PEACHES are now at their best and cheapest. At my nearest market, pounds 1 buys 10 and, assuming that you can choose your own, I reckon you cannot ask fairer than that.

Gauging quality without tasting, however, is well-nigh impossible. There are pointers - a ripe peach should give a little when pressed (gently, so as not to bruise), and it should be perfumed, plump and voluptuous-looking - but even the most promising examples can turn out to be disappointing, with a woolly texture and dull, muted flavour. Such second-grade peaches are fine for cooking, however, and it does not take much to perk them up.

The most obvious way to enliven sluggish fruit is to poach them, skinned and quartered or sliced, in a flavoured syrup - 4oz (110g) sugar to each pint (580 ml) water, plus a cinnamon stick, vanilla pod or strips of lemon zest - and serve cold as a compote. This is particularly useful when you are landed with under-ripe peaches, but it is also a handy way to preserve very ripe ones; take care, however, to cut out any suspect squidgy patches first.

The prepared fruit should be added to the boiling syrup, then cooked at a bare simmer until tender and translucent. If the poaching liquid is very runny (juice from the peaches will have thinned it), scoop out the peach slices, then boil it down hard before pouring it over. This is extremely nice with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream, or clotted cream.

Other fruit recipes, such as crumbles and pies, can be adapted for peaches, but remember that they tend to exude copious amounts of juice when heated, so poach them first, in a syrup as above and never in water alone as they will simply disintegrate. Save the syrup for flavouring fruit salads, poaching more fruit, or to make a wonderful summer aperitif, diluted with sparkling wine.

Most recipes call for skinned peaches, which should be no problem if they are very ripe. Less ripe fruit can either be stripped with a vegetable peeler, which is a bit wasteful, or dunked into boiling water for a minute or two to loosen the skins (use them quickly before they brown).

White peaches are always mightily expensive in Britain and all too often they fall short of the mark, but when they are good they are incomparable. To appreciate them at their cheapest and best, you need to be in France, Italy or Spain.

When in France, look out also for the peerless, deep-purple-fleshed peche de vigne or peche sanguine.

Roast Fillet of Pork with Peaches

The tart fruitiness of baked peaches is a good foil for the richness of pork. For the best flavour, choose free-range meat. Use firm, nearly ripe peaches that will not collapse in the oven.

Serves 6

Ingredients: 2 pork fillets

1/4 tsp ground coriander seeds

1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

2tbs oil

3tbs honey

3 peaches, halved and pitted (not skinned)


Preparation: Trim the fillets. Mix coriander, cinnamon and pepper. Oil a roasting tin or ovenproof dish just large enough to take the fillets and peach halves. Lay the pork in the dish and sprinkle over the spices. Spoon the oil over. Bake at 22OC/425F/gas 7 for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, put honey and 2tbs water in a small pan and warm gently, stirring, until honey has dissolved.

After the first 20 minutes, place peach halves, cut side up, around the pork. Pour the honey mixture over and season pork with salt. Cook for a further 20 minutes, basting occasionally. Turn off the oven, prop the door slightly ajar and leave to rest for 3-5 minutes. Serve the fillets sliced, with the peaches and pan juices.

Baked Peach and Orange Custard

Peaches and cream in this form make a marvellous pudding. The poached peaches are covered in a layer of rich baked custard. I like it best eaten warm (not hot) from the oven, but it is almost as good cold.

Serves 6

Ingredients: 5 peaches, skinned

finely grated zest and juice of 1 orange

4oz (110g) caster sugar

1 whole egg

1 egg yolk

1tbs flour

5fl oz (150ml) single cream

Preparation: Slice the peaches. Put the orange juice and sugar in a pan and stir over a gentle heat until sugar has dissolved. Add peach slices (in two batches if need be) and poach for 5-10 minutes until tender. Drain thoroughly, reserving liquid. Beat egg and yolk lightly, mixing in the flour. Bring the cream to the boil and pour into the yolk mixture, stirring constantly. Stir in the peach liquid and the orange zest. Arrange peach slices in a close single layer in a shallow baking dish and pour the custard over them. Bake at 170C/325F/ gas 3 for 25-30 minutes until almost set; the centre should still be wobbly.

Peaches Marinated with Rosemary

Rosemary is usually associated with savoury foods, but in moderation it can do wonders for puddings as well. This is a good way of injecting new life into ripe but unremarkable peaches. Serve the peaches on their own, or with a slice of rich chocolate cake and a scoop of creme frache.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 4 ripe peaches, skinned

juice of 1/2 small lemon

2oz (60g) sugar

2 strips lemon zest

1 sprig rosemary

Preparation: Halve peaches and slice. Turn in lemon juice to retard browning. Put sugar, lemon zest and rosemary into a pan with 3fl oz (85ml) water and stir over a moderate heat until sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer for 3 minutes. Pour over the peach slices and leave to cool, by which time they should be submerged in their own syrup. Pick out the bedraggled rosemary sprig. Cover with clingfilm and chill until needed (a few hours at most). Stir again to disguise the inevitable browning of the upper layer and serve.

Peaches Herdade de Zambujal

The Herdade de Zambujal is a huge peach-growing estate on Portugal's Costa Azul. In high season there is always a dish of these baked peaches will be waiting to be eaten in the kitchen of the grand family house. The cook usually uses white wine, but occasionally substitutes a fruity red.

Serves 6

Ingredients: 6 peaches, skinned

4oz (110g) caster sugar

1 cinnamon stick

1/2 - 3/4 bottle dry white or red wine

ground cinnamon

Preparation: Place peaches in an ovenproof dish just big enough to accommodate them. Dredge with sugar and tuck the cinnamon stick among them. Pour over enough wine almost to cover the fruit. Bake at 180C/35OF/ gas 4 until tender - about 40-50 minutes - turning once or twice, then leave to cool. Just before serving, dust lightly with cinnamon.

Spiced Peaches

Now is the time to lay down a stock of spiced peaches for the autumn. They go with all sorts of cold meat and some cheeses, but are best with ham or roast gammon.

Makes enough to fill two 1lb (450g) jars

Ingredients: 8 peaches (slightly under-ripe if anything), skinned

12oz (340g) granulated sugar

8fl oz (235ml) white wine vinegar

1 cinnamon stick

4 cloves

1/2 tsp coriander seeds

1/4 tsp black peppercorns

Preparation: Quarter the peaches. Put all the remaining ingredients into a large pan and bring up to the boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Simmer for a couple of minutes then add the peach quarters. Reduce heat, poach fruit until just tender and slightly translucent, then scoop out and pack quickly into hot sterilised jam jars. Boil the syrup hard until reduced by about half, then pour over the fruit, making sure they are completely covered. (If there is too little syrup, make up a second lot with sugar and vinegar but no more spice.) While still hot, seal tightly and label. Leave in a cool, dark place for at least a month.