Savoury dishes cooked with fruits have featured in British cookery for hundreds of years. There are medieval dishes of game or poultry cooked with nuts, spices and fruits which to us now would look very ‘Ottolenghi’ in style. With the arrival of September I think we are just coming into the best time to revisit this very old yet very modern way of cooking. Autumn’s seasonal fruits marry particularly well with its seasonal meats. And like all the best marriages their success is down to a bit of give and take: the fruit gives the meat a little sweetness; the meat gives the fruit its depth of flavour. Harmony reigns.
Figs are delicious added towards the end of roasting or pot-roasting autumn’s game meats such as duck, rabbit or guinea fowl. Simply soak the figs beforehand in a little maderia or marsala wine and then add them whole for the last 30 minutes or so of the meat’s cooking. They will burst open with sticky, juicy flavour. For pan cooked meats – such as venison steaks – I like to halve the figs and then cook them quickly in the pan the meat was done in once it is taken out to rest. The figs take on the meat’s juices and are just right to serve alongside it.
Given how famously good ripe figs are with a plate of parma ham it is no great stretch to see the merits of extending their use to other pork dishes. A stuffing of figs chopped up with walnuts, orange zest, cinnamon, thyme, a splosh of vinegar (and some breadcrumbs to hold it all together) is fabulous rolled into the middle of a boned piece of pork leg or loin. Tie it up, roast, lick your lips.
Prune sauce is a very traditional accompaniment to pork but for as long as the late summer plums are lasting into autumn I prefer to make a sauce with the fresh rather than dried fruit. There is a school of thought – which I do ascribe to – which roots our British appetite for apple with pork back to pigs scavenging for windfall apples. I’m happy to extend the same reasoning to pork with plums.
This recipe for spiced plum sauce is good with pork, pigeon, partridge, scallops or – of course – duck. There’s good reason that plum/duck combination is found in nigh on every chinese restaurant in the land. This one probably has rather more of the actual fruit in it than most of those, though.
Sweetly spiced plum sauce
2tbsps red wine vinegar
1 star anise
3 tsp mixed spice
2tsp English mustard
50g soft brown sugar
Quarter the plums and put into a saucepan with all the other ingredients and a little salt. Cook gently with the lid on for about 20 minutes so that the fruit softens. Dig out the plum stones and the star anise. Puree the sauce until smooth.
Simple as that is an even simpler way to get a plummy hit with your game is to roast pigeons or partridge seated on top of plums. As the birds cook their juices will seep deliciously into the fruit below. Cooking the meat and the fruit together for a good period of time really maximises their ‘give and take’ of flavour. Softer fruits like plums or figs will fall apart and need scooping up to be served alongside. Nothing wrong with that. Harder fruits, though, such as autumn’s pears become beautifully tenderised by long-roasting alongside game yet hold their shape. Just peel pears, leave them whole and add to the roasting pot or tin. Roll them around every so often in the juices.
British pears up until the 17th century all needed to be cooked one way or another as they were harder, more acidic pears rather than the sweet dessert pears which were cultivated later. We think nothing of the difference between cooking apples and eating apples so really it is just the same idea. Now, of course, things are turned on their head and dessert pears monopolise the market. You might get lucky and find Black Worcester cooking pears with their rough skin. They are the oldest cooking pear variety still around.
Second best for cooking with are not-quite-ripe pears. There tend to be lots of those sold as pears bruise so easily they have to be picked before they are absolutely ripe. Rather than tutting over an under-ripe pear that can’t be eaten raw try poaching it to go with pheasant, partridge or venison. The meat’s intensity will benefit from being cut through with the fruit’s acidity. Peel, core and quarter the pears; immerse in a pan with red wine, cinnamon, peppercorns and the zest and juice of an orange; then gently simmer with until tender. Reduce some of the poaching liquid with the meat’s cooking juices into a simple sauce. Then serve the meat with the pear quarters and the sauce dribbled over.
A quick plea to end on – please try to only buy British pears. Our pear orchards were decimated by 50% between 1970 and the end of the century. They have declined steadily since then too to the extent that 80% of our pears have been imported. There is a British pear revival trying to happen. Give it a helping hand if you can.