The availability of berries, plums, peaches, melons and nectarines -- all emphatically at their ripest best -- is a blessing that allows for desserts that please the eye -- and disappear quickly -- when the cook allows the natural flavors to highlight themselves.

Leave the heft of a layer cake to satisfy the sweet tooth during the fall and winter months and scale down to the coolness of summer fruits.

Very simply, the cook need only collect the fruit and spice it up. A plate of marinated fruit is easy to assemble, looks pretty and levels out the palate after a meal that very likely has been grilled and laced with herbs and spices. Besides, fruit at its prime looks and tastes refreshingly enticing and clean.

The following treatments for fruit are a delicious way to enhance what is already ripe and succulent. The sweet syrup baths may be made conveniently ahead of time -- at least a day if not three days in advance. In fact, most cooked syrups mellow and improve in taste if they are made ahead.

Syrups, cooked or uncooked, are made up of sugar (or honey), liquid (in the form of water, wine, liqueur) and spices (such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice berries, black peppercorns). The alcohol, by way of liqueur or wine, builds up the flavor of the syrup; when the syrup is boiled, any strong alcoholic overtones are diminished.

Making syrup is effortless: Into a noncorrosive saucepan goes liquid and sugar at first (depending on the recipe, wine or spices may also be added at this point). The pot is covered and placed over a gentle flame to melt down the sugar; if the sugar has not dissolved thoroughly before the mixture is boiled, then it will lump up (crystallize) and keep the syrup from becoming smooth, satiny and lustrous.

Once the sugar-water mixture becomes fluid, it is time to uncover the pot and set the liquid to boil, adding any other ingredients the recipe sets forth. The liquid must be boiled down to create a shiny, but not-too-dense syrup. In the main, the typical syrups served with fruit are much too thick, so the syrups I've paired with fruit are those that turn out light and shimmery, providing just a glossing over the fruit.

When syrup is used with fruit -- either poured over or puddled in a big bowl -- it is best to have it at room temperature. Refrigerator-cold syrup made up ahead and stored should be returned to room temperature before combining with fruit. The intense spices, such as cloves, allspice berries and peppercorns, are removed from the syrup before storage; a cinnamon stick or vanilla bean may be left in (they subtly perfume the syrup).

As conclusions to a meal, fruit compotes look lovely in virtually any sort of glass container. One of my favorite serving vessels is a clear glass cylinder about 10 inches high and 10 inches wide; in it, whole fruit such as figs, pears or triangles of watermelon in an inch of syrup can be stood up, or fruit can be layered. The cylinder can be presented unadorned or can be bound around the middle by colorful lengths of fabric plaited together and knotted, or encircled with raffia.

Serving fruit from a large, deep earthenware plate about 15-18 inches in diameter looks lovely, too; this is an especially appropriate way to present berries, which tend to get crushed and mangled when served from a deep bowl.

If you are an ambitious cook who likes to present dishes with garnishes (and who also has access to an everexpanding garden bumper crop of mint at hand), you can make mint posies. These are small bouquets of mint bundles tied together with cord, ribbon or natural raffia, and set strategically to the side or in the middle of a fruit salad. The sprigs of mint can be disbanded on serving, making the extra flourish an edible decoration.

Fruit compotes are delicious all by themselves, but a vanilla custard sauce, pitcher of heavy cream, or bowl of sweetened whipped cream also tastes right served with the fruit. Any creamy accompaniment mingles well with fruit syrups and juices.

These desserts are luscious at the end of a balmy summer night: WATERMELON IN WHITE WINE SYRUP (6 servings)

Here, watermelon basks in a gentle bath of sugar syrup charged with a little white wine; this is a gentle syrup, one that will not detract from the fresh, clean flavor of summer's intensely red and ripe fruit.

1 cup water

1 cup white wine

1 cup sugar

2 cinnamon sticks

6 large thick slices of watermelon (to yield 12 half slices, or triangles), about 1/4 of a small watermelon

Combine the water, white wine, sugar, and cinnamon sticks in a large saucepan, preferably of stainless steel or enameled cast iron. Cover the pot. Place over moderate heat, and cook until the sugar melts down completely. Uncover the pot, raise the heat to high, and boil the liquid for 5 to 7 minutes, or until it has reduced into a lightly thickened syrup. Cool the syrup. Discard one of the cinnamon sticks. Pour the syrup into a container, cover, and refrigerate until needed (or up to 5 days).

