Whenever I travel back to Italy, I gorge on fruit. My favourite season is the beginning of summer. In June you’ll get apricots and the first peaches and figs, but also cherries and the last strawberries. Don’t forget the not very popular abroad nespole. Also melons are present, even though not at their best yet. Autumn brings its share of pleasures: the end of the summer usually means the best figs, pears, prunes and peaches. The season evolves into grapes, apples and mandarins, and also in winter you can find comfort in oranges.
When I moved abroad I was disheartened. Fruit was almost all imported, which means expensive and flavorless. It is true that I could find rhubarb, but there is only that much rhubarb that a girl can enjoy. Spring arrived and went and no cherries made their appearance. I was ready to face a gloomy cherry-less summer. Also for strawberries, possibly my favourite fruit, I was ready for the season to come and go in a blink of eyes.
But how wrong I was. How wrong. Cherries did arrive, though later than in Italy, and they were worth the wait. Strawberries moved to production in Southern England to Wales (where I lived) to Scotland, but they lasted until the end of August and they were getting better and better. But my biggest mistake was, I had not considered all the other red fruits.
Red fruits are expensive in Italy and usually reserved for pastry; I eat mainly fruit as a snack and often as sustaining food, so I consume a substantial amount of it. As I used to spend my summer holidays in the Alps, foraging red fruits was one of our favourite activities. We ate blueberries, raspberries and the little, wild strawberries as soon as we picked them. In very lucky years we’d gather some to be eaten with whipped cream or wine as a dessert, and sometimes we’d even top a cream tart with them. At the end of Summer red currant would ripen properly. We had our secret place for it. We usually went to pick it up on the last morning before returning to town. It was not unusual to find it a bit frozen from the early bites of the incoming autumn. We’d come back with our rich bounty – differently from the other red fruits, it does not take very long to fill a big basket with red currant. Once back home, my mother would prepare jelly with it – my favourite jam possibly.
Both here and in the UK I discovered the pleasures of a northern Summer. Gooseberries, white and red. Currants, coming in red, black and white. Blueberries, raspberries. Especially in Germany, I now find little, flavourful sweet cherries, and the sour cherries, whose flavour vary from punnet to punnet according to the tree of origin. Also strawberries, melting sweetness that they are, can make you faint with their perfume on a hot day.
I can eat sour cherries to sickness all too easily. So I tend to cook with them to avoid this effect. I could not help dying for this recipe – but I just can’t bring myself to turn on an oven now (I’m eagerly watching the weather forecast in the hope to give it a try before it is too late). So I experimented instead with desserts you can prepare with minimal cooking. They are all very light, with just a little sugar since the fruit is very ripe. First I made a compote thickened with a little agar agar. I experiment with various degrees of thickness, and I decided I like a runny consistency best in the end. It makes a great sauce for everything, you can posh it up by serving it with little biscotti and cream at a dinner, or you can just eat it as it is.
Then I rescued from the back of my memory some recipes I had read a while ago from Skye Gyngell: preparing summer pudding just sounded like the ideal excuse to buy all the red fruit types I could find. Unfortunately at the market they were only left with strawberries and sour cherries, this week. The filling was then a bit on the sweet side, and I guess that red currants and blackberries would have added more variety. However the dessert turned very good, in a comforting way, and also extremely British. I was expecting a grown up dessert, while in the end the result is a bit like eating bread, butter and marmalade, especially if you are serving it with whipped – or even better, clotted – cream (I still can’t really get into the British habit of pouring single, liquid cream on everything, but if you are so inclined, that is indeed authentic). I won’t take this childhood quality as a negative point though. I did not think I could make comfort food with thirty-five degrees, but there you go.
Red Fruit Compote
Ingredients (makes 4-5 little pots)
500 gr mixed fruits with seeds, like currants, gooseberries, sour cherries
15 sour cherries
2 tablespoon brown sugar (or adjust to taste and ripeness of the fruits)
2 scant teaspoon agar agar
1/2 glass water
(optional, but nice) 3-4 cardamom pods
To serve: whipped cream
Add the mixed fruits to water, sugar and agar agar. Start with relatively little sugar, you can always add more later. Add also the cardamom pods, if using.
Make it boil until the fruits are soft but not overcooked, about 5-10 minutes. Pass through a sieve to get rid of any seeds, and taste adjusting the sugar to your tastes. Stone the cherries and cut the strawberries in two or four. Add a little fruit to the bottom of each pot. Pour in the liquid, allow it to cool at room temperature and let it rest in the fridge for at least a couple of hours.
Ingredients (serves four)
1 punnet sour cherries (about 500gr)
1 punnet strawberries (about 500gr)
100 gr granulated sugar
1/4 bar agar agar, or 1 teaspoon
about 10 slices good quality white bread, possibly enriched with butter and eggs (I used ‘butterstuten‘ from the market)
If using solid agar agar, soak it in cold water for ten minutes, then squeeze it crushing it with your hands, and make it melt with a little water in a pot. While the agar agar is soaking, remove the crust from the bread and line a pudding form with it (I did not have any, but I used a square plastic bowl and it worked quite well). Stone the cherries and make them boil with some sugar, to taste. Add also the melted agar agar, or if using powdered one, add it to the cold cherries. When the cherries have started releasing the juices, add strawberries, washed and cut. Leave a minute or two on the fire, then remove and pour on the bread box. The liquids should soak the bread. Cover the pudding with more bread slices. Press gently using a light weight, eg a dish. Leave it under weight until at room temperature, then let it sit in the fridge for a few hours. The pudding should have become reasonably solid. To unmold it, pass a knife on the edges between pudding and container: it should then spli out easily when turned. Serve with cream, to taste.