DURING THE SUMMERS Jane Grigson tests her recipes on two propane gas burners in a cave in France; winters she tests them in a 17th-century farmhouse in England. But her American colleagues met her and tasted her dishes in the brand new, skylit Greenwich Village kitchen of James Beard. Having long welcomed American cookbook authors and food enthusiasts who made the pilgrimage to Swindon in Wiltshire, Grigson, the knowledgeable and literate author of eight cookbooks in 11 years was on her first visit to the U.S. She had her Instamatic camera ready to get Beard's photo while editors and reporters from People, Family Circle, the Christian Science Monitor and several major publishing houses jockeyed to meet her.
Why hadn't she been to the U.S. before?
"Nobody's ever paid for me before," chirped Grigson, wife of poet and scholar Geoffrey Grigson and well-known in her own right not only for her books but for her food writing in the Observer Sunday magazine. She had been brought here by Atheneum to promote her latest book, "Jane Grigson's Fruit Book" ($19.95). Rosy-cheeked and plump as an apple dumpling, in a frizz of light hair and blare of silky purple-and-green shirtdress, she could have stepped off the bus with any touring small-town ladies' club and been lost in the crowd. Until she had something to say.
Jane Grigson talks as one hopes she cooks: deliciously.
Words tumble out as she describes her first day in New York, bubbles on about the produce shops, "this marvelous New York thing," with a "cascade of fruit right out to the sidewalk." Her hands are in constant motion in vaguely familiar gestures, vague only until you realize that she looks as if she is kneading and rolling and shaping pastry. After each paragraph, you imagine, she could have a pie all crimped and slashed and ready to bake.
Grigson, frequent visitor to European food meccas such as Fauchon and Harrod's, was falling head over heels for America's markets and foods. Zabar's was too crowded to get a taste of anything, she bounded on, but it, like French shops, has a wonderful smell. In fact, she found Zabar's "really a knockout." And all the more so for the "warehouse look" of bags and barrels, which one does not find in England.
Lunch at the Cafe des Artistes charmed her with its platter of fruits cut and arranged so that they not only looked like a painting, but also "you could put a fork in anywhere," and spear something lovely all ready to eat. She'd already noted that idea for the revised edition of her new fruit book. The next day, as she had it planned, she was going to have an American hamburger, and she was eager to try the oysters and a lobster at the Grand Central Oyster Bar.
So far, Grigson had found a caesar salad to be "quite fun," and was following with a vengeance the suggestion to discover American cocktails. She'd tried--and loved--a margarita and a tequila sunrise, and "I've been boning up on bloody marys."
Having been feeding recipes and food lore to Americans for a decade, Grigson was finally meeting her audience. The American editions of her books are exactly the same as the British (she does all the measurements in American as well as metric measures), except for the inclusion of a glossary, which translates the likes of "airing cupboard" and "cornflour" into American. Grigson was taken aback by the size of the glossary -- 11 pages -- since she "thought it would be about 10 words."
But if Americans have a lot to learn about the British, the British, she suggests, learn the worst of America. In England, says Grigson, people "associate American food with tins and frozen things. We pick up American things and ruin them." For instance, England has American-style supermarkets, but without the crucial services such as packing the groceries and carrying them to the car. As for the British translation of hamburger, "in England they put in gristle and other meats and things they call proteins -- like emulsified pig skin." Grigson warmed to the topic. "Even cats won't eat it."
Americans, on the other hand, tend to oversweeten foods. When Grigson makes an American recipe for the first time, "I always reduce the sugar by half." She does, however, use American recipes frequently, and adapts many of them for her books. "There is no such thing as invention," she explains. "Everything, in a way, has been invented in cooking . . . It's all adaptation."
Her fruit book, which took her 2 1/2 years because she had to hit the right seasons for each chapter, is a book to hold onto for 10 years, she says. It includes chapters on cherimoyas and feijoas, which a reader in Des Moines hasn't the remotest possibility of finding in the neighborhood supermarket. But, says Grigson, "I don't believe in talking about just what people can get easily." Since, as she put it, "In Europe the fruit trade is booming," and shops are getting new fruits each year, she looks forward to "more and more fruits to be grown in systematic ways in third-world countries," which will help their economies as well as the fruit purveyors and consumers. Exotic fruits are, in these health-conscious days, serving as dessert.
Grigson's book is her contribution to the crusade against what she calls "bureaucratic bossiness," an example she cites being that apple growers in the EEC can grow only about eight varieties of apples for export. She points out that golden delicious apples are 75 percent of the apples grown in the world. "It's a shattering thought," insists Grigson, who for years had joined in a coordinated campaign against supermarket tomatoes. "Why shouldn't they have a stunning stock?" Grigson suggests of supermarkets. And she warms to the memory of a supermarket she found in Normandy that fills the pails of schoolchildren with fresh raw milk as they return home from school.
Grigson predicts that American supermarkets will, in coming years, stock fresh lychees and passion fruit and custard apples and carambolas. Maybe even cape gooseberries -- "a charming fruit." She is surprised they don't already have loquats, which are "almost the first fruit of the year," appearing before strawberries. "Everybody has kiwifruit," she points out.
While the mulberry, cranberry and blueberry chapters in "Jane Grigson's Fruit Book" are peculiarly useful to an American audience, readers will have to take on faith that medlars and rambutans will eventually be pertinent, or simply enjoy those parts of the book for their literary value. Of that there is plenty, from a joke in French sans translation to delightful whimsys, folklore and commentary such as:
"There are people who consider that, by introducing fruit, i.e. sweetness, into salad, the maitre d'hotel of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York was responsible for the corruption of American food toward the over-sweet. This needs to be watched, I agree."
