The fruit that lasts forever
Dried fruit has been with us for millenia, and they remain one of the most versatile and useful weapons in the kitchen armoury.
Before there were tin cans, freezers, or the means by which we can process a food into a lesser version of itself, there was dried fruit. The first dried fruit that comes to most minds is the raisin, which accounts for half of the world’s dried fruit production, followed by the humble date, prune and fig, with the morsels beloved of South Africans – apricots, peaches, apples and pears – bringing up the rear. Many of us have flung any or all of those dried fruits into a chicken curry, with the more adventurous among us using them to make chutney.
What could be more ordinary or ubiquitous than the dried grape, the dried fruit that invented itself; whoever was the first human to gaze upon the shrivelled grapes on a neglected vine could claim to have discovered the raisin, but not invented it. The raisin is the original accidental food, created by neglect by whoever first forgot to pick the fresh, ripe grapes that hung abundantly from the vine.
Chew a raisin and you’re tasting a grape whose flavour has intensified and sweetened; is it a better grape for having had the sun and time dry it out yet make it more delicious? It loses that juicy burst of joy on biting into a fresh grape, but arguably it gains so much more. But the fresh grape exists only for that instant hit, unless it’s to be made into wine; the dried grape, the raisin, can last indefinitely. They need no preservatives, and there’s no need for a label to advise you to eat them by a certain date. Just store them until you need them.
There’s much more potential for dried fruit than the stewed fruit served for breakfast when you were growing up, with the better versions having been simmered with cinnamon and citrus peel and a bit of brown sugar. Nor do they need to be relegated to the Christmas cake and plum pudding and then forgotten about for another year, but for a brief outing at Easter in the hot cross buns.
Dried fruits are one of those things that can be divisive, like coriander leaves (cilantro/dhania) and marzipan. I’m always amazed to hear someone say they hate Christmas fruit mince, but the intensified flavour and perhaps texture of dried fruit is not to everyone’s taste. If that’s you, you could revisit such ingredients and use them sparingly so that they are not the dominant ingredient of a dish. I’ve made fruity sauces for pork and game involving dried fruit along with a liqueur or other strong liquor, and herbs for balance, that have been a hit with friends who would pull a sour face if you offered them a slice of Christmas cake or a fruit mince pie. Such sauces can be a match for chicken too, or used in a stuffing.
So much for raisins. There are many other dried fruits on the market today, and I’m not referring only to the obvious ones such as dates, apricots, apples and bananas. Every time I drive through Calitzdorp, the “Port capital” of the Klein Karoo, my eye is always distracted from the road by the corrugated iron roof emblazoned with Calitzdorp Fruit as you approach the Huisrivier Pass. I usually drive by, but the other day I decided to stop and have a look. I’d expected fresh fruit, but Elnatan Calitzdorp Fruit is all about the dried wares. I do see, in internet photos, that they sometimes have fresh fruit too, but there was none when I visited.
I piled cellophane packets of all sorts into a shopping basket. Dried red figs, datal raisins (there are many varieties), strawberries, papaya, cranberries, guavas, peaches, pineapple, dates, mangoes, sun dried tomatoes (they’re fruit too). They also have those fruit rolls and “stix”, and that is where you lose me. I have no taste for them and dislike their texture, so I suppose I do see where those who hate dried fruit are coming from.
We can get a bit technical with the subject, I suppose. Enter Wikipedia: “Dried fruit is fruit from which the majority of the original water content has been removed either naturally, through sun drying, or through the use of specialised dryers or dehydrators.” The food’s origins have been traced to the fourth millennium BC in Mesopotamia.
We think of dried fruits as being distinctly South African, having been a part of the Cape food culture in particular for hundreds of years. But North African cuisines are rife with them too, not least Morocco where dried figs and dates in particular grace many a tagine.
Dried fruits really are a superfood. They have endless shelf life, retain nearly all of the nutrients of the fresh fruit, gain rather than lose in flavour, and can be used in anything from a compôte or a sweet sauce for waffles, pancakes and ice cream to jams, relishes and chutneys, cakes, breads and biscotti and, famously, raisins are a part of Austria’s wonderful gift to the world of the apfelstrudel, as well, of course, as other apple tarts and pies.
And let’s not forget how great they are in a curry. The packet of dried red figs I bought in Calitzdorp was swiftly earmarked for a chicken curry. Here’s the recipe for it. DM/TGIFood
This is Tony Jackman’s final Main Ingredient column, though his recipes about many ingredients will continue to be published daily. Next week he introduces his new column, Tony Jackman’s Karoo Kitchen.
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.
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