I have a great friend called Romla. We’ve known each other 15 years now. Since the day she roared into the forecourt of The Drama Center London on monster sports bike in full, skin-tight leathers and pulled off her helmet to reveal a mop of rumpled peroxide-blonde hair. It was my first day and I assumed she was a third year. But then, as all the new students gathered, quietly, nervously for the introductory talk, in strode the blonde on the bike and sat in the circle. I decided I really didn’t like her.
This feeling incubated for the whole of the first term. Then for the second term production, an obsure German play called The Rats by Gerhart Hauptmann, Romla was cast as the formidable Housekeeper – obviously – and I, the lowly maid. Most of our scenes involved her mistreating, berating and generally slapping me around. I assumed this would nudge dislike towards loathing. But ironically the hours of rehearsal and the endless slapping – proper hand to cheek stuff, all very earnest, this was The Drama Center afterall – had the reverse effect. We became great friends.
Romla is very good at lots of things. ‘Shes a bloody polymath!‘ A mutual friend once noted. She is also a mean poker player and a superb cook. While we were studying, I spent far too much time at her house – we were students, we all had motley accommodation, all, except Romla. Most days involved her cooking. I’d play sous chef and our friend Tom would camp up proceedings until the usual suspects arrived for a big dinner. Over one such (particularly boozy) dinner soon after we’d graduated, we hatched a plan to subsidize our precarious acting careers by setting up a catering company. Now, if it had been down to me, this idea would have remained exactly that, an idea. But Rom being Rom, and her father’s daughter, meant Romla and Rachel Catering – R&R catering – was established. I probably shouldn’t go into too much detail about R&R, because although we were actually quite good, and surprisingly successful to boot, it was all incredibly dodgy, we broke several laws and breached just about every health and safety regulation going.
Amid all the cooking and pirate catering, we all went to stay at Rom’s family house in the south of France, a staggeringly beautiful place, perched on the hillside above Monaco. We ate at the house most nights, sitting on the terrace looking past the glittering lights of Villefranche-sur-Mer at the Ligurian sea, drinking wine worth more than our monthly pay cheques. We felt like Grace Kelly, Joan Collins, F Scott Fitzgerald and Norman Douglas all rolled into one.
Even polymath cooks need a night off; so one evening we went out for dinner. I’d been waiting to go to this particular restaurant. Firstly because the food was famously good and secondly, because this was the place, a few years earlier, that Rom’s ex boyfriend had infamously scooped a ladelful of thick, white, crème fraîche from the vast pot and hurled it, clown style, in her face.
The meal was as promised, terrific. Beautifully simple food, prepared with great care but no fuss, from really good local ingredients. First a vast bowl of raw vegetables; radishes, slim carrots, fennel, artichokes, broad beans and whole hard-boiled eggs to be eaten with aioli. There was a terrine, rabbit I think, little dishes of mushrooms cooked in butter and another of tiny preserved onions, sweet, sharp and delicious. For the main course, we choose between chicken, beef or lamb, which was then cooked on the grill over a wood fire in the center of the restaurant and served with baked potatoes and butter. Next a green salad. To finish, a vast jar of poached apricots and another of peaches was set in the middle of the table, and beside them a large metal pail of the most exquisitely thick, unctuous crème fraîche I’ve ever seen. The infamous crème fraîche. Large serving spoons and bowls were passed around so we could help ourselves.
After the first delicious mouthful, I turned to Romla, I wanted to exchange knowing glances about the crème fraîche, I was wondering if she remembered that she’d told me the story? She had, and in case I hadn’t, she was poised, ladle in hand and in the middle of a rustic but very fashionable restaurant, with the same force that the housekeeper slapped the maid, she splattered the crème fraîche in my face. Silence descended, thud! I don’t think anyone else at the table knew the story. Everyone looked shocked and uncomfortable, someone gasped, someone else handed me a napkin. Several people jumped to my defence in a ‘Oh my god, poor little Rachel; big, horrid Romla‘ manner. Romla and I proceeded to laugh for the next two days.