"To make a beginning with strudel dough, choose a day when you have time, peace and a companion."
"Mangoes are the tightest clingstones of them all, the limpets of the vegetable world except that the stone they fix themselves to is internal."
Grigson has gathered good wisdom and good recipes and presented, as in all her books, herself along with her subject. As she puts it, "There is so much of human history bound up with fruit," so much emotion connected with the subject. But above all, this time around she chose fruit as her subject--500 pages' worth -- because, "It's so frivolous."
As frivolous as apple pie, for which Grigson quotes no less than Jane Austen: "Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness."
APRICOT CARAMEL CAKE
Like most upside-down cakes and puddings, this one is made on the pound cake principle of equal quantities -- in the past, a pound of each, now usually 4 ounces -- of eggs, flour, sugar and butter. It gets extra fineness from cornflour (cornstarch) and extra richness from ground almonds. The caramelizing of the fruit reminds me of tarte Tatin, and indeed you could put a pastry layer over the apricots instead of the cake mixture. Remember to prick it with a fork.
The choice of tin is important. I use a straight-sided shallow cake tin about 5 cm (2 inches) deep and 23 cm (9 inches) wide. If you want to use fewer apricots, choose a deeper tin, 20 cm across (8 inches). If you want an even shallower layer of cake, with more apricots, use a 25 cm (10 inch) tin. These differences will affect the cooking time and temperature: If the cake depth is increased, bake at 350 degrees. In all cases, test it with a skewer or narrow knife blade. It's a very good tempered mixture.
Fill your chosen tin loosely with fresh apricots, substituting apples or pears when apricots aren't in season. By the time they are halved and poached, you will have the proper amount to cover the base closely fitted together; 1 1/2 pounds will be plenty. 2/3 cup sugar 1 1/3 cups sugar and 2 1/2 cups water, boiled 5 minutes to make a syrup 1 1/2 pounds fresh apricots, halved 2 large eggs Scant 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 cup butter 1/2 cup cornflour (cornstarch) 1/2 cup self-rising flour (or add 3/4 teaspoon baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt to 1/2 cup flour) 1 level teaspoon baking powder 1 rounded tablespoon ground almonds Put the sugar into a pan with 1/2 cup of water. Stir over low heat until dissolved, then boil hard to a rich caramel brown (don't stir, but watch it). Wrap your hand in a tea towel, and stir in -- off the heat -- 4 tablespoons water, using a wooden spoon. The caramel will sizzle, harden and look very odd. Just stir carefully, and if it does not dissolve into a clear smooth caramel, put it back over the heat until it does. Pour into the lightly greased cake tin and set aside.
Bring the syrup to a boil in a wide pan, and slip in the halved apricots. Poach until barely tender. Place them cut side down, on top of the caramel.
Put all the remaining ingredients into the bowl of an electric mixer or food processor and whiz until smoothly blended. If necessary, add a couple of tablespoons of the apricot syrup to make the mixture a dropping consistency. The ingredients can equally well be beaten together by hand; make sure the butter is very soft indeed.
Spread carefully and evenly over the apricots. Bake at 375 degrees for about 45 minutes. The top should brown nicely. Cool for a moment, then run knife round the edge, put a serving plate on top and quckly turn upside down. Serve warm as a pudding, which is best, I think, or cold as a cake.
If you like, you can split and toast as many almonds as there are apricots, and put a nice brown piece in the cavity of each half of apricot. This is best done at the end of cooking time. Or just scatter the top with chopped toasted almonds.
Note: Apples or pears can be substituted for apricots. Other fruit should not be caramelized.
Toast two small slices of white bread per person. Cut away crusts. Top them with watercress, then slices of pear and shavings of stilton cheese. Put into an ovenproof serving dish and bake in a moderate oven (350 degrees) for about 5 minutes, until the cheese starts to melt. Grind over plenty of pepper.
If I can buy good pears, we always have this dish for supper over the Christmas holiday. Refreshing and sharp and crisp. ICED PEAR SOUFFLE (Souffle Glace Aux Poires)
If this souffle' stands around, it can separate very slightly at the base. This does not matter, but it spoils the cloud-like appearance. Once you have made it, put it into the freezer, and aim to serve it in a frozen but soft condition, so that it is halfway between a fairly firm cold souffle' and an ice cream. If you have no freezer, and want to get ahead, make the Italian meringue up to 6 days in advance, and store it in a covered bowl in the refrigerator. Fruit and cream can be added a couple of hours beforehand, or less, and the whole thing returned to the cold. 1 cup sugar 4 large egg whites 1 pound pears 1 lemon 1 1/4 cups heavy cream 1/3 cup eau-de-vie (pear brandy)
First make the Italian meringue. Dissolve the sugar in 1/2 cup water over low heat. When clear, bring to the boil and boil hard until you reach the hard ball stage, 248 degrees. If the sugar crystallizes above syrup level, wash down the sides of the pan with a brush dipped in water.
Meanwhile beat egg whites. Pour on syrup straight from the stove, and continue whisking until the meringue swells to a cloudy mass. Or use a rotary beater.
Peel, core and chop pears coarsely. Cook with a tablespoon lemon juice until just tender. Process or crush to a smooth pure'e. Taste and add more lemon, but no sugar.
Fold whipped cream and eau de vie into the Italian meringue, then the fruit pure'e. Turn into a souffle' dish of a generous 5-cup capacity, or a slightly smaller one collared with oiled paper. Serve chilled.