My family have always done house swaps for our summer holidays, and strangely, wherever we’ve been, fruit always seemed to have played a key part in the trip in some sense. The occasions when we came across a bounty of fruit ripe for the picking are the memories that stick out most from these holidays.
There was the year of cycling out in the Auvergne sunshine to pick plums with my dad in France; the evening we spent hours picking strawberries and blueberries in the woods behind the house in Sweden with the funny ridged scooping tools the exchange family kept under the kitchen sink for just that purpose; and then there was the trip to the Wachau Valley in Austria where everything – everything – tasted of apricots. We got funny frozen apricot dumplings for dessert (marillenknödel; a local speciality that really could only be eaten on an empty stomach as they’re so ribstickingly, starchily filling); delectable apricot coffee cake left at our front day by neighbors every few days (which, despite my best efforts, I have never quite managed to replicate), and an exquisite apricot liqueur made in the village we were staying in called ‘Bailoni’ that has the most heavenly texture I’ve ever encountered in a spirit.
To this day, I still absolutely adore apricots, and I love them more and more with every passing year. Given that their charm is in their subtlety of their flavours, I think that they’re a fruit that appeals more to adults than to kids. But I will only eat them if they’ve been cooked. Pale tasting & unbecomingly crunchy when raw, some kind of alchemy comes over them when they are introduced to heat and a little sugar. After just 30 minutes in the oven, they become rich, tender & redolent with an exotic, fragrant flavour that tastes like an amalgamation of all your holidays. Just try one of those glazed apricot pastries you get in fancy coffee shops and you’ll see what I mean.
Last week, on the way home from picking up a couple of punnets of apricots to make some kind of apricot-celebrating dessert (as I tend to do around this time most years), I was stopped in my tracks by a carpet of lush, wind-fallen cherries on the pavement, and spotted plenty more swinging in the trees above. I gathered as many as I could carry, much to the amusement of the man sweeping the streets who laughed when he told me how much the locals give out about them; how no one ate them anymore and they had just become a nuisance to the neighbourhood for one fortnight each year.
When I tried one I couldn’t understand why people were just leaving them to get trampled into carpets, as they had an incredible sweet-tart, Morello like flavour and a beautiful crisp, juicy texture. Perfect for baking with, as I merrily called out to one of the residents living next to the cherry tree, who told me that neither he nor his wife had ever tried them and I’m sure privately thought me mad.
RUSTIC APRICOT & CHERRY TART
Armed with my unexpected haul, I decided to make a free-form, rustic style tart that would show off the beauty of both fruits. It was the hottest day of the year – 34ºc in West London – so having the oven at 220ºc made the house even more insufferably sticky, and the cream I whipped to serve with it melted, but despite the conditions the tart worked out a treat. I used pre-made pastry for it as I don’t have what my Home Ec teacher described as ‘pastry hands’ (i.e., marble cool, willowy, unlikely to get flustered) at the best of times, let alone at the height of summer. If you want to make your own pastry, by all means do, but I think since all focus is on the fruit in this tart rather than the pastry you’ll get away with the pre-made stuff.
400g pre-made sweet shortcrust pastry (available in the chiller and/or freezer aisle of supermarkets. Because most packets are 500g, I just lopped 100g off the block I used as I didn’t have any baking sheets that would be large enough for the full amount, but if you do have a big enough tray, use the full amount of pastry & increase the rest of the quantities slightly by eye)
600g stoned ripe apricots
150g stoned cherries
80g caster sugar, plus extra to sprinkle
Polenta or corn meal
Sprigs of fresh thyme to garnish
1 teaspoon of good quality vanilla extract
A few drops of almond extract
1 egg, beaten
Preheat your oven to 220°c. Lay a sheet of baking parchment on your counter and sprinkle with a little polenta. Place the block of pastry on top and cover with another sheet of parchment. Roll it out to around half a centimetre thick and leave to rest for a few minutes. Lightly grease your largest baking sheet and line with parchment. Carefully transfer the rolled out pastry to the baking sheet and stretch out slightly so that it’s taking up the full area of the tray. Quarter the apricots, halve the cherries and place both in a large bowl. Add the sugar, vanilla extract and almond extract and stir well to combine. Top the pastry sheet with the fruit, leaving a 5cm border all around the edges. The fruit should be densely packed, more densely even than mine was above, as the fruit will shrink as it cooks. Drizzle over most of the remaining sugary juices. Fold the pastry edges up so that they enclose the fruit, crimping them slightly with your fingers for a rustic look. Cut the butter into tiny pieces and dot over the fruit. Refrigerate at this point for 10 minutes, then brush the edges with the egg then sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 20 minutes at 220ºc, then turn the oven down to 180ºc and continue to bake for another 25-30 minutes, or until the pastry is crisp & golden and the fruit is tender, cooked through and starting to caramelize slightly on top. Leave to cool slightly for a few minutes then garnish with thyme leaves and serve with crème fraîche, whipped cream or vanilla ice cream while still slightly warm.