The forgotten kitchen: compote

Categories: History of food

In the latest in her series on cooking methods and foodstuffs that have fallen from favour over the years, food writer and historian Bee Wilson asks whether we’ve forgotten how to stew fruit

“It’s like a jam, but with less sugar. People make it from cherries or apricots or any kind of fruit. It’s lovely on yoghurt for breakfast.” I was trying to explain to my seven year-old what ‘compote’ means. But—as so often when he starts his relentless questions—I realised I was out of my depth. What actually is a compote?

Browsing historic recipes, the first surprise was that so many of them were for ‘pigeon compote’. This wasn’t what I had in mind. “Take six young pidgeons and skewer them,” starts Mrs Raffald’s recipe for compote in 1769, which probably wouldn’t enhance your morning bowl of yoghurt. Then again, the word ‘compote’—from the Old French ‘composte’—simply means combination. So in theory, a compote could be a stew of anything, whether meat or fruit.

But fruit compotes go back a long way. For as long as there has been seasonal fruit and sugar in the kitchen, there have been cooks who combined the two into sweet, jammy mixtures. I found a lovely example in A Book of Fruit and Flowers from 1653. It advises taking a few handfuls of “worser” gooseberries and boiling them into a syrup with sugar before using this liquor as a preserving bath for “the fairest Gooseberries”. Gooseberries in gooseberry syrup is a pleasing thought. In 1693, the gardener and cook John Evelyn was writing about compotes as “Fruit stew’d in sugar, after a manner peculiar to the French”.

Melon in vinegar
By Victorian times, compotes regularly featured in cookbooks. There were currant compotes and cherry compotes, peach compotes and green apricot compotes. They were served in glass bowls called compôtiers which look like trifle dishes. Apart from the fruit, the key element in a compote was the syrup. In a book by Lady Charlotte Campbell Bury in 1844, I found an interesting ‘melon compote’ that sounds more like the Italian mostarda di frutta. The melon is soaked in vinegar for 10 days, then stewed with cinnamon and cloves and preserved in a jar with syrup.

Most compotes were simpler: fruit cooked or macerated in syrup. (Mrs Marshall added maraschino to her strawberry compote.) Eliza Acton pointed out in 1845 that a compote was more “delicious and refreshing” than the common “stewed fruit” of English cookery. For feasts, Acton noted, the syrup should be made even sweeter, to “increase the transparency of the fruit”.  Sometimes compotes were served hot and sometimes cold, but they were always very syrupy. The fruit syrup might be boiled down to an even sweeter syrup and poured over the cooked fruit.

Like flies in amber
Oh my word, but compotes were sweet (so much for my ‘less sugar’ idea). In 1936, Jessie Conrad, wife of Joseph Conrad, made a cherry compote calling for half a pound of sugar to 2 pounds of cherries. Even allowing for the probability that Conrad was using sour cooking cherries, this is still vastly sugary. Compare and contrast with a typical modern compote—such as David Lebovitz’s plum and raspberry compote from My Paris Kitchen, which requires just 2 tbsp sugar for 680g plums baked in the oven, with 115g raspberries added at the end.

People have long enjoyed simple desserts of fruit cooked with sugar. The difference is that now we think the way to capture the fruit’s essence is to sweeten it as little as possible, while in the past, compote-makers felt that to dignify a fruit, you should suspend it in syrup, like flies in amber.  Suddenly, I understood the tinned peaches in heavy syrup of my childhood. Sure, they seem dowdy now. But once, they held an echo of the allure of compote.

Click here to find Bee’s version of a Victorian compote.