Did you know that we can thank the ancient Romans for coining the classic summertime refrain "the dog days of August"? Apparently the phrase was born from the conviction that in late summer, during the forty consecutive days when Sirius (the ‘dog star’) could be seen rising at the same time as the sun, everything would go topsy-turvy: wine would sour, seas would boil, animals would go mad and pestilence would strike – you know, the usual apocalyptic stuff. While I’ve certainly never seen anything as extreme as that, dog days around here bring their own share of unpleasant side effects which, regardless of how much stock I generally put in Roman wisdom, have convinced me they weren’t entirely barking up the wrong tree where that sly old dog Sirius was concerned.
August, to me, unfolds like a 45 record played at LP speed (why does this analogy make me feel old?). The same tune is playing, but instead of bouncing along with its usual upbeat tempo it drags its feet, barely able to muster the energy to hit the middle notes, the voices hoarse and lethargic. This pretty well sums up what I feel like in the moment; energy, creativity and stamina are all at their yearly nadir. While I would love to blame the relentless heat of late summer, this being Scotland of course I can’t. I would like to blame The Festival too, and while this gets a lot of enthusiastic agreement from other Edinburgh locals, I’m not sure how much blame it really deserves. I mean, sure, what is essentially a month-long street party takes its toll on those who have to live and work in the middle of it. To understand what Manuel and I go through every year, imagine New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and now imagine you live on Bourbon Street. While you may be enthusiastically joining the throngs for the first few bead-tosses, after a few days of battling inebriated crowds everywhere you go, of having the nearest resident parking that is not taken over by international tour busses be a 25-minute walk from your apartment, of having every restaurant you want to go to for your upcoming anniversary already booked out weeks in advance, and of being scared out of your wits night after night as the loudest fireworks in the known universe explode right above your roof, well, the enthusiasm understandably starts to fade. Frustration and threats to sanity aside, though, I can’t really point the finger at it for everything that’s wrong with this time of year, can I?
Whatever the reason, though, these dog days are brutal on my appetite, and most of them pass in a haze of subsistence eating; a piece of cheese here, a hastily-assembled sandwich there. The only thing I actually find myself craving, indeed the only thing that seems to motivate me through the endless, stifling workdays, is the contents of the fruitbowl waiting for me at home. Ah yes, you see, because whatever August takes away from me in energy and sanity, it repays amply in fruit. After waiting months for prices to fall and rock-hard offerings to soften, August is when the waiting finally pays off; the local raspberries, tayberries and blackberries are finally sweet, France’s plums and Italy’s nectarines and Turkey’s cherries are being harvested so thick and fast that they have no choice but to offload some of the surplus on us. And needless to say, after so many months of fruit famine we don’t pull any punches, buying the stuff in quantities more in line with industrial application than personal consumption. Last week alone we went through twenty-four nectarines, twelve apricots, a pound each of raspberries and cherries, an entire watermelon and a mix-n-match bag of plums that contained some of the most delicious greengages ever. Some nights I feel I wouldn’t be capable of cooking a package of pasta if my life depended on it, but I seem to have no trouble buying and eating my weight in fruit.
The only problem, of course, is what we’re not doing with all that fruit. Considering that I spend all year stashing away recipes for things like pies, tarts, cakes, cobblers and clafoutis that I swear I’ll make once the appropriate fruit is in season, you’d think I’d cherish the chance to crank out as many of them as possible. Like a grizzly to jumping salmon, though, I’m powerless to resist; all I can do with each and every piece of fruit that lands in my hands is direct it straight into my gaping mouth. If I can wait long enough I might rustle up a handful of nuts to go alongside, and if the clock tells me I ought to be assembling a proper meal I might throw in a piece of cheese for good measure, but that’s about as sophisticated as it gets. Not that there’s really anything wrong with that, I know – I mean, nature makes fresh fruit so irresistibly tempting for a reason, right? – but it certainly doesn’t make for riveting food blogging. Ah well, maybe things will pick up soon – after all, according to ancient Roman calculations these dog days should be ending any day now. And failing that, surely next month will be different. In fact, I’ve already christened them the ‘cheetah days of September’ in anticipation.
Summer Fruit-and-Cheese Plate
This is probably my platonic ideal of a summertime dessert, presuming of course the fruit is worthy of such a starring role. In particular it makes an elegant ending to a meal that was a little heavier than it should have been, and guests always go surprisingly crazy for it, particularly if you’ve made the effort to track really top-quality fruit. We’ve even been known to forego dinner entirely in favor of this… Shhhh, don’t tell!
Fruit (peaches, nectarines, cherries, berries, plums, etc.), washed and cut, if desired
Cheese (one kind or an assortment; goat cheese, ricotta, mascarpone, or even something pungent like a pecorino or stilton all work beautifully)
Nuts (I like roasted and salted Marcona almonds for this, though I’ll happily use toasted hazelnuts or walnuts if that’s what I have)
Honey (something with character, or else something mild that you’ve infused with, for example, vanilla or lavender*)
an assortment of rustic breads and/or cookies are also a nice accompaniment, if you’re looking to gild the lily
Mix according to taste. Eat with relish.
*to infuse honey, warm however much you want to infuse in a small saucepan with your aromatics (e.g. a halved vanilla bean or a spoonful of dried lavender). Let it just come to a simmer, then remove from the head and let sit until cool. Strain before using.