Where are all the fruit salads?
Isn’t it sad that nobody makes fruit salad anymore? There was once a time when choosing fruit salad for dessert was de rigueur – even for dinner parties. Why has fruit salad fallen from grace? Are we reminded of the passé caramel à l’orange, or the tinned concoctions of overly sweet and syrupy chunks of mixed insipid fruit (always including a pale red maraschino cherry) or perhaps it has something to do with bananas?
Fruit has always featured in desserts, but now home cooks feel compelled to construct more refined sweet dishes and bake, poach, puree their fruit, or adorn it with crumbled amaretti biscuit, blister it with a handyman’s blowtorch, or delicately encase their fruit in pâte sucrée, spun sugar cages, or edible flower petals. In this master-chef world of obsessively complex and ornate puddings even family favourites, such as the humble fruit pie and crumble, make way for these new fruit fancies. Sadly, the poor fruit salad has all but disappeared, not daring to show its face at the table for fear of being mocked into culinary oblivion.
Well, scoff if you like but there is much to admire with plain simple fruit, or tropical fruits arranged a ‘salad’. It starts with an appreciation of fruit. All rugby players know that a simple orange segment eaten during the half-time match break is an elixir made in heaven. Nothing else has the power to refresh and revive. If you set out on a hike and, make sure you pack a tangerine. At the pinnacle of your journey, this simple fruit will not only quench thirst but restore energy levels for the trek back home. But pause also to observe the wonder of the tangerine. Eat it slowly, the methodical peeling and separating of segments not only demonstrates the clever natural construction of the fruit but also raises expectations and enjoyment of the precious sweet flesh. Eating an apple with a penknife, can have the same effect on the palate when peeled in a similarly deliberate and meticulous manner. There is great skill required to cut away the skin of the fruit without wasting flesh (preferably keeping the peel in one continuous connected length) and then carving away bite-size pieces to enjoy at leisure. A pear also benefits from the fastidious manipulations of a sharp paring knife. With pears, the challenge is to eat the fruit just as it hits the window of peak ripeness. This window is brief and fleeting and demands great vigilance and awareness to align ones appetite with the fruits optimum condition.
Despite their ubiquity, bananas get a bad press. Vast sections of the population will have no truck with them. For these people, saying, ‘it tastes of banana’ is not a comment of satisfaction, but a reason to object and refuse. This is not fair on the banana, for the banana is truly remarkable fruit and one we would sorely miss if it were no longer piled high at the supermarkets. The banana has grown to be an essential part of our culture. It’s the food of choice when being weaned off our mother’s milk, it becomes a highly convenient staple for school pack lunches, it flavours our smoothies, milk shakes, cakes and breads. It also cooks down into a wonderful toffee-like sauce with dates, moscavado and cream.
No other fruit tastes so otherworldly as a mango. There’s an alluring sweet, fruity and musky perfume, it’s almost overripe, gamey and sexual – dangerously exotic, bordering on the rancid. But so distinctive and assured is this flavour, that it defies all attempts at description to becomes its own unique taste – only comparable with other fruits of the tropics. The texture is also unique, smooth, fleshy and creamy yet still robust enough to give a ‘bite’ and slice neatly. The mango has one final otherworldly characteristic – the fruit itself is an enigma. It requires a specific kind of knowledge to release the fruit from both the confines of its delicate skin and the tenacious tendrils of its fibrous over-sized stone.
The best fruit I have ever eaten was a papaya. I had it in a hotel in Kuala Lumpar and was stunned by how utterly delicious a fruit could be. I have often tried to recapture this memory, but as we might expect a papaya, like most exotic fruits, looses something in both transit and translation to northern climes. To enjoy papaya at its absolute best, it probably needs to be eaten straight off a tree in the tropics.
It’s partly the understanding of what’s right for the weather and climate that dictates how and when fruit is presented at the table. In the depths of a cold northern winter, a comforting and warming apple pie is most welcome. But in the heat of the Mediterranean, or the tropics, simple fruit is often the most satisfying and refreshing way to end a meal. So here in the temperate climate of the British Isles, we should make more use of the the abundance of fresh fruit and make more fruit salads! Leave out the maraschino cherry – and the banana if you must.