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Food and Drink

Fed up with that fruity flavour

One cannot conceive of a perfect lamb chop as one can a perfect pear; there is no perfect loaf, no ideal grain
If you have ever had one of those faux-medieval banquets where young ladies with lank hair sing ballads, their squires strum lutes and the serving-wenches show alarmingly balconied busts, then you will know that the prevailing taste of the fare, far from being rough and hearty and cooked on an open hearth, is sickly sweet with fruit (mainly preserved).

This taste for exotic fruit (currants), nuts (almonds) and spices (cinnamon) is the result of early tourism. After a long ride to the Holy Land with dried, smoked or salted venison or beef hanging by one's saddle-bag, the rich, copious and sweet foods of the Near East must have seemed a promise of heaven: not least of their virtues was the releasing of pent-up bowels.

As well as its purely practical contribution to our diet (as, for instance, in the abolition of scurvy on board ship with citrus rich in vitamin C), fruit is enshrined in our collective food memory in a special, metaphorical way. Not for nothing did God, in parting the waters and making land, see to it that, long before he had conceived of Man, there should be what creation needed: grass, grain and "fruit tree bearing fruit after its kind". Nor is it an accident that in the centre of the Garden of Eden therestood a "tree of life" and it was from that tree Eve plucked her fatal fruit.

Today's readers, with their briefer attention spans, are probably not familiar with George Meredith's Ordeal of Richard Feverel and therefore will not know of Sir Austin Absworthy Bearne Feverel's Great Shaddock Dogma: "that Evil may be separated from Good; but Good cannot be separated from Evil" and thus "a truly good man is possible on earth", a contention that causes much travail to the hero of his novel. This Shaddock (some think a grapefruit, some the shaddock-apple, that original forbidden fruit) is the ultimate expression of fruit as a way of thinking, a pondering on Good and Evil.

In food, fruit occupies precisely that place given it in Genesis as in Meredith, a self- reproducing marvel of original innocence and good, and it is probably one of the oldest of all connections between two specific flavours, sweet and sour, and two textures, soft and hard. Few culinary clichs, in fact, are able to match the old pork-and-apple; the vast Pacific and Caribbean ham-and-pineapple, the commonplace prosciutto-and-melon, the American turkey-and-cranberry, the Nordic venison-and-juniper berry, the basic chutney, fruit-and-onion-and-spice.

These combinations are in some way instinctive to different national cuisines, as lamb- and-date, or pork-and-prune, duck-and-orange, fish- and-lemon: indeed, in the form of wine, as grape-and-everything.

Now, there are some more addicted to this than others, just as it is notable that there are fruit-eaters and non-fruit-eaters. To what form of deprivation would one ascribe the modern German fascination (or our own, in wartime) with bananas? In what way, to carry out the sexual imagery, are peaches more luscious and juice-drooling than other fruit and to be used in seduction? Why do apricots mean a poisonous end to the sinful Duchess of Malfi?

It must be that in our culture, as against those in which fruit is so plentiful as to be commonplace, fruits are a rarity: of limited season, of especial perishability, but also capable of perfection. One cannot conceive of a perfect lamb chop as one can of a perfect pear; there is no perfect loaf, no ideal grain. But there are ideal fruits, and some of us are passionate about them.

My sainted mother is a fruit-freak. In many a restaurant in my youth, I have seen the fruit proffered and rejected by her, with an art all the more amazing for the fact that there is no true way to ascertain the perfect fruit without opening it up. Clearly, to her, a fruit was a very special gift of God and, to my certain knowledge, never has she insulted a fruit by using it in cooking, for that would have been to defeat its integrity.

The rest of us do, myself included, use it as an integral part of our cooking repertory. My objection to this is to our automatism in so doing. An apple baked in a suckling pig's mouth is decorative; it is good because baked apples are good. But commercial apple sauce with a pork chop? Well, my wife loves it; I dissent. I know what she is after: the sweetness that will bring out the sweetness of the pork. But it is that very sweetness to which I object.

There are meats whose asperities are assuaged by fruit: a dark and high hare is much improved by being cooked in fresh grapes; mutton that is fatty and ancient is revivified by plum and nectarine; a stringy chicken is improved by being stuffed with raisins and rice; my own beef en croute la Sviatoslav Richter, a rich concoction of sweet Russian jams, cherry and plum, mixed with wild mushrooms, started as a tribute to the pianist 10,000 miles from his homeland, and remains good.

These are all searches for some subtle combination of flavours that will salvage the ordinary or the slightly over-the-top; but the modern tendency to dress nearly everything with a coulis or this or that berry, to chuck exotic fruit (some as tasteless as the kiwi) into any dish merely to make it vaguely "eastern" (all so-called Polynesian restaurants): all these I deplore. They are forms of what I call "armchair cuisine", letting your fingers "do the walking" through one's collected cookbooks. Cooking is more rigorous than that. As instances of perfection fruits do not deserve to be adulterated.