Rhubarb is a confusing plant. To start with, it wasn’t used as a kitchen ingredient at all. About 5000 years ago in China it was used as a drug for treating constipation. Or, to be more specific, the root was, and that’s how we first got to know it in Britain in the 18th century, Russian rhubarb being considered particularly efficacious. The rhubarb we know and love now was produced by hybridisation in the late 18th century.

Most confusing of all, rhubarb then it isn’t a fruit at all, although we treat it as such, but a vegetable masquerading as a fruit. (Although, further confusing matters, a court in New York in 1947 reclassified it as a fruit for the sake of regulations and duties in the USA). Most of this I learned from a brilliant and elegantly written little book, Rhubarbaria by Mary Prior (Prospect Books), well worth the modest investment, not least for some splendid recipes.

It was those energetic Victorians who propelled rhubarb up the ingredient ladder, producing varieties with such splendid names as Stockbridge Cropper, Stockbridge Guardsman, Hawkes’ Champagne, Cawood Delight, Fenton’s Special, Victoria, Prince Albert. Even a modern variety like Timperley Early has a certain Victorian resonance to it. It was the Victorians, too, who first came up with the rhubarb forcing trick in the Rhubarb Triangle (Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford and Rothwell), on account of the high quality of the soil and the proximity of abundant coal needed to heat the forcing sheds to the 55 to 65 F for the roots to prosper. Today the crop isn’t what it used to be when a train left Ardsley station loaded with up to 200 tonnes of rhubarb five days a week.

In that ingenious way with which produce is marketed, simple forced rhubarb has been rebranded in supermarkets as ‘champagne rhubarb’ (‘Champagne’ also a modern variety). Pink champagne rhubarb perhaps would be a better description, as its colour has a certainly unearthly luminous rosiness to it. Delicious though this early forced rhubarb is, and welcome as an exotic addition to the brighten the dreary palate of February ingredients, to my mind the delicacy of its flavour isn’t quite so striking as the stuff grown outdoors, which comes much later.

PS I’m sure you know, you can eat the stalk but not the leaves, which have such a high concentration of oxalic acid as to be pretty poisonous (although they are unlikely to kill you unless you eat Herculean amounts of them).

 
There is nothing in the commercial strawberry grower's box of tricks to match the explosive intensity of the ripe wild strawberries, which thoughtfully carpet odd corners of my garden with cheery promiscuity.

Strawberries

E.L Sturtevant (1842-1898) took a dim view of commercial strawberries. ‘The changes which have been produced, or have appeared, under cultivation seem comparatively few,’ he wrote. He reserved his fiercest strictures for the matter of flavour, improvements in which, he went on do ‘not seem to exceed that which occurs between natural varieties’.

I am with E.L on this. There is nothing in the commercial strawberry growers box of tricks to match the explosive intensity of the ripe wild strawberries, which thoughtfully carpet odd corners of my garden with cheery promiscuity. The only matters in which the modern commercial strawberry is superior are size and ease of picking. Gathering enough wild strawberries to satisfy even one modest appetite is a back-braking business, and, while chefs have not trouble is buys neat little boxes of them, the private citizen-cook has to grow their own, or go without.

That’s not say that the bigger strawberries are without their charms, particularly now that strawberry growers seem to have grasped the principle that size, shelf life and disease resistance aren’t the only criteria for growing. At long last flavour seems to be creeping back into the strawberry.

I don’t think it’s just my imagination, but the strawberry varieties of my youth – Talisman, Cambridge Vigour, and the greatest of all, Royal Sovereign – had a full richness of flavour, not to say bold romance in their names that somehow Redglow, Sallybright, Chayenne 3, or Surecrop.

Most ghastly of all is the dreaded Elsanta, a strawberry spawned by Plant Research International BV in 1975, the fruits of which appear to be composed of a new form of polystyrene, crisp as an unripe plum, with much the same charm. It worked – and still does; it continues to make up the bulk of midseason strawbs – well for the grower and the supermarket, being virtually indestructible as well as inedible.

However, this year I was tempted into buying a ‘punnet’, or whatever else you would call one of those plastic boxes, of Sonata. I bought them largely because they seemed to reverse the march towards uniform gigantism. I was agreeably surprised by its flavour. Perhaps it wasn’t the mightiest I’ve ever experienced, but it was clean and distinct, like the chiming of a bell. I wanted more, always a good sign. It may not be quite in the same class as the chef’s favourite, the French Garriguette, but it’s not half bad. The Garriguette, itself, far from being a strawberry whose origins date back to the mists of time, made it’s first appearance in the 1970s.

However, I am putting even Sonata to one side for the time being. In spite of tempest, flood and chilling damp, my brave wild strawberries are hesitantly ripening. Not in huge numbers, it’s true, but enough to fill a small bowl. I squeeze a little lemon juice over them, and then sprinkle with sugar and leave for an hour or so, a trick that works wonders with commercial strawberries, too. Then I stand by for detonations of the strawberry flavour that nature designed to pop away in my mouth.

NB. Strawberries go very well with rhubarb. It’s a tale of contrasting acidities

 
The fig has always a heavy symbolism about it. No wonder Adam and Eve got kicked out of the Garden of Eden for eating a fig. So much more likely than eating an apple, for heaven’s sake.

Figs

‘The proper way to eat a fig, in society,’ wrote DH Lawrence,

‘Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,

And open it so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled

four-petalled flower ……..

But the vulgar way

Is just to put your mouth to the crack and take out the flesh in just one bite.’

Yes, well. The fig has always a heavy symbolism about it. No wonder Adam and Eve got kicked out of the Garden of Eden for eating a fig. So much more likely than eating an apple, for heaven’s sake. I’m a one-bite kind of bloke. You can dress a fig up in a tart or a jam or dry it, stuff it with almonds and cinnamon and cover it with chocolate which they do in Southern Italy (ficchi al ciocolato), or even use it to dress up other things, but I still think a ripe fig taken from the tree and eaten on the spot is the sweetest and best. I can still remember the exquisite pleasure of a fig I picked from a tree hanging over a pond in my uncle’s house in the hills above Tivoli early one morning. The outside had been warmed by the early morning sun, but the fleshy inside was still cold from the cool night air. As you might expect from a fruit that has been grown and consumed all over the place since prehistoric times, there are dozens upon dozens of local varieties such as Croisic, Mission or Franciscana, Dottato or Cadota, Verdone or White Adriatic. Brown Turkey or Brunswick, Ventura and Zidi, each of which has its own passionate advocates.

As far as I can make out, all figs break down into three or possibly four basic types. There’s the Common Fig, which may be black outside and red within, or green-yellow on the outside and coral inside or even jade green outside and pink inside. There’s the Smyrna Fig (aka Calimyrna Fig in the USA). These are bigger than your average fig, amber inside and out, with a distinctive nutty favour when fresh, although you’re most likely to come across them dried. There are Caprifigs, which are wild figs. I don’t think you have to worry much about Caprifigs as they’re mostly used for breeding new varieties. And then there’s the San Pedro fig, which is a kind of Intermediate Fig.

Where all this gets us, I’m not too sure, as figs are almost as unpredictable as funghi in my experience, varying from tree to tree and from season to season. But when you find a fully ripe fruit, cracked open slightly underneath, with honied syrup oozing quietly from it, then it is one of the most sublime eating experiences anyone can have.

 

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