Friday, 14 March 2008

WHB: In Search of the Nectarine

"Talking of Pleasure, this moment I was writing with one hand, and with the other holding to my Mouth a Nectarine -- how good how fine. It went down all pulpy, slushy, oozy, all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large, beatified Strawberry."
John Keats (1795-1821)

I don’t make desserts often, especially when it comes to fruit desserts. Fresh fruit tastes great and is so easy. But I can be persuaded. This week I fancied making sweets and was persuaded by Haalo’s nostalgia for nectarines fresh from the tree, which she claimed, could be recreated by baking fresh nectarines in a strudel.

Unfortunately my memories of nectarines aren’t as glowing and soft edged as Haalo’s. Mine are of earwigs running out of the centre of a nectarine which gave me an irrational dislike of the fruit for years. But happily I have overcome it. Nectarines are now among my favourite fruits. I think I even like them more than peaches because they are smoother, smaller and more intensely flavoured. They are also good for me - like peaches, they are high in vitamins A and C. But we are now encountering the last of summer’s bounty as we slide into autumn.

All summer I have been promising myself I would bake dessert with stone fruit. When I was young and my mum regularly made sweets, I always wanted apricot in my pies and sponge puddings rather than apple. I really crave them more in winter when stone fruit is hard to come by. So, rather than wait til they are just an unobtainable dream of summer, I decided to have a final fling with nectarines.

Last year Susan wrote about nectarines always playing second fiddle to peaches. I remember feeling a little saddened at the thought and decided I needed to find out a little more about nectarines. Susan made the all- too-true observations that they don’t star in classic desserts or music. Luckily my partner E is a fount of useless information about music and remembered that there is a band in Edinburgh called Nectarine Number Nine – actually he tells me it is a musical project of Davey Henderson, a member of cult 1980s band The Fire Engines. E even once owned some of their albums on vinyl!

But Susan is right. The nectarine isn’t embedded in our culture like peaches. It isn’t found in the literary canon or childhood stories. No one would compare complexions or bottoms to the nectarine. But nevertheless, such a delicacy shouldn’t be hidden in the shadowy corners of history. Here is what I could find.

It is thought that nectarines probably originated in China about 2000 years ago and were cultivated in ancient Persia, Greece and Rome. Apparently, one Chinese emperor was so enthralled with nectarines that he and his people referred to them as the "nectar of the gods." The first recorded mention in English is said to be in 1616. I have read that in the 16th and 17th centuries the nectarine was known as the ‘nucipersica’ because it resembled the walnut (which begs the question has the nectarine, the walnut or people’s eyesight changed drastically since this time?) and then was known as the ‘nectorin’.

In the 19th century, there was a discussion over whether the nectarine should have its own species but it was decided that it was too similar to a peach. Here lies one problem in finding the nectarine. It is seen to be just a bald or mutant peach. Before I started my little bit of research on its history, I thought it was a recently discovered hybrid between a peach and a plum.

We don’t often hear the praises of the nectarine sung in history, although John Keats obviously appreciated a good juicy nectarine. I suspect if you look really closely you might find that some of the famous peaches might actually be nectarines. Maybe Prufrock really wondered if he dares to eat a nectarine. Maybe James lived inside a giant nectarine. And maybe Dame Nellie Melba might have preferred her eponymous dessert to be centred around a nectarine – after all she didn’t want to risk any peach fluff affecting her vocal chords.

Now that I have tasted nectarine strudel, I am amazed it is apples and not nectarines which found fame with this pastry dish. This strudel is so good with its crisp pastry, with almond and sugar between the layers giving a hint of marzipan, and with its large chunks of nectarine baked to a juicy tenderness that Haalo describes as akin to eating the fruit straight off the tree. I also added raspberries on a whim. It was fantastic! Even E loved it, despite claiming that he always asked his mother for a piece of pie with no fruit. Haalo gave very approximate quantities but I have had to be more precise to help me remember for next time (but I don't think these need to be closely followed). This was so delicious that I am hoping that I will bake it many more times.

I am sending this to Kel from Green Olive Tree who is this week’s host of Weekend Herb Blogging, which was started by Kalyn at Kalyn’s Kitchen.

Nectarine and Raspberry Strudel
(adapted from Haalo)
Serves 4-6

4 nectarines, sliced
50g raspberries
6 sheets filo pastry (about 30 x 20cm - a bit bigger might be good)
50g butter, melted
4 tbsp caster sugar
4 tbsp ground almonds

Place filo pastry sheets under a damp tea towel so you can take out one at a time. Grease or line a large baking tray. Preheat oven to 180 C.

Take sheet of filo pastry and place on the baking sheet. Brush with melted butter. Place a second sheet on top. Sprinkle with a tablespoon of ground almonds and a tablespoon of sugar. Repeat with melted butter on each sheet and almonds and sugar on the fourth sheet.

When you have used all 6 sheets (you don’t need to butter the top sheet) scatter 2 tablespoons of almonds and 2 tablespoons of sugar on the pastry. Pile nectarine slices along the pastry leaving a large margin and scatter with raspberries. Now here is where I got a bit unsure. Fold the pastry over to seal along the long seam – mine didn’t seal well so maybe I had a bit much fruit (although it was fine to serve). Fold the short ends over. Then carefully turn the strudel over so it is seam-side down on the baking tray. Brush more butter over the strudel.

Bake for 30-40 minutes in preheated oven. Serve with cream if desired. Good enough to eat without!

NOTE: other fruit could be used in this strudel, particularly other stone fruit. Haalo also says that you could use tinned peaches but that they should be drained as much as possible and a little more almond meal used to soak up juices.

On the stereo:
Live Recordings, Dec 30 & New Year's Eve 2003 - Oakland Arena - The Dead

9 comments:

  1. Wow--I love all the background info here. I'm amazed that you had time to bake this AND write such a detailed, informational post about it!! Great, as always!

    I've always preferred nectarines to peaches--in addition to having the exterior fuzz that Dame Melba probably didn't like, peaches also seem to be less juicy and sometimes powdery inside (at least, the ones we get here).

    Also loved the various literary references--there's also a great line in Nabokov's Lolita (which of course I can't find because the book is still in a box in our basement) in which he compares her bum to a peach.

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  2. Mmm, a lovely way to savour stone fruit before they disappear on us!

    I've just returned from a visit to Organic Wholefoods in Brunswick and noticed multiple packets of cocoa nibs for sale. They cost $17 (!). I bought the same brand and quantity for only a couple of dollars less and can assure you they go a long way, I have probably baked the equivalent of 4-5 batches of biscuits with them.

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  3. thanks Ricki - I was surprised that the information was hard to find on nectarines but I love my history. I think I have had more luck with good nectarines than peaches too. And it is no surprise to hear nabokov has a peach reference :-)

    thanks cindy - I need to visit organic wholefoods soon - and I am determined to get some cocoa nibs, so this info is very helpful

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  4. I'm also a huge nectarine fan, have always preferred them to their furry-skinned cousins. Reading this has made me remember that I've got a baked nectarine recipe that I've been meaning to try - better get cracking before they disappear!

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  5. thanks Ellie - I'd love to see your nectarine recipe - the start of stone fruit season I have such good intentions but don't they pass by so quickly!

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  6. Yup, got your entry in. This is one of the top dessert entries for last week's WHB in my opinion. Looks decadent, i wonder if I can recreate it myself!

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  7. thanks Kel - very kind of you - it looks decadent but it isn't rich and filling - just right for the end of a meal - and not that difficult either!

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  8. It sounds wonderful! And I love nectarines, it's one of my favorite fruits.

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