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The fruit sublime

(article, Deborah Madison)

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It’s 2 a.m. and I’m lying awake, thinking about fruit. In particular, about American fruit, about how disappointing it is and what it takes for fruit to be sublime. 

This is the kind of thing I ponder in the wee hours — this and global warming, fire, drought, flood, and the tyranny of cell phones. But lately it’s mostly been fruit, because I am finishing a book on fruit-based desserts, which means I am testing fruit-centric recipes daily.

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Yesterday I made a frangipane-and-peach galette, a dish I enjoyed in early June at a Slow Food brunch in Chico, California. It was one of those desserts that’s so amazingly good, you're almost willing to make a complete pig out of yourself in front of others. “This has got to be in the book!” I thought, and Marianne Brenner kindly shared her recipe. 

In the high desert, where I live, we might not see peaches until late July or even August, or we might not see them at all. Like other regions elsewhere, we had a prolonged, cold spring that effectively nixed the fruit crop. I asked a peach grower at the farmers' market if he’d have fruit this year. “Maybe two bushels out of 600 trees,” he sighed. 

There will be pretty much no local fruit this year, so my recourse for recipe testing has been the supermarket — my least favorite source for fruit.

I don’t want to disparage the supermarket, but it is consistently disappointing. Fruit is rock hard and has no perfume. Names are reduced to simplistic colors — red plums, white peaches. Shoppers drop this pretty-but-dead fruit into plastic bags without bringing it to their noses first to read its promise, because there’s nothing to read. 

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The peaches I bought for my galette looked gorgeous. They were some new variety that has smooth, nectarine-like skin with a bright red uniform blush, since the marketing folks know that people do reach for red. I spent a lot of time searching for four peaches that had some promise. 

Once home, I tasted one. It was curiously tart, as in unripe. And fermented, as in overripe. And mushy. But I had no choice; the book is due soon. 

I made the dough and the frangipane and assembled and finally baked my galette. It looked beautiful. But when my husband and I took a bite, we both looked at each other. 

“It tastes like nothing!” he said, speaking my thoughts exactly. Like nothing at all. All that work, time, and butter, and it was like eating shadows. 

And that’s why I was up at 2 a.m., thinking about fruit. 

Marianne’s almond paste was made from her own almonds, and the peaches were grown down the road. And therein lies the clue. More than any other food, fruit should drag you out of your house to shop at your farmers' market or farm stand. Or even to grow your own. Because good fruit just doesn’t travel. 

Well, maybe some does, but stone fruits and figs and berries — the most delicate and delicious fruits of summer — don’t. They’re meant to be eaten close to where they grow. 

I believe that a good piece of fruit has the power to change our lives, but you have to be a true local eater to even imagine such a thought. At the Healdsburg farmers' market that same weekend, I bought some Blenheim apricots. I watched how the woman placed them in a paper sack — carefully, without rushing, so that the fruits wouldn’t be damaged. The Blenheim, a comparatively rare apricot these days, is fragile, which is one of the reasons why it doesn’t make it far from the farm. And it’s not as pretty as the big, dumb Castlebright, which is why it’s ignored by most shoppers. But it’s favored, hands down, by connoisseurs.

An hour later, as we were finishing our farmers' market lunch, we picked up the apricots, split them open, removed the stones, and watched a puddle of floral juice quickly fill each half. One apricot half equaled one bite, or you’d lose that honeyed syrup. We closed our eyes, savoring and sighing over such a deep, simple pleasure. 

I could only imagine what a galette these apricots might have made, but in truth, with fruit like this, the crust and almond cream weren’t necessary at all. These apricots were utterly enough. Sufficient. Complete. Nothing more needed.

How rare is this kind of satisfaction.

I thought about the people who grow the old, often-temperamental varieties, the ones that don’t fit in the commercial marketplace. It takes a rare commitment and passion to stay with such fruits and their vagaries. 

I thought about the growers who revisit their apricot trees, date palms, or fig trees to pick the fruits as they ripen, instead of picking them all at once regardless of whether they’re green or not. Picking only when ripe is scornfully regarded as inefficient by commercial growers, but it's what it takes to get the very best fruit. 

I thought about the farmer who knows that the apricots for jam — those fruits that fall into a purée the minute you handle them — are inconveniently placed at the top of the tree, but he insists on making the awkward climb to pick them. 

And what about the jam makers who strive to use as little sugar as possible so that the powerful flavor of their well-grown berries or pears or peaches is what’s preserved, not just some sticky sweet substance? I think about my sister-in-law in the heat of summer, madly making jam from those same Blenheims hour after hour for two solid weeks, one small batch after another, because they won’t wait for her — and because small batches taste better. 

It’s growers and producers like these — people who discern and commit to these qualities that give us something worthwhile to put in our mouths — who have the power to connect us immediately to the place where we are and the gifts of human culture, and to experience real satisfaction. 

The soul of fruit depends on those people who take the inconvenient route to perfection, and our own souls are nourished by these same people. You won’t find them or what they grow at the supermarket, but you will find them at your farmers' market. So go this week and follow your nose to that most fragrant of delights: real summer fruit.

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.


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