I still think the big jar of poached apricots and the pail of crème fraîche is one of the best and most wonderful puddings I have ever been served. So good and simple, so much nicer than a million fussy things. I often stew fruit – I think we’ve established I have a thing for it – Pears in red wine, prunes in spices and my favourite, Quince with black pepper. But apart from the odd little panful, I have never seriously poached apricots.
Until last weekend. Inspired by Robin at Codfish and Caviar – one of my favouries and one of the first food blogs I ever read – and with advice from Elizabeth David, I put apricots in jars. Apricots are lovely at the moment, they have been for a while, soft, downy, peachy-orange orbs, some of them flushed with pink. We have been eating them just so, splitting them in two at the seam, pulling away the stone and biting into the soft, tender, flesh. Then on Saturday my fruttivendolo, my other Vincenzo, gave me a cracking deal on 3 kilos.
You make a simple sugar syrup by dissolving 450g of fine sugar with 6 cups of water, you add strips of lemon zest, vanilla, whole black peppercorn, cloves and a stick of cinnamon. You poach halved apricots for a few minutes until they are tender but still holding their shape. Finally you divide the apricots between your preserving jars and then reduce the syrup a little before pouring it over the fruit.
As with pears and quinces, a gentle, brief poaching – brief being the operative word, just a few minutes or they will collapse and become mushy – does something wonderful to the flesh of apricots, the texture changes, becoming both firm and tender. After a few days macerating in the light lemon syrup, along with the cloves, vanilla, black peppercorns and the cinnamon, the become heavy and infused with the warm, spicy flavours.
We have been having poached apricots for breakfast this week, 6 or 7 halves each with a big blob of Greek yogurt. Even Vincenzo – who is usually resentful of fruit for breakfast, especially if it the only option – approves. Last night. after supper, we had some with mascarpone which is another thing altogether, indulgent and quite delicious. But, I know crème fraîche is the best partner for poached apricots, the thick, rich, weight of it, the slight sourness. On Saturday when I plonk the nicer of the two big jars in the middle of the table, it will be alongside a big bowl of crème fraîche. Crème fraîche hurling will be optional.
On a practical note, I’d cut some of the larger apricots in quarters. It was a mistake, they don’t hold their shape as well. Halves are best. When buying fresh apricots, look for fruit that is plump, fragrant, and gives a little when squeezed. Poaching time depends on the ripeness of the fruit. My ripe, but firm, apricots took 4 minutes.
Poached apricots in spiced syrup
Fills 2 1.5 litre or preserving jars.
- 6 cups /1.5 litres filtered water
- 2 generous cups /450g caster sugar
- 2 sticks of cinnamon
- 12 black peppercorns
- 15 thick strips of unwaxed lemon rind (you will need 2 or 3 lemons)
- 8 cloves
- vanilla pod
- 65 ripe but firm apricots
Wash and then cut the apricots in two and remove the stone.
Scrape seeds from vanilla bean with tip of a sharp knife into large heavy based saucepan and add pod, water, sugar, lemon zest, cinnamon, cloves and peppercorns.
Very gently bring the contents of the pan to the boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved.
Now you are going to cook the apricots in two or three batches depending on the size of your pan. Add the first batch of the apricot halves and simmer, stirring once or twice, until tender, 2 to 6 minutes (depending on ripeness).
Using a slotted spoon lift the apricots out of the syrup and into very clean preserving jars. Put the next batch in the syrup, poach and lift into the jars, Repeat, if necessary with the third batch.
Then scoop out the lemon, peppercorns, cloves and cinnamon and divide them between the jars. Now bring the syrup to a fast rolling boil and leave it rolling energetically until the syrup has reduced by about a third. Divide the syrup between the jars.
Keep the jars for a few days in the fridge before serving the apricots cold or a room temperature with a dollop of crème fraîche, fresh unsalted cream cheese (homemade or Isigny) mascarpone or thick greek yogurt.