French melons and plums

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Farmers’ markets often offer an enticing variety beyond the anemic choice offered at the local supermarket or even big-box convenience stores. The one I like to visit as part of my lazy Sunday ritual has a good mixture of vendors selling baked goods, fruits, vegetables, meats, and seafood. One or two vendors always bring uncommon and rare varieties of fruit that are usually easily bought in Europe. I still haven’t found anyone in US growing those aromatic sweet gariguette strawberries I saw and ate in Paris. However, in the last month or so I was excited to find French melons and plums.

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Translated to ‘Little Gray of Rennes’, Cucumis melo ‘Petit Gris De Rennes’ originated in the garden of the Bishop of Rennes nearly four hundred years ago. Its astonishing survival to the present day is unquestionably due to its fantastic brilliant. Amy Goldman writes enthusiastically about ‘Petit Gris De Rennes’ in Melons for the Passionate Grower (2002): “The Petit Gris de Rennes is so good it gives me the chills. As wonderful as Charentais is, Petit goes a baby step further, making it la creme la creme of French melons. You will blink your eyes with disbelief when you sample its sweetness, which is more like brown sugar than white. it will melt on your tongue, and your mouth will water for more.” Her enthusiasm is not unfounded for my friends and I just closed our eyes, incredulous at the intense flavor of its orange flesh. My friend’s father could not stop talking about the melon long after he had a taste. Unless you grow the melon yourself, having one to taste is not easy. One Sunday, Tom Culton of Culton Organics happened to have a stack of mixed melons, one of which was ‘Petit Gris De Rennes’, whose fragrance filled the warm brick quarters of the Headhouse in Society Hill. Seeing them set my heart racing, although $5.00 per melon was expensive at first. Goldman goes on to reveal that in France, the melon is grafted onto squash rootstock for Fusarium resistance and trained against the glasshouse walls to protect the fruits. There is even a syndicate of growers headed by Marie-Thérèse Rescan that sets the standards by which ‘Petit Gris De Rennes’ are grown.

Picking ‘Petit Gris De Rennes’ at its optimal ripeness means paying attention when the speckled gray-green skin loses its indumentum and becomes suffused with mustard. The perfume becomes more pronounced at this stage, and sometimes the fruit will slip off without effort from the vine.

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From the Poitou-Charentes region of western France is Charentais whose flesh is equally ambrosial as ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ and reportedly delicious with prosciutto or simply drizzled with port. The Charentais lacks the distinctive netting of the typical cantaloupes in United States for its rind is smooth and creamy white except for the green ridges that mark the quarters. It is not a large-sized variety since one can easily fit the palm of an adult’s hand, but size is independent of flavor (just like those fraises des bois). Charentais is not as easy as ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ to grow since the vines are highly susceptible to powdery mildew and the right combination of light, heat, and moisture can influence the taste of the ripening fruit. The fruits do not always slip when they are ripe, therefore the best telltale method is to lift them close to the nose for any perceptible aroma. If the aroma is perfumed and the skin having a light radiant glow, then the fruit is ready for harvesting. It does call for some patience and experience.

Once you sample these French melons, it’s easy to understand why Montaigne said,  “Je ne suis excessivement desireux ny de salades, ny de fruits, sauf les melons (I am not excessively fond of salads or of fruits, except melons.).” 

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Melons are not only fruits that the French and other Europeans seem to excel in growing and eating. Plums, essentially small European varieties, do not seem to be popular here in US as they are in Europe where people enjoy them in tarts and liquors. One of the plums I enjoyed eating in Europe and Australia was the mirabelle plum, recognizable by its oval shape about the size of a quail’s egg and dark yellow flecked with orange. The Lorraine region in France is considered the center of world production for mirabelle plums, and the European Union has recognized the mirabelle de Lorraine as a geographically distinctive product. The mirabelle de Lorraine is even accorded its festival complete with foods, a parade, and the coronation of the Mirabelle Queen during August in Metz. I was excited to find them sold at the farmers’ market in Philadelphia and purchased 3 lbs for a tart. The plums had excellent flavor – not cloying sweet like those hyped plucots, but sweet enough with some acid tang. So possessive was I over them that I refused to share them when friends asked for a sample.

~Eric

Summery Sunshine from a Fruit Tree: Apricots

 

At a farmstand known for its stone fruits, red nectarines seduce the eye with their color as much as the scent for their noses

At a farmstand known for its stone fruits, red nectarines seduce the eye with their color as much as the scent for their noses

Having eaten my fill from PYO farms and farmers’ market, I am a self-confessed peach and nectarine evangelist. One summer, I thought nothing ludicrous about driving 35 to 40 minutes to a local farm for peaches and nectarines. One can find me now in the farmers’ market holding each fruit close to the nose for scent and prodding it with a finger to test for ripeness. I always select a few ready for immediate eating and others, firmer in shape, for baking or future ripening. Use too soft fruit and one risks having a fibrous, but nonetheless delicious and sweet mess in the baked goods. Summer too brings fresh apricots, which are a welcome change from dried apricots all year long.