For serving, trim the slices of watermelon into triangles and remove any surface black or white seeds. Using a sharp knife, cut off a thin, level strip at the base of each triangle so that the watermelon pieces can stand up on a plate.

Arrange the triangles of melon, point side up, in a deep plate (one that has a good 3-inch lip). Pour the syrup over and around the melon. Let the cinnamon stick float decoratively in the syrup. Garnish with fresh mint, if you like.

Serve 2 slices of melon per guest on a plate with some of the syrup spooned over all. PEACHES IN RED WINE SYRUP (6 servings)

Wait for the juicy freestone peaches to invade farm market stands and use them in this preparation. Rub the outsides of the peaches briskly with a sturdy tea towel to remove any topical fuzz, if you prefer to keep the skin on for added taste, texture, and vitamins.

1 cup red wine

1/3 cup water

1 1/3 cups sugar

1 cinnamon stick

6 whole allspice berries

6 whole cloves

6 whole black peppercorns

1 quarter-size piece of fresh ginger root, peeled and halved

8 ripe, but firm, peaches

Juice of 1 lemon, strained

In a large saucepan (preferably of stainless steel or enameled cast iron), combine the red wine, water, sugar, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, peppercorns and ginger root. Cover the pot, place over moderately low heat, and cook until the sugar has dissolved completely.

Uncover the pot, raise the heat to high, and bring the liquid to a boil. Boil the liquid until it has reduced by about 1/4, approximately 5 minutes.

Let the syrup cool to room temperature; when cool, discard the ginger pieces.

For serving, cut up the peaches into 1/2-inch-thick slices, place the slices in a bowl, and sprinkle over the lemon juice. Stir. Pour the red wine syrup over the peach slices, spooning the syrup over and around every piece of fruit to coat. Let the fruit sit in the the syrup for at least 1 hour before serving.

Garnish the bowl of peaches with fresh green leaves, flowers, woody sprigs of peach blossom, or fresh mint, if you like. $/ NECTARINES IN ORANGE-HONEY SYRUP (6 servings)

This is a "no-cook" syrup made up of freshly squeezed orange juice and orange blossom honey -- very good indeed for using over slices of nectarines, peaches or plums.

2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice, strained of all seeds

1/4 cup honey, or to taste (the amount of honey, using more or less, would be determined by the sweetness of the orange juice and the nectarines), preferably orange blossom honey

6 strips of orange peel

2 cinnamon sticks

8 ripe nectarines

Juice of 1 lemon, strained

Combine the orange juice, honey, orange peel and cinnamon sticks in a large bowl (one which, later, can accommodate 8 sliced nectarines). In about 5 minutes, after the honey has dissolved, taste for additional honey. If the mixture seems a bit sour, add the honey now, if needed, and stir to dissolve.

Cut up the nectarines in 1-inch wedges and toss them with the lemon juice. Add the nectarines to the orange juice mixture, and let them stand to marinate for at least 30 minutes, before serving.

Serve the nectarines in shallow bowls or deep plates with some of the orange juice poured over to moisten. MELON COMPOTE IN CITRUS SYRUP (6 servings)

For this compote, choose among such melons as cantaloupe, honeydew, casaba, cranshaw, or persian, all at their luscious and ripe peak, for combining in a simple syrup made up of orange and lemon juice plus a dose of orange liqueur for depth.

4 medium-size ripe melons (honeydew, casaba, cranshaw, persian, cantaloupe -- in any combination that suits)

1 cup water

3/4 cup sugar

Grated rind of 1 orange

Grated rind of 1 lemon

Juice of 1 orange

Juice of 1 lemon

1/4 cup orange liqueur

1 cinnamon stick

Halve and deseed the melons. Cut the melon halves into bite-size chunks using a melon baller or other decorative cutter (there are fluted and scalloped cutters that make attractive pieces of fruit). Transfer the melon to a serving bowl and set aside, covered, while you prepare the syrup.

In a large saucepan, preferably of stainless steel or enameled cast iron, place the water, sugar, orange and lemon rinds. Cover the pot, place over moderately low heat, and cook until the sugar has melted down completely. Uncover the pot, raise the heat to high, and boil the syrup gently for 5 minutes. Add the juices, orange liqueur, and cinnamon stick; boil for 5 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let the syrup cool.

