Stone fruits are thriving in Herefordshire, discovers former Sienna chef-proprietor Russell Brown, who looks at the potential of apricots in both sweet and savoury dishes
It seems a little odd to be looking at rows of apricot trees in the middle of the Herefordshire countryside; to be picking fruit off the trees and seeing nectarines and peaches growing too. I automatically think of warmer climes for this type of stone fruit, but the English-grown apricot really is special. The fruit seems more flavoursome than those from other countries, with more depth, a slightly different texture, acidity in the skin and real flavour in the flesh.
My visit to Oakchurch Farm in Staunton-on-Wye was a revelation. Here, grower Jeremy Price is embracing new crops on a regular basis. Ten years ago they were exclusively strawberry growers, but now they also grow raspberries, plums, cherries and apricots.
The majority of the fruit goes to wholesale markets and is renowned for its quality, partly because it is picked when it is as ripe as possible. Jeremy also recommends leaving the apricots for four days in a moderately warm room to achieve perfect ripeness. A lot of the fruit is graded as it is picked, but a modern packing facility ensures that all the fruit is of an excellent standard. Part of the process involves blast-chilling the fruit as it comes in from the fields. A specially designed chiller unit takes a number of pallets of fruit and cold air is blown into the chamber, allowing the fruit to be cooled to 5°C-6°C in just a couple of hours. This is particularly important with stone fruit as the stone tends to retain heat.
Ten years ago it wouldn't have been conceivable to grow apricots here, but careful breeding programmes and the introduction of new cultivars have changed that situation. Climatic conditions are still important to the success of the crop, with a cold winter, a mild spring and a warm, dry summer being ideal. One aspect of our climate that is cited in relation to the enhanced flavour of UK apricots is the large difference in day and night temperatures.
Apricots feature in both sweet and savoury dishes and are also excellent in jams and chutneys. Perhaps the most common way of using them is in tarts and crumbles, but they are a versatile fruit. The acidity works well with fatty meats, such as pork and duck, they pair well with spices and can be used cooked and raw.
Martijn Kajuiter, executive chef at the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore in West Waterford, Ireland, uses apricots in a variety of ways in a dish simply titled 'Apricot Sphere', a moniker which belies the complexity of a dish that includes white chocolate parfait, apricot sorbet, apricot cream, grilled apricots and apricot coulis.
Apricots are available from May to August, with English apricots generally starting in July. The season this year has been poor, with a warm winter and cold spring affecting yields. It is best to work a few days ahead to allow the fruit time to ripen in your kitchen. Expect to pay around £3 a kilo for the best Spanish and French apricots and £5 a kilo for the English fruit.
Pork belly with a salad of pickled apricots, roasted apricot and salted almond purée
For the pork belly (start 48 hours ahead)
- Â½ a pork belly, rib end, skin on, bone in
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 small bunch sage
- 2dsp fennel seeds
- 2dsp Maldon sea salt
- Olive oil
- 1 large onion, sliced
- 2 carrots, sliced
- 2 sticks celery, sliced
- 500ml dry cider
Blitz or chop the garlic, sage, fennel and salt together with enough olive oil to make a thick paste. Score the skin on the belly in a small diamond pattern without cutting into the fat. Stab the flesh side of the belly all over with the tip of a boning knife and then rub the paste in well on the flesh side only. Wrap tightly in cling film or vacuum pack and leave for 24 hours.
Add the vegetables to a roasting tin, unwrap the pork belly and place on top. Pour the cider around the belly and add enough water or vegetable stock to just cover the vegetables. Season the skin heavily with salt, drizzle on some olive oil and rub in well. Cover first with a sheet of silicone paper and then wrap with foil. Braise the belly at 140Â°C for two hours, then unwrap and continue to cook until completely tender, for around another two hours. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly.
Transfer to a flat tray, skin side down. Remove the bones and the drier surface layer of meat from the belly. Trim the edges and then cover with a second tray and weight down (a 2kg-3kg weight is ideal). Chill until completely cold before portioning. Any meat trim can be used for rillettes.
Strain the cooking liquid from the roasting tin into a clean pan and chill to solidify the fat. Remove the fat and reduce the liquid by half. Chill until required.
