Dog Days, Fruit Nights

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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.

 

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34 thoughts on “Dog Days, Fruit Nights

  1. So simple and yet so inviting – the cheeseplate, I mean.Re: the weather – I truly hope there will be some rain in early September when I’m popping by again. It’s been ca +30 Celsius (ca 86F) for almost a fortnight now, and the forecast remains like that. Seven years in Scotland and I can no longer tolerate heat like that:)

  2. although, you know, melissa, sometimes waiting so long to do something with fresh fruit just ends in a disappointment of cataclysmic proportions. I’ve waited 3 years to make an apricot dessert with honey and rosemary cream with a genovese bread base, and all 4 portions just ended up in the garbage because this recipe simply doesn’t work. For 3 years my family would wolf down the apricots fresh in quantities to the point that no matter how many we’ve bought, I’d never have any left for that recipe.oh, and try to make something with fresh figs in my house, same problem. sometimes I guess a fruit and cheese plate is the best idea.

  3. I hear ya. I’m looking foward to September too for the same reasons. It’s when game starts to be accessible here, which is always exciting to look forward to!

  4. Melissa, the food styling in this photo has me gaping with awe. It is absolutely beautiful. I would DIE with joy if this dish was put in front of me. You are my hero ;)

  5. "oooojjj, my goodness!", i exclaimed as i saw THAT picture. that is true beauty, melissa, it m thrilled. i wanna try make that dish, or maybe u could fly over here n show me how to recreate the magic?

  6. How continental! It’s funny how a well thought out spread can impress so much more than the most elaborate of baked treats. I must try this sometime.

  7. What a beauty of a photo! I have some truffle honey that I’ve been trying to figure out uses for and this sounds like a good one. Thank you.

  8. I really couldn’t agree with you more about the bounty of fruit redeeming an otherwise dreary month. The only condiment I might add to your plate, depending on the fruit, is some properly aged balsamic vinegar. I only hope I can find a supply of really excellent peaches this summer, though that always seems like something of an impossible dream.

  9. When I was younger I was in a dance company and our favorite after-show ritual was to go to this fabulous bookstore-cafe near the theater. I always ordered the fruit and cheese plate, which came on a big rustic cutting board. I don’t think honey was included, but it was the best late night meal. I haven’t thought about it in many years, thanks for reminding me.

  10. I do the same thing! Save all those yummy fruit recipes all year long, waiting for summer, and then once summer’s here, all I can do is eat the fruit fresh and uncooked, unsullied by batters and cakes and whatever else. Oh well, I don’t really mind. The fruit’s too good for that… ;)

  11. that photo and your description of all that lovely fruit makes me long for summer (it being winter in Melbourne) – I love change of season and at the end of each season I think I experience these ‘dog days’ of longing for a new season to begin. I lived in Edinburgh for a few years and hated fighting my way through festival crowds to get some lunch during work days but I did love our view of the fireworks every night.

  12. That is a gorgeous, gorgeous picture.I have been steadily eating up a lovely tray of freckled pink pluots, which I bought thinking to make a jam. Not enough left, but definitely not wasted. I love to make jam, but I can’t resist them, juice is dribbling down my chin as I type. The cherries have been incredible this year,and there is a small round melon in my farmbox this week. What more could a person want?In my next life, I hope for 2 changes: 1) I will be able to sing, and 2)I will have an orchard of stone fruits. Everything else can be the same.

  13. It always amazes me to see that something so simple can be so beautiful and appealing.As we say in french: les choses simples sont les bonheurs de la vie [simple things make for a happy life].Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous!Love xxx- fannyps. can’t wait for the new issue of f&t !!!! congrats.

  14. You can make the simplest of things look appealing and delicious. When my daughter was young we would go to a local historical home and have lunch in their tea house….cheese and fruit platter was always our choice. We’d sit among the the flower gardens and vineyards and have long leisurely lunches together. It was a very special time!!!

  15. Great blog. You recipes and photos are fantastic. I will be entertaining friends this weekend and this dish is perfect. I wish I would have found this site sooner. Keep it up.

  16. With a photo like that for inspiration, I can well imagine not eating anything but fresh fruit with a little cheese, a few nuts and some honey. great post.

  17. your photos are fantastic, food photography is my hobby now too. i have a food blog too–and its kind of travel based also, im moving to Paris in the fall to go to school. just wanted to say thanks! your blog is one of my blog role models. ^_^

  18. Hi Melissa, Thanks for the tip about infusing honey. It sounds wonderful; I can’t wait to try it. I’m so tickled to hear you were sent on assignment! Every time I’ve told someone about your blog I’ve said you could be a columnist in a food magazine. By the way, your olive-lemon jam has become a staple in my icebox. I took a jar to book group recently and everyone loved it. I think you made some new fans that day. We are having dog days in Vermont, too.

  19. I too know what its like to be craving something you can only have once in a blue moon. Those almonds! I had those in a fabulous wine bar in the Baltimore airport, roasted and salted with rosemary with my Spanish red. I didn’t know their name, but now that I do (and am soon moving out of Small Fishing Village to DC — hooray for superbly stocked grocery stores!) I am going to get as many as I can so I never have to be without again. Thank you! Oh, and you are right, fruit is the best part of summer, by far.

  20. haha cheetah September !i must confess that i too most of the times end up eating fruits fresh rather than cooking them.i’m not big on cooking something thats ment to be fresh , juicy , n crisp. The styling of this picture is absolutely fantastic.

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