Tasmanian Apricots on Tree

Now apricots are accorded the same heroic worship after living in Tasmania. Californian apricots sold in East Coast US supermarkets were rarely flavorsome or even palpable with texture cotton wool-like and sparingly dry. Recently I have found salvation in organic apricots from Washington State sold in Whole Foods, and to limited degree, those from the Red Jacket Orchards in upstate New York. The trouble with apricots in the East Coast is how prone they are to pests and diseases (one Pennsylvanian grower bemoaned how susceptible the trees were to disease, especially brown rot). If the pests and diseases don’t befall the trees, then spring frosts can easily wipe one year’s crop. Apricots do best in Mediterranean climates where the dry heat ripens the fruit fully and wards off the diseases, and with its warm dry days and cool nights, Tasmania has the ideal climate.

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In early January, the first of Tasmanian apricots coincides with the dark cherries, providing ample inspiration and motivation to search or concoct interesting recipes for these stone fruits. Although the season is prolonged by growing different cultivars, it is still gloriously short, requiring one to preserve the glut in various forms. Many a Tasmanian country pantry is not without apricot jam or apricot preserves. Even the wharf upon which the old jam factory sits is made up of countless apricot stones. Fruit jams are often too sweet for my taste, but apricot jam has that exquisite balance of tanginess and sweetness. “Eating apricot jam is having sunshine in a jar,” I enthused to a friend after slathering the jam on my morning toast. A buttery croissant torn and dipped in apricot jam may land you in trouble with the healthy-eating brigade, but the flaky pastry interlaced with flecks of apricot jam is a gastronomic delight of sunny proportions. And the preserves beg for cream – ice cream, custard, and whipped cream.

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“The flesh is commonly less juicy than that of the peach, and as a rule, perhaps of higher quality,” Wickson writes in L.H. Bailey’s The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture.” What the apricot lacks in juice, it compensates in flavour. Hold a perfect apricot close to the nose, and a honeyed fragrance hints at the ambrosial delights awaiting the taste buds. The fibrous orange flesh is soft, yielding nectar without resistance when eaten. I can think nothing comparable apart from a peach or nectarine plucked from a tree. It is no mystery why Shakespeare, like his fellow Europeans, alludes to them as aphrodisiacs in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. A perfect apricot is surprisingly hard to come by unless you are a fortunate beneficiary of a bountiful tree or a neighbour’s excess harvest. The ones in supermarkets have deceptive appearances – all golden smudged with rouge on their cheeks, only to taste like wet cardboard inside. Cooking tames them into submission as heat transforms the unyielding flesh into something more palatable and delectable. The hard ones can be halved and baked with lemon juice and sugar, eating them later with pistachios and yoghurt. Poaching them in sugar syrup does the trick as well. Sometimes I puree and blend the cooked fruits with custard to make apricot ice cream. In all, apricots enhance the reputation of stone fruits having versatile uses, and having access to Tasmanian ones has excited me.

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Few Tasmanian orchards are without one or two apricot trees. Sometimes I pause to admire them – a large one used to grow at my rental place, and I take a detour on the way home to visit a tree in another garden. A mature, healthy apricot tree is a handsome tree in blossom, leaf, and fruit. It does not have the awkward gait of an ancient apple tree or the gangly stature of a pear tree. Instead, the tree spreads out its crown evenly and uniformly round. The dark bark is reminiscent of peach, scaly and furrowed, but smooth where the tissue have not ossified. Flush with orange in youth, the broad, dark green leaves fill out in circles, tapering towards their tips. They have no resemblance to the anaemic, sickle-shaped leaves of the peach or nectarine. Unripe, the fruit are smooth and jade-hued like the celadon vases that once graced the dwellings of Chinese and Korean nobility. They demurely hide behind the leaves, biding their time until sunshine teases out the crimson and golden shades, which rival those of a subtropical mango. Like jewels, the ripe fruit gleam against the lustrous leaves, making a tree look decorated for the festive season. Even the stones are spare in their simple flatness and grey-brown smoothness, not intricate and deeply incised like those in some stone fruits. In its last adieu to the growing season, the tree turns golden to yellow orange in autumn.

By no means am I alone in my reverence for apricots, which have been valued since antiquity. Their emergence in the Western World occurred with expansion of the Silk Route. Apricots became as pervasive as the silk and spices that dominated the trade, and began appearing in various cuisines under different guises. Even the etymological history is long as the apricot’s domesticated journey from Asia and Middle East – in Latin, the fruit was known as praecoqua or praecocia for its early ripening before transmuting to barquqor birquq in Arabic, and transfiguring in various Romance languages asalbarcoque (Spanish);albricocco (Italian); and abricot (French), hence the English derivation as apricot or apricock.

