Sunday, 23 October 2011

Good things to eat (volume 7): in praise of British fruit

I've been thinking a lot about fruit recently. I've been thinking about all of the wonderful fruits that we grow in Britain, and have come to the conclusion that they're the best in the world.

I think British fruit is often under-rated, playing second fiddle to Mediterranean and tropical imports. Melons, bananas, grapes, pineapples and mangoes to name a few. I love all of these, but I'd be happy for them never to darken these shores again as long as we can keep whatever will grow in our fickle climate.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

We have the finest apples. I'm in no doubt whatsoever about this. Fantastic baked alone or in a pie or crumble, or perhaps with cheese, but I like apples best of all on their own. A Cox's orange pippin in good condition cannot be beaten. Crisp, tart and juicy with a complex flavour, I absolutely love them. Why we import so many dull, one note apples from all corners of the globe is beyond me. I like to take them on walks. Eating a good English apple on a brisk, bright autumn day on open moorland it feels wonderful to be alive. Try the same combination with a guava. It won't work.

We have all of the best berries. Blackberries, strawberries, elderberries, gooseberries, bilberries and my favourite of all, raspberries. Blackberries, elderberries and bilberries grow wild all over the place, so have the added bonus of being completely free.

Bilberries are rather obscure (I've never seen them in the supermarket), but also rather wonderful. They grow on small, scrubby bushes on moorland all over the Pennines. My grandparents used to pick them with the assistance of a special rake-like device for scooping them off the bush, then my Grandma would bake them in pies. The pie would have a very short, sweet pastry crust (probably about 2 parts each butter and sugar to 1 part flour) and an oozing, dark purple filling, the bilberries reduced to a rich fruit mush. This would be served with pouring cream, which mingled with the juices and formed colours from violet through crimson to pink on the plate. Not that I ever paid much attention to the colours, too busy was I shovelling the delicious stuff into my mouth. One of my best and most vivid childhood food memories.

The raspberry, for me, is the finest berry of the lot. I've already featured raspberries on the blog here, so I won't waffle on about them any longer.

Elderberries are good too, and best made into jams or jellies. My Mum has made plenty of these over the years, and they always go down a treat spread on hot buttered toast or stirred through rice pudding.

Photo credit: Blacklands Plants

Blackberries and gooseberries I would lump together with rhubarb in a special category that I'm going to call 'the crumble fruits'. Either alone or alongside apples, each of these is best eaten cooked with a buttery, sugary crumb topping. I can't even decide which is my favourite, although I may be leaning towards the greater acidity of rhubarb or the gooseberry. Any fruit that is borderline inedible due to its mouth-puckering acidity makes a great crumble. Rhubarb deserves a special mention on this blog, because I live right in the Rhubarb Triangle, and also because I love it for being more the stalk of a weed than a fruit in the traditional sense. What tastier weeds are there?

Having said all that, one of the things that got me thinking about fruit was the discovery of a pretender to the throne for 'King of the crumble fruits'. The damson. I found them on Otley farmers market last month, so bought a bag full. The whole lot went in a crumble and wow was it good. As good as anything else I've cooked this year. I guessed how much sugar to use and got lucky. The damsons have a wonderful hint of bitterness to them, with quite a dark, tannin-y fruit flavour. This was offset by just the right amount of sweetness resulting in a taste that sort of reminded me of good quality chocolate, bittersweet yet fruity. The photo doesn't do it justice, it was fantastic.

Photo credit:

Pears. I always think of pears as a sort of sister fruit to apples, but you have a much smaller window of opportunity with a pear. They don't keep for half as long, progressing from rock solid to mealy and horrid before you know it. Catch one at the peak of ripeness though, and they are up there with the best. Almost bursting with sweet, fragrant juice the best way to eat them is also on their own, with a ready supply of tissues.

Photo credit: BBC Good Food

I haven't even mentioned currants yet. Probably because I forgot about them when thinking of berries, which is probably the heading they should come under. Blackcurrants and redcurrants and whitecurrants. Two things spring to mind when thinking of these. Ribena and summer pudding. Summer pudding proves that British fruits other than strawberries are for hot weather too, it's not all crumbles and Autumnal hiking. What better end could you have to a meal eaten outdoors on a warm afternoon than a fat wedge of tart summer pudding leaking crimson juice and a huge dollop of thick cream.

So it tastes good, but some of those exciting tropical upstart fruits taste pretty good too, so what else makes British fruit best? A sense of time and place certainly comes into this. Native foodstuffs just feel right eaten in the landscape and climate in which they grew. To varying degrees this applies to any food, but especially so to fruit. Tomatoes and aubergines are always going to taste better in a Mediterranean country, but I wouldn't want to cook without them in Britain. A good steak suits any climate, it's how you serve it that might differ. Salad and a squeeze of lemon somewhere hot, frites and a peppercorn sauce somewhere cooler. But with fruit local is always better. If I lived on a tropical beach I'm sure coconuts and papayas and pineapples would be my favourite, but I don't so I'm sticking with apples and pears and berries.

Having re-read what I've just written so far it seems there is a third important factor: a tendency to work well in recipes containing lots of butter. There was me thinking I'm writing an unusually healthy post about beautiful, healthy, life-giving fruit, when all along I'm subconsciously thinking of ways to eat more butter. Oh well.

So British fruit is best because it tastes great, because it's the perfect match to our weather and landscapes, and because there are loads of recipes in which it marries perfectly with butter.

What do you think? Is British fruit best? Which is your favourite British fruit? And finally, and of course most importantly, which is the 'King of the crumble fruits'?


j said...

Good piece, well said!

Luckily, as long as you take the time to scout around the markets you can still get some cracking examples of British fruit… from the soft fruit heartlands of eastern Scotland, through the Cumbrian damson dales to the warm apples and pears of the south. Supermarkets have a lot to answer for, limiting consumer choice and making so many people forget our fruit heritage…

Yorkshire rhubarb as absolutely bloody wonderful stuff… can't get enough of it! And over this way they call bilberries whimberries, so I believe. They do make a brilliant pie, don't they?

Clare said...

Lovely post. Really enjoyed the read. Now I need to make a crumble!

Anonymous said...

I'm completely with you on the joys of British fruits. There's no doubt they're thin on the ground on the supermarkets and so I'm growing as much as I can - gooseberries, currants, raspberries, apples, pears and of course rhubarb. I too am in the triangle. And I need a damson tree.... They're all really easy to grow and so much better and cheaper than the shop bought.

Dave said...

Thanks all for your comments.

j - whilst writing this post I discovered there are loads of different names for bilberries. Whimberries, whortleberries and all sorts!

Clare - I've had crumbles on the brain permanently since writing this. They won't go away..

readyplanted - I've heard fruit bushes are really easy for the green fingered, unfortunately my gardening skills are terrible.

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