Removing some amber-flushed apricots from their punnet the other day, I started thinking about the tactile qualities of fruits. There’s such variety to be found when it comes to the feel of a fruit in the palm of your hand. At the less pleasing end of the scale, there is the woolly rasp of a khaki kiwi, or the tough prickle of a sturdy pineapple, or the sandpaper rub of an underripe, over-firm, imported strawberry. Maybe the dimpled spikes of a plump lychee, although I quite like the way their tough skin peels away, fragile as paper, to reveal the fragrant flesh within.
Then there are those glossy-skinned fruits that can be polished to a bright sheen, smooth and simple. Apples, pears, nectarines, cherries, maybe mangoes too, unless you’re lucky enough to get your hands (literally) on some Indian or Pakistani specimens, which have a wonderful soft, matt skin that feels almost like suede on the palm. Papaya, perhaps, which are shinier and thicker-skinned when underripe, the skin yellowing and thinning as the fruit within becomes more golden and succulent.
How about citrus fruits? Those tough, waxy, dimpled skins give little away of what lies beneath: sharp, sweet flesh bursting with tart juice, protected by thick layers of spongy pith. Berries can be particularly lovely to touch, particularly the soft, almost downy exterior of a fragile raspberry, or the pearlescent form of a red or whitecurrant. There’s also something pleasing about the bouncy robustness of a blueberry.
But, all these contenders aside, for me the most pleasing fruit, to have and to hold, is the apricot. There’s something about the incredible softness of those suede-like skins that is just irresistible, demanding that they be cradled lovingly in your hands on their journey towards whatever culinary fate you have in mind for them. This, combined with their beautiful appearance, - glowing golden, sometimes mottled with brown freckles or blushing with a reddish hue – is surely reason enough to bestow on the apricot the title of ‘most sensually pleasing fruit’. Next in line would be figs, I think, with those similarly downy, soft skins and gorgeous jewelled interiors.
Unfortunately, as with figs, that baby softness and coquettish blush often belie a disappointing mouthful. You can sometimes find perfectly ripe, juicy, fragrant apricots in this country, but more often than not they are rock hard, woolly, too astringent. Luckily, all is not lost. A simple treatment with heat, sugar and spices is all that is necessary to realise the great potential of the apricot.
Sometimes I like to roast them with a splash of orange flower water, some honey and a sprinkling of cinnamon, or pan-fry them with butter and brown sugar. Or I like to make a light syrup, flavoured with warm spices and a little lemon, and poach them gently in this sweet liquor until they are just on the point of collapse. This makes a fabulous compote for breakfast, spooned onto porridge or granola, and is equally good served as dessert with a scoop of ice cream or crème fraiche.
Poaching apricots means you’re more likely to lose their shape than when you roast them, but I rather like this – some keep their structure and turn just tender, while others soften and turn almost jammy. The result is an utterly gorgeous and startlingly marigold mixture, sweet yet tart, warm and fragrant from cinnamon, cloves and a hint of star anise, heady with the tang of warmed apricot. It can be put to many uses, if you manage not to eat it with a spoon from the pan. Furthermore, you can add your favourite spices to customise the basic recipe: cardamom and bay leaves also work well, as do sprigs of lemon thyme, or a curl of orange peel; and a splash of orange flower or rosewater never goes amiss.
So, once you’ve stood there for a bit, lovingly marvelling at the delicate softness and beauty of apricots, get them into the kitchen and make them taste as good as they look.
Spiced poached apricots (serves 4):
150g caster sugar
Half a lemon, quartered
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
Put the water and sugar in a large saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the lemon, cinnamon, cloves and anise and gently simmer for 5 minutes.
Halve and stone the apricots, then add to the syrup. Lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, very gently for 5-10 minutes, until the apricots have softened but still hold their shape (a few might start to disintegrate). Remove from the heat and serve, or allow to cool and keep in the fridge for another day.