Annie Bell Fabulous fruit salads with pomegranates, persimmon, papaya and Christmas figs. Photograph by Patrice de Villiers
The last time I bought a fruit salad was in an airport lounge courtesy of the sandwich chain, Pret a Manger, during the 10 minutes between checking out the duty-free shop and boarding the plane. I quite like Pret's espresso and regularly stop off for a shot on my way past. The sushi, too, is not at all bad, but its fruit salad was perfectly horrible - the fruit was unripe, not nearly sweet enough, and largely out of season. And as for giving any thought to the idea that some fruits might have an affinity with others ...

Green and vegetable salads have been dragged by their lettuce leaves towards the 21st century, but fruit salad seems to be the same bowlful of diced apple (unpeeled), melon, pineapple and rock-hard strawberries with white insides that I remember from 20 years ago.

It seems so obvious that fruit should be ripe, but it's an easy corner for a commercial enterprise to cut - anything you make at home is likely to be a vast improvement on what you can can buy. At this time of year, this means turning your back on imported strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, and making the best of the wintertime exotica coming into the shops. There are also fabulous fat and succulent dried fruits around in December, mainly standing at the ready for puds and the stuffing for the Christmas bird.

Ensuring the fruits are ripe requires planning, or make sure that there is always a bowl generously stocked with a selection of ripe fruit so it is there when you need it. Fruits for a salad should have peaked; you can bet that anything that comes out of a supermarket will have at least two days' shelf life written into it.

In truth, a fruit salad is at its best eaten freshly prepared. Different fruits fare in different ways once they are cut, and lemon juice can be used to ward off discoloration, but unless it's a cooked fruit compote, which can actually improve overnight, the fresher the better. And the riper the fruit, the quicker it's likely to discolour once cut.

I can't imagine adding sugar or honey but there does need to be some kind of juice or syrup. Poaching dried fruits in fresh orange juice or water in the oven for a fair time renders a beautifully sweet juice for the basis of a salad. I sometimes spice it up with a few drops of orange flower water, or else a liqueur. There are some moreish Canadian fruit wines doing the rounds at the moment, fortified with brandy, made by Southbrook Farms. The raspberry one is delectably red and sticky and packs an intense taste of the fruit. Just a splash can be a good alternative to a fruit eau-de-vie - sip the remainder next time you have a cough. Talking of remedies, ginger wine is especially good with poached dried figs.

Sometimes fruit doesn't need sugar so much as a squeeze of lemon to bring out its flavour. Nada Saleh, the Lebanese cookery writer, came to lunch the other day clutching the biggest pomegranate I have ever seen. She referred to it as being sweet and sour. Having an ordinary one to hand, I was able to compare the two. Hers was dripping with juice when I cut it open, and tasted like a cross between a redcurrant and a raspberry.

Other treats this month are lychees. Always buy the biggest you can find - they should feel as though they're filled with liquid when you roll them between your fingers. It is the season, too, for persimmons, which are like eating a jellied jam when they're ripe. Sharon fruit can be good, but are just not in the same league.

In winter, I also like to combine fresh fruits with poached dried fruits. Compotes that rely solely on dried fruits can be heavy going. Mixing them half-and-half with segments of juicy navel oranges should banish any hint of worthiness.

Papaya, mango and persimmon salad, serves 3-4

2 medium-size mangoes

1 papaya

125g large black grapes

4 persimmons or sharon fruit

450g clementines

Combine all the fruit in a serving bowl as you prepare it. Cut the skin off the mango using a sharp knife and thinly slice the flesh off the stone. Cut this into thin strips and halve them. Slice the tapered green end off the papaya, cut the fruit in half and scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon. Slice the skin off each half and cut into half-moons. Halve and seed the grapes. Skin a persimmon by first cutting out the central core, then cut it into segments and peel. You can peel a sharon fruit with a potato peeler and then slice it into segments.

Juice the clementines and pour over the fruit. Gently toss the fruit salad, cover and chill until required. Bring back to room temperature for 30 minutes before eating.

Banana, pear and pomegranate salad, serves 3-4

2 Comice pears

2 bananas

2 tbsp lemon juice

4 tbsp fresh pineapple juice

4 Medjool dates, halved, stoned and finely sliced

1 large pomegranate

a drop of raspberry wine (optional)

Place the fruit in a bowl as you prepare it. Peel, quarter and core the pears and slice crosswise into strips. Thinly slice the bananas. Toss these fruits with the lemon juice and the pineapple juice, then gently toss in the dates.

Slice the pomegranate in half. Holding one of the halves, flesh-down, between your hands, press with your thumbs on the skin to loosen the seeds. They should come away easier than if you have to spoon them out. Toss these into the fruit salad and add a splash of raspberry wine if you have any to hand.

Transfer the salad to a serving bowl. Cover and chill until required. The lemon juice should keep the pear and banana from discolouring for a couple of hours. Bring the salad back to room temperature before serving.

Prune and orange compote, serves 4

The French half-dried Mi-Cuit prunes from Merchant Gourmet, available from good food stores, turn out especially well after a long, slow cook in the oven. If serving this as a pudding, you may like to add a splash of orange flower water or Cointreau.

225g prunes

350ml fresh orange juice

1 cinnamon stick

3 navel oranges

Heat the oven to 140C fan oven/ 150C or 300F electric oven/gas mark 2. Place the prunes in a smallish casserole. Pour the orange juice over them, passing it through a sieve, and tuck in the cinnamon stick. Cover and poach in the oven for two-and-a-half hours, by which time they should have plumped up nicely, and the liquor should be a dark orange and very intense. Turn the prunes once or twice during cooking. Remove and discard the cinnamon stick. Leave to cool, then transfer to a serving bowl.

Cut the outer skin and pith off the oranges with a sharp knife and slice out the segments. Add these to the prunes, squeezing any juice left in the pith into the dish. Cover and chill until required. Bring back to room temperature for 30 minutes before eating.

Fruit salad with figs, lychees and Cox's apples, serves 4

The Cox's apples need to be really crisp - they tend to go woolly with age. If in doubt, substitute Granny Smith's or some other apple.

10 dried figs

1 soup-spoon Cognac or Calvados

2 tbsp flaked almonds

350g lychees

2 Cox's apples

a squeeze of lemon juice

Heat the oven to 140C fan oven/ 150C or 300F electric oven/gas mark 2. Place the figs in a small casserole and just cover with water. Cover with a lid and poach in the oven for three hours, turning occasionally. Pour the juice into a small saucepan and reduce it by half, add the brandy and pour it back over the figs. Turn the oven up to 170C fan oven/180C or 350F electric oven/gas mark 4, place the almonds on a small baking dish and toast them for 10 minutes, until nicely golden.

Once the figs are cool, cut off the stalks and quarter them. Place in a shallow serving bowl with their juices and add the remaining fruits as you prepare them. Peel the lychees and remove the stones. Peel, quarter and core the apples and slice them. Add a generous squeeze of lemon juice. Cover and chill until required, bringing back up to room temperature 30 minutes before eating. Scatter over the flaked almonds at the last minute.

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