It’s just June and summer is threatening Washington. Like a big damp towel, the sky hangs over us and traps every breath. We are sweating without even the succor of summer fruit.
And along comes Nigel Slater’s book, Ripe, to torture me. Sexy close-ups of a louche blueberry pie, an apricot tart that glows like a monk’s illumination, embroideries of espaliered trees, apples that bob and bounce making me long for September—damn the peaches, full speed ahead!
Fruit defines every season for me—from winter’s clementines to crisp orchard apples in the fall, the first desperate strawberries of spring, and lush summer with peaches everyday. Coming off the low month of March, which I spend hunting up the last stored apples worth eating and suspiciously palpating Chilean stone fruit, Slater’s book is a trumpet call.
Another torture—gooseberries, medlars, sloe, and elderflowers—delectables I will never see, even at the farm market. At the most, I can score some quince at the Korean market. Even the more common fruits have varieties that only a home orchardist can achieve. We get lovely peaches at the farm market—but no particular varieties like the dark-skinned Kestrel, the yellow-fleshed Avalon, or the tangy Mericrest. These are names that could inspire a novel—Mirabelle de Nancy plums, Count Althann’s gages, Durondeau pears.
The recipes are grouped by fruit from apples to white currants. Some are as simple as Baked Apricots with Fresh Cheese, more of an impulse than instructions, and really the way one should react to stunningly fresh fruit. Others, like A Salad of Summer Leaves, Cured Pork, and Cherries, call on the full flower of creativity.
Slater even includes a few “and to go with” recipes like goat cheese and thyme scones or Brown Sugar Spice Cookies to go with pears.
Other recipes are exotic, not in a mysterious east way, but in a tea cozy and union jack way. A Scottish Raspberry Cranachan, sugar-toasted oats sprinkled over mashed berries with a sluice of cream, is not a dish you’d naturally land on or even dignify with a name, but once named, you can almost smell the heather.
Each fruit gets the full treatment, beginning with the author’s insights and memories, the fruit and all its varieties in the garden, then in the kitchen with all its complements–try gooseberries with honey, pork, mackerel, cream, or ginger.
Even if you can’t get medlars it’s impossible to be out of season with this book. And nobody can pull the poetry out of a plum the way Slater can. Curl up with descriptions of his urban London garden: the pleasure of his fig tree, the toasting chestnuts, his memories of gooseberry pie, and hold out for apple season.