Fruit usually makes its debut in the third act of a meal. But in Tender Volume II: A cook’s guide to the fruit garden, British food writer Nigel Slater brings apples and pears into the main course, exploring a neglected pairing: fruit and meat.
There’s a good chance you know as much about cooking lamb with quinces as you do about Slater, though he is arguably Britain’s finest food writer. The BBC host and long-time Observer columnist has written a dozen books, including the acclaimed childhood memoir Toast. But while Jamie Oliver has been crusading internationally about eating well, and Nigella Lawson has built a lifestyle brand that rivals Oprah’s, Slater has shirked celebrity-chef culture, even refusing most press requests (including several from Maclean’s). “I put as much effort into keeping a low profile,” he has said, “as most cookery writers do in publicizing themselves.”
Instead, the self-proclaimed “gentle cook,” whose “idea of hell is socializing with other foodies,” focuses on food and writing. This devotion is now on display in Tender, a two-part, 1,226-page encyclopedic tome about growing and cooking vegetables and fruits. In the newly released second volume, Slater focuses on fruit, from apples to white currants, after last year’s ode to vegetables.
Along with gardening tips, notes about each fruit and ideal pairings (apples with pork, sage, brandy, fennel, blackberries; pears with chocolate, caramel, bacon, cheese), there are hundreds of recipes inspired by the small plum trees, currant bushes and strawberries Slater grows himself.
Most interestingly, he explores how these fruits went from being the “stars in my cakes and pastries” to the saviours of his savoury dishes. “I started to use [fruits] in new ways,” he writes, “from a weekday supper of pork chops with cider and apples to a Chinese Sunday roast with spiced plum sauce.”
Slater lingers on combinations that go beyond the usual suspects such as turkey and cranberry sauce or ham and pineapple. A hotpot of sausage and apples is “a rich and heart-warming supper for a freezing night.” There’s duck cooked with figs and red wine, and roast partridge with juniper, pears and redcurrant jelly. More exotic fare includes oily mackerel stewed with rhubarb and sherry vinegar, and spareribs cooled with lime and peach salsa. His favourite combination? Tagine of lamb with golden apricots, which “probably work better together than any combination since roast pork and apple sauce.”
The prose often borders on poetry, though more haiku than epic or lush. And the photos have been carefully curated; there isn’t an image for every recipe, but that’s no hardship with writing this vivid.
Every wholesome and comforting dish was made with produce from the small plot outside Slater’s four-storey London home. Over the last decade, he has cultivated his edible Eden to the point that it “creaks under the weight of my overenthusiastic planting.” For the last five years, he’s been documenting meticulously what it’s like to eat from the “diminutive hortus conclusus.” With a nod to whole-foods guru Michael Pollan, Slater admits his 50-m plot is “laughably short of the self-sufficient” but confides, “I am probably closer to my food, and more respectful of it, than I had ever thought possible. The pleasure, let me tell you, is immeasurable.”
While a converted locavore, his influences are global. Slater points out that in the Middle East, apricots and pomegranates frequently bejewel dishes of lamb or quail. In France, there’s canard à l’orange. Scandinavian meatballs are doused in lingonberry compote. Even Italians, who growl at the suggestion of sugar in a main course, serve beef carpaccio with lemon, or prosciutto and figs.
Sweetening your mains shouldn’t be intimidating, Slater insists. “I wanted to produce a collection of recipes that were useful and delicious rather than extraordinary and seasoned with the zeal of the evangelist.” Accordingly, all his fruit and meat unions are guided by a simple rule just about anyone could follow: “If the two regularly share a landscape, then maybe the combination is worth trying.”