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Our first 'fruit' of the year, a very early strain of rhubarb, is ready by early spring when it is instantly turned into a crumble and served with Birds Custard; no complicated homemade custard does the job quite so well. Rhubarb, at this stage, is starting to get a bit boring.
Currants, on the other hand, both black and red, are going into into jam at the moment, as are of the raspberries. But raspberries are at their best when, fully ripe and darkening to almost purple: you sprinkle them with just a touch of caster sugar and drizzle some cream over.
But they are also an essential ingredient in summer pudding. I take equal quantities of raspberries and currants (mainly black but with some red for added tartness) place them in a saucepan with just enough sugar to take the edge off them and cook briefly over a low heat until the juices really flow and the fruit begins to break up a little.
I take the fruit off the heat and turn my attention to the pudding bowl. First it must be lined with clingfilm, then with slices of white bread (sliced pan or batch loaf is fine). The slices are overlapped slightly and one is kept back to go over the top. The fruit and all its sweetened juices are then poured into the bread-lined pudding bowl and a final slice of bread placed on top. On top of this goes a saucer and a weight of some sort so that the contents of the bowl are under a little pressure. I stand the bowl in a dish, which will catch any drips, and leave it in a cool place overnight.
When it is time to serve the pudding I up-end it onto a deep dish and lift off the bowl with the aid of the clingfilm. At this stage the bread will have developed a mottled red appearance. I use the juice that has been exuded to even out the colour by spooning it over. I serve slices of this summer pudding with a jug of pouring cream. The title is deserved. This, for me, is the very essence of summer, perhaps after some poached wild salmon or a risotto of new vegetables.
Gooseberries, which are just in season now, tend to end up being made into fool in our household. We simply stew the fruit with sugar (how much is a matter of taste but gooseberries are very sour even when fully ripe) with a few elderflower heads. Elder blossoms are at their peak as the gooseberries ripen and the combination is somehow much greater than the sum of the parts. The elder imparts a very strange but delicious spiciness which reminds me a little of Gewurztraminer wines. When the fruit has cooled, we remove the elderflowers and fold it in lots of very stiffly whipped cream. We often serve this gooseberry fool with homemade buttery shortbread biscuits for dunking and dipping.
To get proper, old fashioned strawberry flavour you have to grow your own, for the simple reason that modern commercial varieties are bred for shelf-life rather than taste. We eat ours, which are the old and trusted Cambridge Favourite or the modern but lovely Marshmello, simply with cream, occasionally dressing them in a touch of orange juice, Campari or even vodka. Bizarrely, black pepper works wonders when freshly ground over a bowl of strawberries, a trick we learned from a late great-uncle. We tend not to add strawberries to summer pudding on the basis that they tend to get lost and detract from the texture.
This, of course, has been a lousy Summer but nature still produces fruit, even if it’s later than usual this year. It’s reassuring, even as the rain buckets down, that ripening still happens. Apples and pears, after a very slow start will, one hopes get an Indian Summer in September and October. They have certainly had more than enough water.
Website of the week
The ultimate grow-your-own website for Ireland.