It would seem that summer came and went without me noticing. Actually, I did notice when it reared its lovely head some time around the beginning of April, and allowed me to swan around in a maxi dress for a couple of days, eating ice cream and desperately trying to tan my legs in preparation for all those days of short-wearing that were no doubt soon to come, dreaming of summer pudding and barbecues. Then followed a period of cold, grey drizzle that had me considering getting my Ugg boots out of the attic, but I held on, sure that we'd be in for a brief spell of delightful weather at some point between April and September.
It never came. I waited and waited, churning out pies instead of summer puddings, beefy stews instead of barbecues, gloomily thumbing through food magazines with glossy seven-page features on "no-cook recipes, for when it's just too hot to turn on the oven". This ridiculous fallacy always makes me laugh. I'm pretty sure there has never been a moment in British history when it has been "too hot to turn on the oven" - why do food writers always fail to recognise this?
Now that we're in the last day of August, I fear I may have to say goodbye to my hopes for summer for this year; to all those no-cook recipes and ice cream ideas I desperately entertained in a ploy to bring the sun out; to my maxi dress and also a rather nice new blue silk mini dress that I bought back in June and have not had a single occasion to wear. Away with the mini dress and in with the Ugg boots. Away with the salads and in with the shepherd's pie and crumbles (wait...that's not a bad thing...).
It's not only the lack of sunshine that's made me think autumn has arrived prematurely (even for England). It's a well-known fact that the weather this year has done bizarre things to fruit and vegetable crops. Asparagus turned up a full month earlier than usual, and the British strawberry season has lasted far longer than anyone could have wished for, producing the plumpest, most fragrant specimens in living memory. I think it was something to do with that spell of sunshine around April, which sent everything into a ripening frenzy.
The flipside of this early arrival of summer fruit is, of course, that autumn's bounty has advanced early too. Plums started appearing towards the end of July; the blackberries have been glossy and ripe on their bushes for nearly two months now (though the only ones I've seen have been too close to main roads to present an enticing eating prospect). No wonder I'm starting to think about recipes for mushrooms, squash, game, celeriac, pears, apples, and all that other autumn fare.
I have to rein in my imagination, however. While a little part of me can't wait to get started cooking game and autumn fruits and vegetables, the other part of me is reminded that the novelty of such things will soon wear off once it has been cold, damp and grey for more than a couple of months. When our British summer is so fleeting, it seems a shame to wish it away, regardless of the circumstances.
So in an attempt to hold on to some small shred of summer, I turned to my favourite summer fruit: the apricot. While I actually enjoy peaches more when raw and unadulterated, and perhaps raspberries too, you just can't top the apricot for culinary potential. Every time I mention them on this blog I go on and on about all the different ways in which to cook them (apricot and amaretti cake, apricot French toast, to name but a few), and I'm always trying to think of more. While I love their sweet-tart flavour, I'm equally attracted by their gorgeous marigold hue, which can inject a little summer into the dreariest of days.
I've been enjoying apricots for months now; they have a pleasingly long season. What's more, they're very cheap - around £3 a kilo at the moment. I buy them in big bagfuls and poach them for my porridge when I'm not doing anything more adventurous with them. However, I know that the day will soon dawn when the apricots disappear from the market stalls, to be replaced with cooking apples, pears, pomegranates and - I hope - figs. While I love all these other fruits, I'm going to miss the delightfully fuzzy form of the apricot nestling invitingly in its crate.
In order to hold onto that golden joy for a little longer, I've preserved some. I did this last year too, in a similar fit of summer love and domestic goddess-dom, finally opening my jar of treasure in the depths of winter, when I desperately needed cheering up and reminding of sunshine. This time I made four jars, and would have made more had I had enough receptacles.
When you think of preserving, you usually think of jam or chutney. While I love jam, I generally think that shop-bought apricot jam is likely to be almost as good as the home-made variety. It's a sad fact that once you add all that sugar and boil it for a while, you may have a delicious end product, but it's a far cry from the whole, unadulterated fruits themselves. I wanted to preserve the apricots in a way that would keep their shape, colour and texture, so that I could either eat them on porridge or use them in a cake or tart.
In order to do this, I simply bottled them (two whole kilos of them, carted home in a big plastic bag from the market - the biggest hoard of apricots I've yet procured) in a light sugar syrup, infused with a few spices that go particularly well with apricots - star anise, cloves and cinnamon. I packed the fruit (washed and halved) into sterilised jars, decorated with a few whole spices and bay leaves, then poured over the sugar syrup. To create a vacuum seal I put the jars in the oven - you can do it in a water bath, but I don't have a pan big enough for water to cover the jars, and it's so much easier to just throw them (not literally) in the oven for a little while. I used three Kilner jars, with screw-top lids, and one large Le Parfait jar (the glass kind with rubber seals round the lid and a lid that you pull down and fasten with a metal clasp).
The result: beautiful jars of bottled fruit that look good enough to keep on the kitchen counter or on a shelf. They remind me of those jars of fruit you can buy in posh department stores, or that you see on the shelves of restaurants for decoration - I'm still not entirely clear whether you can eat them or not. These are definitely edible. Incidentally, you could also use this bottling method for other stone fruits, like peaches or plums, or even for bottled rhubarb.
While I plan to use some of this stash for baking and breakfast, they're also delicious as they are. This means you have an effortless dessert, requiring nothing more than the opening of a bottle.
Are you also turning into a preserving fiend now that summer is on its last legs? Are there any fruits or vegetables that you just can't bear to go without all winter?
Bottled apricots (makes about 5 x 500ml jars):
- An assortment of jars (Kilner or Le Parfait, not jam jars) and lids, sterilised (see here for instructions) - I think I used 3 x 500ml Kilner jars and 1 x 1litre Le Parfait jar, but you can just have a few jars waiting and pack the apricots into as many jars as will fit them in
- 2kg apricots, washed
- Juice of half a lemon
- 450g sugar
- 1 litre water
- A few star anise, a few cloves, and a cinnamon stick (optional)
- Cloves, star anise and bay leaves, to decorate (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to 130C.
Fill a bowl with water and add the lemon juice. Halve and stone the apricots, dropping the halves into the water as you go to prevent discolouration.
Bring the sugar and water to a boil until the sugar has dissolved, and add the spices. Simmer for a few minutes. Keep hot while you put the fruit in the jars.
Pack the apricots into the sterilised jars - the jars should still be hot. Push the fruit down fairly firmly - it's easiest if you put the apricot halves in cut side down. You might need to use a spoon to push them in as your jars should be hot. Put some bay leaves, star anise and cloves in around the apricots if you like. Make sure your jars are on a chopping board or cloth, not a cold worktop, as otherwise they could crack when you add the syrup.
Pour the sugar syrup over the apricots, leaving about half an inch of space at the top of the jar. Screw/clip on the lids of the jars and tap on a work surface to remove any air bubbles.
Place a sheet of newspaper on your oven shelf. If you're using Kilner screw-top jars, unscrew the lids slightly (about a half-turn). If using Le Parfait, leave the lids clipped down.
Place the jars on the newspaper, ensuring they're not touching each other. Leave in the oven for about 30 minutes (some liquid might bubble out, but that's OK - it's why you put newspaper down!) Turn off the oven and remove the jars (again, to a chopping board or cloth, not a cold surface).
If using screw-top jars, use oven gloves to screw the lids on fully. Leave the jars to cool. The Kilner lids should suck in and pop down if you've successfully created a vacuum seal; with Le Parfait jars, you should be able to unclip the metal clasp and still have the lid stay down.
That's it - successfully preserved apricots. Store in a cool, dark place for as long as you can resist them.