In a new series, food writer, historian and host of the Borough Market Cookbook Club Angela Clutton explores the history and techniques behind the methods she uses to conserve Market produce. This month: preserving fruit
Words: Angela Clutton
An abundance of wonderful fruits is, I think, autumn’s best solace for the end of summer: the plum, pear, apple and quince prizes of the orchard harvest; blackberries, and the last of the peaches and raspberries—all are ripe for enjoying fresh, but also ripe for their flavour possibilities to be harnessed, preserved and then reinvented in all kinds of fabulous ways.
Doing just that was the only option for our culinary ancestors wanting both to avoid waste and enjoy fruit right through the winter. Commercial production and storage processes now allow us to enjoy the fresh fruit harvest for longer, but ignoring the value those old preserving skills can bring to the modern kitchen and plate seems really just a different kind of waste.
Most obviously (the clue is in the title, afterall) were / are fruit preserves. Jams and jellies too. Less obvious, but perhaps also less likely to keep being pushed to the back of the shelf, are fruit cheeses and butters—autumn traditions that go back hundreds of years.
These are, thankfully, not fruit-flavoured cheese or butter. Apple, quince, plum or damson cheeses are cooked-down pureed fruit, simmered with its weight in sugar until so thick a spoon drawn through leaves a clean line behind it. The puree is then cooled and left for the flavour to mature, then sliced (like cheese—get it?) to have with cold meats or strong cheese, or maybe cut into small pieces and rolled in granulated sugar for something sweet with a coffee.
A hot crumpet
Of more everyday use for topping toast, porridge and the like are the spreadable fruit ‘butters’, which are made in the same way as the cheeses but with half the sugar. There isn’t a rainy afternoon that can’t be cheered up by a hot crumpet with crab-apple butter soaking deep into its pockets and a rasher of bacon on top.
Then there are cordials or syrups, made using the strained juices of crushed berries, cooked with sugar. Victorian households loved to make them up into hot or cold drinks, or try them in cocktails, drizzled over madeira sponge that will soak up the fruity sweetness, or over ice-cream.
I know—it’s all quite sugar-tastic. Sugar is so often portrayed as the culinary bad guy, but it does an important job when it comes to preserving. It gets a helping hand from alcohol in what I think is the most pleasing, versatile, and certainly easiest way of all for prolonging the fruit harvest: storing fruits in brandy, rum, vodka or gin.
It’s as simple as this for soft fruits like plums or nectarines: put the halved fruit in a storage jar, sprinkle over sugar, then cover with whatever tipple tickles your fancy. Left alone for a few months, the result is a one-stop bottle of boozy fruits and fruity booze.
The cook’s advantage
Hard fruits admittedly take slightly more ‘doing’, but even that is to the cook’s advantage. My recipe for pears in calvados tenderises the fruit in a dark syrup infused with bay leaves, peppercorns and cracked cardamom pods, which gives depth and a balance of flavours to both the pears and the calvados. It becomes the quickest of stand-by desserts when served with ice-cream or meringues.
No need to stop there, though. Use them to take batter puddings, sponge cakes, crumbles, trifles or tarts to another level, or heat the fruits through and serve with game. The sweetly fruity alcohol is delicious to drink alongside whatever you do with its fruit partner. Bear in mind, too, that cocktails will benefit from the alcohol’s newly-acquired layers of flavour.
‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ is a phrase that’s more than just a cliche at this time of year. While preserving is a choice rather than necessity for us, it is a choice worth making, to ensure this season’s fruits are indulged in to the max.