Apricot cultivation elsewhere in mainland Australia, Europe, and the United States is fraught with a long litany of pests and diseases, but in isolated Tasmania, it seems a clincher as long as certain requirements are followed. While appreciative of moisture, apricots dislike wet feet. In my friend’s orchard, the large tree has the benefit of the intermittent drips of water from nearby hosepipe faucet while sending its roots into the loamy soil. It is never inundated with water and the sunny location evaporates any excess moisture. Established trees can be drought tolerant. Because apricots flower on last year’s or older wood, pruning should be done carefully to thin out excessive branches and reduce the likelihood of alternate fruit-bearing years. Large trees with rampant growth can be contained by brutal pruning. The cruel irony of growing apricots is that the trees withstand cold winters well, but fruits none or poorly if spring frosts kill the flowers. For this reason, fresh apricots are hard to come by in East Coast U.S. and any available in supermarkets are from California or Washington State. As beautiful as the tree is, a fruitless tree defeats the main purpose of setting aside valuable garden space for it. European gardeners in frost-prone maritime climates often maximise their chances of fruit production by espaliering trees against walls or confining them under cool glasshouses. The introduction of hardier, late-flowering cultivars may encourage commercial growers in frost-prone areas. Tasmania’s mild climate is ideally tailored for apricots – winters cold enough for chilling requirements, and summers warm and dry enough for fruit set and ripening.

Still Life with Five Apricots, 1704 by Adriaen Coorte (image courtesy of the Frick Collection)

Still Life with Five Apricots, 1704 by Adriaen Coorte (image courtesy of the Frick Collection)

In Tasmania, the Coal Valley, with its drier and warmer microclimate, is ideal for growing apricots, and remains the centre of commercial apricot production in Australia. Several hundred thousand tonnes are sold locally and interstate, and visitors can still buy apricots from farm-door sales. Despite being superseded by more larger modern cultivars like ‘Rival’ and ‘Goldrich’, ‘Moorpark’, an old English favourite grown by Lord Anson at his Hertfordshire estate of the same name, is the standard in Tasmania. My friends returned home once with a bag of ‘Moorpark’ apricots, bought from a roadside stall in Richmond (Coal Valley), for fresh eating. Such was their flavour that I nearly risked their ire by eating one after one. The satisfaction of eating the apricots was enough to incite the Turkish expression “bundan iyisi Şam’da kayısı”, which means “the only thing better is a Damascus apricot.”

Francois de la Rochefocauld

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To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.-

Francois de la Rochefocauld, French author

Berries and figs

Rhubarb

Spring Rhubarb LQ

Despite its Chinese origins, rhubarb never figured largely in my childhood culinary repertoire and its name was vaguely mentioned by my classmates who talked about their grandmother’s pie. I did see rhubarb stalks in the supermarket, but they were never part of my mother’s shopping lists. Their red color was intriguing enough, and I wondered about their taste, given how strawberries were often displayed along them. Only years later in Australia did I became acquainted with rhubarb, which grew plentifully in a friend’s vegetable garden. The mild climate meant that rhubarb stayed evergreen throughout winter and their stems made for a welcome change from the meager choice of seasonal fruits.

With its largess, rhubarb is a voracious plant that appreciates fertile, moist soil and cool summers (plants will become dormant in hot summers). Stems should not be harvested until the plant becomes established (cutting the stems in the plant’s youth deprives its ability to build up reserves).

Like quinces and cooking apples, rhubarb will never have the immediate gratification of a strawberry or peach. It needs cooking (along with generous lashings of sugar) to tame its astringency from oxalic acid, the same compound in spinach and Swiss chard. Shall you dare to eat the stems raw, try shaving slivers for salads and roasted meats. Poisonous, the leaves should never be consumed and should be discarded during preparation. Even the stems require cautionary cooking in heatproof glass, enamelled cast iron and stainless steel  –  aluminum reacts with oxalic acid, resulting in a metallic-tasting, if not dangerous dessert. Some recipes suggest cooking the stems on the stovetop, although I prefer to bake them, finding the flavor to be more nuanced and tastier.  Regardless of your cooking method, you will find the stems delectable with cereal, yoghurt, or ice cream. I sometimes add blood oranges or strawberries if I have them in the refrigerator.    ~E

Recipe

1 bunch rhubarb (5 to 6 stems) cut into 1 to 1 1/2″ pieces (2.5 to 3 cm)

2/3 cup caster sugar (155 grams )

2 tablespoons of orange zest

2  to 3 tablespoons of water

1. Set the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (175 degrees Celsius)

2. In a large bowl, mix the rhubarb stems with sugar, water, and orange zest well.

3. Spread evenly on the tray and place into the oven (once set at 350 degrees F (175 degrees Celsius).

4. Bake until the stems still hold their shape and a knife cuts through the stems cleanly.

5. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature with cereal, yoghurt, or ice cream.

Rhubarb stems with sugar, orange zest, and some water in a cast-iron tray.

Rhubarb stems with sugar, orange zest, and some water in a cast-iron tray.