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Romancing the stone

Categories: Reflections and opinions

Sybil Kapoor on her fascination with peaches, nectarines and apricots

Sybil KapoorAs summer deepens, plump apricots begin to appear in the Market, followed by dusky peaches and fragrant nectarines. Few of us can resist such delicious fruit, filled as they are with associations of happiness and summer holidays. I still remember biting into a ripe peach in Rome. I was 13. Its flavour was so intense, I felt as though I’d never tasted a peach before.

The first apricots and peaches often need to be cooked as they are not always as succulent as you’d like, but as summer advances they become increasingly sweet and juicy and need minimal work. Perhaps a little apricot sorbet, or maybe some nectarines sliced into a lemon and vanilla syrup with redcurrants and raspberries.

Simplicity in cooking is a great art, and an often underrated one. There are those who believe that if something is complicated, it must be better. It takes great confidence to serve food simply. It also takes ability, as any fault, from bad technique or poor quality ingredients, is instantly apparent.

Can you imagine the contestants of a TV cookery competition being applauded for serving an apricot and rosewater pie with clotted cream? No, that would seem too plain. They would be expected to add other elements to show off their culinary skills: a garnish of raspberry coulis, a scattering of fresh raspberries, a drizzle of cardamom-infused custard.

Cooling clotted cream
Yet the combination of buttery puff pastry, luscious rose-scented apricots and cooling clotted cream is heavenly. It needs nothing else; adding other elements merely detracts from the dish.

But simplicity has its restrictions. There are only so many permutations that taste good, so it can be hard to think up new ideas. One way I spark my imagination is by looking at ingredients in a fresh light.

 Imagine, for a moment, that when you pick up a peach, you are also holding a golden thread between your fingers that draws you back through time. It will take you through ornate Victorian hot houses, along warm brick walls of 17th century English country gardens, and across the rolling seas to the gardens of France and Italy, whence peach trees were collected for the likes of Henry VIII.

Tug a little and the thread will guide you further back in time to the Romans, who even left their peach stones on the old waterfront of New Fresh Wharf, just south of Upper Thames Street in London. They first started cultivating them in 100AD, perhaps inspired by the Greeks who had been growing them since around 300BC.

Fertile Crescent
The thread continues back, weaving its way into Alexander the Great’s journeys. He would have passed the wonderful fruit gardens in the Persian area of the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, filled with peach, apricot and pomegranate trees.

The Assyrians and Babylonians had been cultivating peaches for centuries. Far back in 1400BC the Egyptians were offering peaches to the God of tranquillity. Follow the thread still further and you will find yourself crossing the mountains of what became the Silk Road, deep into ancient China with its myriad different types of wild peach trees—both smooth and velvet-skinned.

More than 4,000 years ago, the Chinese were cultivating their wild peach trees to create clingstone peaches, tiny flat peaches, white, red and yellow peaches and nectarines. Imagine eating their rosy-cheeked snow peaches, for example, the sweet juicy white flesh of which is almost as crisp as an apple.

Warm October sunshine
These delicately-flavoured peaches taste sublime in the warm October sunshine outside Lijiang in Yunnan, yet I’ve never seen them in Europe.

A single peach resonates with countless echoes of the ages. Draw on these to create wonderful new dishes that conjure up romantic images of Persia, China, Afghanistan, Greece, Italy or France. Peel, stone and puree your peach with lemon juice, rosewater and sugar syrup, for example, then pour over crushed ice to create a Persian-inspired sherbet.

On a sultry summer’s evening, adopt the Chinese fashion of serving some exquisite, perfectly ripe, chilled sliced fruit at the end of the meal. Perhaps a selection of nectarines and peaches with a slice or two of fragrant melon.

Or take inspiration from the subtle spicing of Afghani food, as suggested by Helen Saberi in her book Noshe Djan, and flavour a peach (or apricot) chutney with nigella seeds, ginger and chilli.

Simple variations
The possibilities are endless, as you will discover if you flick through the pages of Escoffier’s The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery. At the beginning of the 20th century, he lists delicious, simple variations of peaches (or nectarines) poached in vanilla syrup, all served with vanilla ice cream but topped with crystallised violets, or strawberry or raspberry puree and spun sugar.

The same search for stimulus can be applied to apricots. They too originated in China and followed a similar trail into the old world. Their superb drying qualities ensured that they were traded across great distances, although they only started to be widely grown in England in the latter part of the 16th century.

By 1769, Elizabeth Raffald was combining her peeled apricots with sugar to create a surprising range of different textured sweetmeats. She dried them (sugared), turned them into paste (fruit leather), preserved them in syrup, and made apricot marmalade (fruit cheese).

You can slip into classic French or Italian mode and turn your apricots into pretty tarts, fragile soufflés, rippled mousses, sorbets and ice cream. They can be transformed into wonderful fruit syrups or liqueurs. If you’re following this 20th century path, line your tarts with almond or hazelnut frangipane and flavour your iced soufflé with a dash of kirsch.

Capture the zeitgeist
Should, however, you wish to create new 21st century British dishes then you must analyse the taste, texture and flavour of your apricots or peaches, before trying to capture the zeitgeist of the moment.

For me, slices of fresh peach or nectarine mixed with some bitter lettuce leaves, cucumber and red onion, dressed in lime, fresh chilli and olive oil taste of now, especially if served with a smoky paprika and dried garlic spiced grilled fish.

As to the apricots, I love apricot fool, but with the cleanest of tastes; in other words, the apricots are cooked, pureed and sweetened, before being folded into whipped cream and flavoured with a little quetsch (plum eau de vie) or kirsch.

If they’re perfect, they’re also delicious finely sliced and served with a little sweetened fromage frais or even a homemade crème de coeur. Purity, as always, is everything.