Drink up your pudding

A heavily spiced compote can make the perfect winter dessert, says Anni e Bell
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It was the mystery aroma. All afternoon a seductively sweet scent had been drifting out of the kitchen, up stairwells and through doorways. The chef from New Zealand held his ground, telling me firmly: ``Wait and see what's for dinner.''

Hours later he carried a large iron frying pan into the dining room, filled with warm, halved peaches sitting in a clear syrup, with lemongrass, slices of root ginger, black peppercorns, bay leaves and coriander seeds - all manner of aromatics I was not expecting to find in my pudding.

Compotes have come of age. Heavily spiced, they characterise the best of New World laissez-faire. Not a mindless ``anything goes'', but a calculated appraisal of how to produce complex layers of flavour that suit the fruit you are cooking.

In a red-wine syrup for pears or figs, make use of thyme or bay leaves, and spices such as star anise, coriander seeds, cloves and allspice, and a sliver of orange zest. In a white-wine syrup for apricots or dried peaches, you could use cardamom or a hint of saffron, lemongrass, rosemary, fresh root ginger and cinnamon.

The French word compote has the unfortunate translation of ``stewed fruit'', which goes some way to explain why we have adopted it. I associate traditional compotes with breakfast in country house hotels: Assolas in Kanturk, Cork, has a trolley laden with delicate compotes of fruits from the walled garden, and different yoghurts to go with them.

The more heavily spiced dishes are the perfect answer for desserts during the winter, relying on firm, faintly under-ripe fruits. Dried fruits come into their own, giving an intensity to a syrup, which you can lighten with a few fresh orange or tropical fruit segments.

The rules are much the same as if you were making mushrooms a la Grecque. First, prepare an aromatic liquor, then poach the fruit. I prefer not to reduce the liquor further since you risk losing the delicacy of the perfume, so leave it on the thin side. Compotes are good-natured and can mature overnight, if you leave the spices in the syrup, or for a few days.

Start playing around with vinegar in the syrups and you can create the sweet-and-sour fruits of Provence. In The Mediterranean Pantry, Aglaia Kremezi offers a recipe for dried figs soaked in sherry vinegar sweetened with honey, spiced with cloves, bay leaves, cinnamon and chilli pepper, to serve with thinly sliced prosciutto or some grilled duck.

I can almost smell that mysterious scent coming up the stairs . . .

Spiced Pear and Red Wine Compote

Chasing a whole poached pear around a plate with a dessertspoon is frustrating. Practicality before beauty: peel, core, then poach them. Serve with vanilla ice-cream and hazelnut or walnut biscuits.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 1 pint red wine

6oz (170g) castor sugar

1/3 tsp coriander seeds

6 black peppercorns

2 star anise

2 cloves

3 sprigs of thyme

2in strip of orange zest

1 thin slice of fresh root ginger (1 x 2in)

juice of 1 lemon

6 small firm pears

Preparation: Combine the ingredients for the syrup in a non-reactive saucepan (one not made of aluminium, which tends to impart a tangy taste to fruit), bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes, covering the pan after 10 minutes. Add the lemon juice to a bowl of water. Peel, halve and core the pears, and reserve in the water.

Add pears to pan, bring to a simmer, cover and poach for 15 minutes. Remove pears and syrup to a bowl leaving in the aromatics; when cool, cover and chill overnight. To serve, bring back to room temperature, remove pears to another bowl and strain syrup over.

Compote of Peaches and Exotic Fruit

If you use sweet dessert wine to make this, reduce the sugar.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 5fl oz (140ml) boiling water

1 pint ( 1/2 litre) dry white wine

6oz (170g) castor sugar

2 sprigs rosemary

1/2 length of lemongrass, split lengthwise

3 green cardamom pods, cracked

1 x 3in cinnamon stick

2 thin slices fresh root ginger (1 x 2in)

6 black peppercorns

5oz (140g) dried peach halves

2 oranges, with skin and pith removed

4oz (115g) lychees, peeled and stoned

1 starfruit, thinly sliced

Preparation: Cover peaches with the boiling water and leave for 1 hour. Combine the remaining ingredients for the syrup in a non-reactive saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes, covering after 10 minutes.

Add the peaches and their soaking water to the pan, bring to a simmer, cover and cook for 45 minutes. Remove fruit and syrup to a bowl, leaving in the aromatics.

Once cool, cover and chill overnight. To serve, bring back to room temperature, remove aromatics and add remaining fruit.