I could spend the entire summer eating just fruit because it’s all I want on a hot, lazy day, and there’s such a great selection of wonderful produce at its peak. In January, my fridge is packed with a big wedge of watermelon, grapes, mangoes, nectarines, apricots and berries. I bought my first wedge of the season – which was seedless – back in late November on an unseasonably hot day, and I was delighted to find it was completely delicious, full of watermelon sweetness and flavour.
I used to think seedless varieties skimped a bit on flavour, but growers have obviously made improvements in recent years, which is excellent because watermelon pips were the only downside to this happy fruit. Now it is also possible to buy the Champagne melon, which has pretty much the same flavour as the traditional pink watermelon but has yellow flesh.
I find eating a big slice of chilled watermelon such a refreshing and simple pleasure. It’s also great in desserts and cocktails, such as watermelon juice with white rum, gin and mint, muddled and served with ice. I learnt a fabulous dessert from Greg Malouf where you cut neat little wedges of watermelon, pile them on the plate, drizzle them generously with a cardamom, lime and rosewater syrup and serve the lot with homemade cherry ice-cream – it’s a great way to finish a dinner party because it’s pretty as well as delicate and beautiful to eat.
It’s difficult to advise on selecting watermelon, because it’s now mostly sold already cut, and even full melons are not very revealing of their qualities. A whole melon should feel heavy for its size and have no cracks or blemishes on the outside. For the best and sweetest tasting watermelons, buy half or quarter pieces in the height of the season from a good source, and avoid those small poly-styrene trays of pre-cut fruit that have been refrigerated for who knows how long.
I have very fond memories of Christmases spent with a family in Castlemaine, Victoria, who had a huge mulberry tree in their backyard. I loved to stand under its lush green foliage on a hot summer’s morning eating mulberries that were ripe and soft. When the mulberries were ready to eat, they would turn from pale red to a deep blood purple, and the ground would be splattered with dark mulberry juice.
A mature mulberry will grow into a handsome gnarly tree with bright green heart-shaped leaves. The tree is quite beautiful and I have vowed to grow one as soon as I own a backyard big enough. Mulberries are rarely seen on the market because of their delicate nature – when they’re ripe they are squishy, full of juice, won’t last long and don’t travel well. They taste best ripened on the tree and won’t ripen further once picked. So hopefully you know someone with a tree, then you can enjoy mulberries stirred through homemade vanilla ice-cream (my favourite), in jam on toast, or on a custard tart made with buttery sweet pastry. They are also delicious baked in a simple lemon tea cake or made into a syrup to have chilled over ice water.
There are three different kinds of mulberry – white, red and black, the black being far the superior tasting of the three and the most commonly planted here. If you do find them at the market, look for fruit that is a deep shade of purple and is not bruised or seeping juice and eat them straight away.
One of the great pleasures of an Australian summer is the abundance of stone fruit. Every market, grocer and supermarket in December and January has its shelves piled with peaches, apricots and nectarines, and for me, their fruity scent is the harbinger of summer.
Nectarines, which are actually smooth-skinned peaches, are a highlight in January. There are the common yellow nectarines and then the more delicate and very pretty white nectarines, which I am pleased we are seeing more of lately. Enjoy them gently poached in a syrup with vanilla beans to have for dessert or for breakfast, or roasted with honey, cinnamon, butter and orange juice with a mascarpone cream. I love my friend Pippa’s white nectarine and strawberry jam and I enjoy making firm under-ripe nectarines into a spicy chutney with ginger and coriander seeds. Nectarines are also excellent baked in a tart with a frangipane base.
Like all stone fruit, nectarines have the best flavour when they’ve been allowed to ripen fully on the tree. Some of the best nectarines I’ve bought have been from farmers’ markets where the growers are selling fruit they have literally just picked. However, these are very delicate and should be eaten straight away. As a general rule, the sweetest and best tasting fruit are found later in the season. There are countless varieties of nectarines, and growers are constantly developing new cross breeds with improved quality and transportability and longer shelf life to withstand their often long journey to the markets. In the past, these improvements would almost certainly have been at the cost of flavour, but I am noticing in recent seasons that growers are producing improved varieties with better flavour too.
Most nectarines bought from markets benefit from a few days at room temperature to ripen further, but never choose hard nectarines in the hope that they will turn soft, and don’t buy green nectarines because they have been picked too early. Choose fruit that are fragrant and just soft to touch but not bruised. They keep well in the fridge.
I don’t know of another vegetable in the world that has such a fascinating history and is as versatile as humble corn. It was an important staple to many cultures in the Americas including the Aztecs and the Maya people. It quickly spread over most of Europe, making itself at home among different cuisines in various guises because it is remarkably adaptable.
Apart from the obvious corn on the cob (which can be boiled, grilled or roasted), corn can be dried and pulverised to a flour and made into a Mexican tortilla, or ground into polenta, which can be flavoured with salt and parmesan and served with a meat ragù. It can become corn syrup, which makes its way into processed sweets, sauces and ice-creams, or corn oil used for frying, or even cornstarch used for thickening.
Old varieties of corn on the cob, known as sweetcorn, had to be eaten as soon as they were harvested because the sugars turned rapidly to starch, but modern sweetcorn has been developed to retain its sweetness longer. However, it still tastes best when ultra-fresh, particularly if you grow it yourself. Always buy sweetcorn still in its husk, which should look fresh and green, not yellowing or browning.
I like simple boiled sweetcorn on the cob with salt flakes and French butter served with roast chicken, or in a fritter made with coconut milk, ginger and coriander served with fried prawns, or – as I had at the new Izakaya Den in Melbourne recently – in a tempura-like kaki-age fritter with green tea salt.
Follow Brigitte Hafner’s lead and spend the summer feasting on just-picked mulberries, ripe watermelon, fragrant nectarines and juicy sweetcorn.