Salted almond purée
- 250g salted Marcona almonds
- 300ml light vegetable stock
- 30ml roasted almond oil or roasted sesame oil to taste
- Maldon sea salt and fresh black pepper
Cover the almonds with the stock and allow to cook on a low heat to soften them. Top up with water as necessary. Blitz to a smooth purée and adjust the seasoning.
- 500g apricots, halved and stoned
- 150ml white wine vinegar
- 150ml white wine
- 150g caster sugar
- 2 sprigs of sage
- 6 whole peppercorns
- 1tsp yellow mustard seeds
Combine all the ingredients for the pickling liquid in a small pan and bring to the boil. Allow to cool. Halve the apricots, bring the pickling liquid back to simmer, add the apricots and remove from the heat. Allow to cool.
- 5 apricots, halved and stoned
- Maldon sea salt
- Olive oil
Season the cut side of the apricots. Heat a small non-stick pan and sear the apricots, cut side down, in a little oil. Cook until heavily charred on the cut surface. Transfer to a metal dish and roast at 180Â°C until just tender.
- 80g rocket/watercress
- Extra virgin olive oil
Reheat the pork belly as required using a little of the braising liquor. When hot, finish the crackling under the grill. For each portion, slice half a pickled apricot and toss with a small handful of the leaves. Dress with olive oil, a little of the pickling liquor and season.
Slice the pork belly and plate with the salad and roasted apricot. Add a dessertspoon of lightly warmed almond purée and a drizzle of the pork cooking liquid. The liquid will be reasonably intense and salty, so use sparingly.
Buying and storage tips
- English apricots are available for around six to eight weeks in July and August
- The fruit is best kept lightly chilled
- Bring to room temperature before use
- Allow around four days to ripen at room temperature
Poached apricots with yogurt sorbet and almond streusel
- 500g fresh apricots
- 250g caster sugar
- 250g water
- Juice and zest from Â½ a lemon
- 1 vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped out
- 75ml apricot purée
- Â½ a cinnamon stick
Make a stock syrup with the cinnamon stick, apricot purée, vanilla pod, lemon, water and caster sugar. Allow to infuse and chill. Halve the apricots and place into vacuum bags and cover with the syrup. Seal and cook at 80Â°C for 20 minutes, then transfer to an ice bath and chill.
Add an antioxidant, such as Sosa gel to the syrup to help keep the colour after the vacuum packs have been opened.
- 1 vanilla pod
- 100g caster sugar
- 100g water
- 500g full-fat natural yogurt mixed with 100ml milk
- 3g sorbet stabiliser
- 10g glycerine
Start by making a vanilla syrup. Split and scrape the vanilla pod and add to a heavy pan with the sugar and water. Heat gently until the sugar has dissolved, then bring to the boil and cook for two minutes. Cool and strain. Whisk the syrup into the yogurt base and use a stick blender to mix in the sorbet stabiliser and glycerine. Chill overnight and then blend again before churning.
Almond streusel crumb
- 50g ground almonds
- 50g light muscovado sugar
- 50g soft pÁ¢tisserie flour
- 2g finely ground Maldon salt
- 50g unsalted butter
In a small bowl, sift together the dry ingredients. Rub in the butter and bring together into a rough dough. Spread onto a silpat mat and bake at 160Â°C for 10-12 mins until golden brown.
Roughly break up with a fork and continue to cook for 2-3 minutes. Allow to cool on the tray.
Allow 4-5 apricot halves per portion. Place in a bowl with a little of the syrup, top with a ball of sorbet and sprinkle over the streusel.
Over the next few months I will be featuring sweetcorn and beetroot in Home-grown harvest. Do let me know how you use these products on your menus and what your seasonal favourites are. Email recipes, dish suggestions and photographs to:
Meat supplied bywww.walterroseandson.co.uk
Fruit supplied bywww.oakchurch.net
Russell Brown ran the Michelin-starred, three-AA-rosette Sienna restaurant in Dorchester, Dorset, for 12 years with his wife Eléna. He launched his website and consultancy business Creative about Cuisine last year. He specialises in restaurant consultancy and photography.