About 30 to 60 minutes before serving the fruit, pour the syrup (along with the cinnamon stick) over the fruit; shake the bowl to distribute the syrup; shortly before serving, spoon syrup over the top layer of melon.

You may want to decorate the bowl with several sprays of mint tied in little bundles. COMPOTE OF RED AND YELLOW CHERRIES (6 servings)

Yellow cherries are available at many farm market stands and often at the regular markets. The compote may be prepared with sweet red (bing) cherries alone, with delicious results, although the yellow cherries add a bit of whimsy to the dish. At an informal dinner, keep the stems and pits on and in the cherries; somehow this encourages casual and lively conversation, and, at the least, a relaxed atmosphere.

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups water

1/2 cup red wine

6 whole allspice berries

1 cinnamon stick

6 strips of orange peel

1 small vanilla bean, slit down the center 1/8 inch

2 pounds cherries (preferably a mixture of yellow and red cherries, as available)

Combine the sugar, water, red wine, allspice, cinnamon, orange peel, and vanilla bean in a large saucepan (preferably of stainless steel or enameled cast iron). Cover the pot, place over moderately low heat, and cook until the sugar has dissolved completely, about 10 minutes.

Uncover the pot, raise the heat to moderately high, and boil the syrup for 5 minutes, or until lightly condensed. Cool the syrup to room temperature. Discard the allspice berries and orange peel.

Heap the cherries in a bowl, and pour over the syrup along with the cinnamon stick and vanilla bean. Let the cherries marinate in the syrup for about 1 hour before serving.

Spoon cherries and syrup onto individual plates, and pass a pitcher of whipping cream for pouring atop the fruit. Provide dessert spoons for getting up the delicious syrup. BLACKBERRIES IN CASSIS SYRUP (6 servings)

Cre me de cassis is a liqueur (36 proof) that is delicious when paired with blackberries or strawberries; I use the liqueur by L'Heritier-Guyot in Dijon, France, and it is available at most well stocked liquor stores and many specialty food markets.

1/2 cup cre me de cassis (black currant liqueur)

1 cup water

2 tablespoons sugar

6 whole allspice berries

6 whole black peppercorns

3 pints blackberries, picked over

Pour the cre me de cassis and water in a heavy saucepan (preferably made of stainless steel or enameled cast iron). Add the sugar, allspice berries, and peppercorns. Cover the pot, set over moderate heat and bring to the boil. When the mixture is bubbling and all of the sugar has melted down, uncover the pot and bring the liquid to a boil.

Slowly boil the liquid for about 4 minutes or until it has reduced by about 1/3. Cool the liquid, then strain out and discard the allspice and peppercorns. Cool the liquid to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until needed (or up to 3 days).

Carefully turn the blackberries into a fairly shallow bowl, one that can accommodate the berries without having them piled up too high. About 15 minutes before serving, pour the syrup over the berries and shake the bowl gently to distribute the syrup up and over the berries. Garnish the bowl with fresh mint, if you like. Whipped cream, lightly sweetened and flavored with a little ground allspice, is a good accompaniment to the berries. $/ FIGS AND GRAPES IN PORT SYRUP (6 servings)

Use a rich ruby port to enhance the sugar syrup.

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

1/2 cup port

6 whole cloves

6 whole allspice berries

1 cinnamon stick

6 plump, ripe figs

1 pound black grapes, cut into small clusters

Combine the sugar, water, port, cloves, allspice berries, and cinnamon stick in a heavy saucepan (preferably of stainless steel or enameled cast iron). Cover the pot, place over moderate heat, and cook until the sugar has dissolved entirely. Uncover the pot, raise the heat to high, and boil the liquid for about 5 minutes, or until it has reduced by about 1/4, and has thickened slightly. Cool the syrup to room temperature; discard the cloves and allspice berries. Store the syrup with the cinnamon stick in a covered container in the refrigerator until needed or up to 3 days. Return the syrup to room temperature before using.

For serving, arrange the figs and the grapes on a deep plate or in a shallow bowl. Pour over the syrup, adding the cinnamon stick to the pool of syrup on the bottom of the plate. Let stand for about 20 minutes before serving, spooning the syrup over the fruit from time to time. Serve each guest a whole fig and a small bunch of grapes with some syrup poured over all.