read & taste: ripe

ripeNigel Slater‘s Ripe is a gorgeous object: a heavyweight, clothbound, coffee-table tome that isn’t so much food porn as gastronomic erotica. There are gorgeous photographs throughout, of apricots poaching in fragrant tea and berries swooning on pillows of cream, of lacy stalks of blossom and rough hunks of pie. Ripe makes a pair with Slater’s previous book, Tender, both focused on the garden and the plate. Tender takes you through the cook’s vegetable patch and here, we’re guided through his orchard – a term he admits is generous for his tiny London backyard.

Like his garden in the late summer, Slater’s writing is bursting with life. He brings a painter’s eye and a gourmet’s palate to descriptions of the colors of leaves and the shapes of flowers, the shattering crispness of an apple and the pucker of a ripe gooseberry. The book’s choice of fruit is dictated by the English weather: love in a mostly-cold climate. There are elderflowers, pears, sloes, and chestnuts, with a Mediterranean flavor of apricot and fig, but no citrus or bright tropical mango. For Slater the limitations of the local soil and seasons merely heighten the pleasure of enjoying a fruit at its fleeting peak. Eat papaya on the beach in Brazil; eat blackberries in England in October – not because it’s fashionable or ethical, but because it’s right. Because it’s ripe. 

Reading Ripe in the dead of winter in New York City, where I don’t even have a windowbox, makes my inner homesteader yearn for a patch of black soil in which to bury rhubarb roots or a blackcurrant bush. But New York State apples are everywhere, so I tried two recipes from the abundant first chapter: pork chops and apple crumble. When I lived in England I used Nigel Slater’s recipes religiously – his early book “Appetite” was the bible in the post-college kitchen I shared with my best friend – so I’m used to his abundance of butter and cream, which manage to make things richly delicious but not uncomfortably gut-busting. Both the pork and the crumble required sauteeing chunks of apple in butter: I used two varieties, different from Slater’s recommendations, but both lucky guesses – Golden Delicious for the crumble, and tart Cameos for the pork. The chops were straight out of a rustic bistro in Normandy: apples, hard cider, and cream, with potatoes and greens on the side. The apple crumble was pure England, the taste of childhood: chewy toffee at the edges, intense applesauce at the center, cooled in a pool of cream. 

The American edition of the book translates measurements into cups, but Slater is mostly a by-the-eye cook: a thumb-sized chunk of ginger, a handful of raisins. It’s a shame that in the translation no editor found American substitutes for the many varietals Slater extols – those few available in the US are starred with an asterisk, but this only makes it look as though our options are more limited. I’m sure there are blueberry cultivators and cherry cherishers out there who could sing the praises of native heirloom plants – but no doubt this book will inspire its readers to forage far beyond the supermarket aisles.

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