Nine things

Sugar plums and fruity nut-casess

WE were having dinner with friends between Christmas and New Year and the talk, ranging from music to food via travel, alighted on fruit. We were enjoying a pudding of spiced quinces, and it set us all off reminiscing about our favourites, foraged wild plums and the revival of some neglected fruits. So here, to tickle your taste buds, are nine fruit stories. Some of the fruit grows in this country, others in more tropical regions, some are in season, some not. Several are drupes, members of the stone fruit group which includes peaches, nectarines and apricots. Some are nuts, others are berries … or are they?

Is it a drupe? Is it a berry?

The boundary between a drupe and a berry is not always clear. Raspberries, for example, are an aggregate fruit, composed of small, individual drupes – but we call them berries. It gets even more baffling when you get to avocados, a member of the genus Persea. Some sources describe Persea fruits – including the avocado – as a drupe. Others define the avocado as a berry.

Drupes are an astonishingly wide group of stone fruit. As well as the familiar prunus fruits (peaches, nectarines, apricots, cherries and plums), the genus includes almonds, coffee, jujube, mango, olive, pistachio, white sapote, cashew, and açaí, date, sabal and oil palms.

Quinces come from the same family as apples and pears, and similarly came west, thousands of years ago, from the great forests and fertile plains of central Asia (for the best description of the origins of the apple and walnut, do read Roger Deakin’s matchless final book, Wildwood). Some ancients called the fruit “golden apples” – so perhaps it was the innocent cause of the Trojan wars. Quinces were popular in England from medieval times, but fell out of fashion around 150 years ago. They have been revived relatively recently, partly because of the demand for membrillo (quince paste) to accompany a cheeseboard. They are very hard and cannot be eaten raw – the best way to cook them is to poach them in a sugar syrup with spices. They are fragrant and delicious, both in sweet and savoury dishes. Our New Year spiced quinces were served with toasted walnuts, maple syrup and mascarpone.

Bullaces are a small variety of wild plum. Unlike the dark blue, oval damson, bullaces are round and can be white (yellow or green) or black (blue or purple). The name may come from the Old French “beloce”, meaning “sloe.” In parts of Lincolnshire, wild plums were sometimes called “bullies” while a Wiltshire name for them is  “bullison”. We stayed at a Landmark Trust property in Suffolk some years ago, in an ancient hall house which had once been part of a farmstead. The other buildings had all crumbled or been demolished, but signs of the former inhabitants included a pond, overgrown rose bushes and trees heavy with little, yellow, round bullaces. They were quite sharp, but they made a very good crumble.

Mangoes, with their large flat pits, are drupes. Their gorgeous, juicy flesh and exotic colour and taste may seem a million miles from plums or cherries, but in botanical terms, they are a stone fruit. They originate from the area of present-day north west Myanmar, Bangladesh and north east India. Mango trees can grow to more than 130 ft high, and can live for more than 300 years.

Pecans are another unexpected drupe. These nuts, which look like small, dark walnuts, are natives of the American south and south west and Mexico. They have made themselves almost indispensable to anyone who likes eating or cooking with nuts – who doesn’t love pecan praline icecream, pecan pie or toasted pecans sprinkled on a rocket salad? But in fact they aren’t nuts at all. The pecan, a member of the hickory genus, is technically a drupe, a fruit with a single stone or pit, surrounded by a husk. (And in case you wondered, yes, walnuts are also drupes).

Another tropical fruit that we call a nut, but which is a fruit –  a drupe – is the coconut, one of the most important crops of the tropics. Coconuts are the edible fruit of the coconut palm, a member of the palm family. The delicious flesh can be processed into coconut milk or cream and the liquid inside the “nut” can be drunk. Harvested coconut yields copra, the dried extracted kernel or meat, from which coconut oil, a major vegetable oil, is expressed. Coir fibre, produced from the dry husk, is highly resistant to salt water and is used in the manufacture of ropes, mats, baskets, brushes, and brooms.

Sloes, for the forager, are an absolute delight. Very attractive with their dark blue-black bloomy skin, they produce a drink that is both beautiful and deeply alcoholic. As well as sloe gin, you can make sloe vodka, sloe brandy and sloe whisky – the proportions are approximately one litre of cheap gin or other spirit, 450 gr of sloes, and 250 gr of sugar. Some people say you shouldn’t pick the sloes until after the first frost – my experience is that they are fine once they are ripe, but do allow some weeks for the taste to mature, however tempting it is to start drinking your sloe gin as soon as it’s in the bottle. The sloe, prunus spinosa, also called blackthorn, is a flowering plant in the rose family. Folklore connected to sloe bushes, usually found in fairly ancient hedges, includes the term “blackthorn winter,” referring to an unusually cold snap in spring or early summer. Fun fact: don’t be tempted to chew the pit – it contains traces of hydrogen cyanide.

Medlars were once very popular in this country, but fell totally out of fashion in Victorian times. There were a few wild medlars where I grew up in the New Forest, but nobody knew what to do with them, and when my mother discovered that they had to be left to rot before they could be used, we all agreed we would leave them on the tree. The rotting process is called “bletting” and the recent slow return of the medlar is definitely to be welcomed. We have a green-fingered friend who grows all manner of fruit including medlars, and his partner, a brilliant chef, turns the bletted fruit into a subtle, fragrant jelly that is the ideal companion for game. Look out for this curious fruit and try it for yourselves.

Think about stone fruit at Christmas and you may picture the Sugar Plum Fairy, and her beautiful dance in Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker. But what are sugar plums? The original sugar plums, dating back to the 1600s, were hardened sugar balls surrounding a seed or nut. The sugar layers were added via a labour-intensive technique called panning, and the sweets were very expensive.

Nowadays sugar plum is the term used to describe a variety of self-pollinating Italian plums, botanical name Prunica domestica, which produce some of the finest prunes, because of their high sugar content. Perhaps the finest of all sugar plums are the Elvas plums, a seasonal delight which is largely forgotten these days, although you can still get them from Fortnum & Mason (where else?) These beautiful plums grown in the Elvas regionof Alentejo, in southern Portugal. Selected carefully and harvested in July, the plums are cooked and soaked in sugar for six weeks, then washed and sun-dried before being packaged. As a very special seasonal treat,  “sugar plum” was the perfect name for the fairy who ruled over the Kingdom of Sweets.

Finally, a last sweet treat: marron glaces are made from the finest chestnuts, and are still most closely associated with northern Italy and southern France. As confectionery they have an exceptionally long history. It is believed that candied chestnuts were first made in these chestnut-growing areas shortly after the crusaders returned to Europe with sugar. Marrons glacés – “glazed” – probably date from the 16th century. The earliest known recipe was created around 1580 by an Italian cook who worked for the Duke of Savoy.

Pictured: A coconut palm; Quinces; golden bullaces;  a mango tree; pecan pie; fruit or berry – an avocado tree; medlars in a Dorset orchard;  a box of Elvas plums; marrons glaces;  the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.