Cyprus Mail
Life & Style

A guide to summer fruit

As summer settles in THEO PANAYIDES talks us through the season in terms of the fruit he looks forward to eating

I love summer. I love fruit. More specifically, I love summer fruit. Even more specifically, I love summer fruit from Cyprus, grown locally – in the mountain valleys of Dymes and Kyperounta, or the fertile red soil of the south-east – and eaten as it ripens.

That last point isn’t always fully grasped by the average fruit-eater. I’ve heard people ask for pomegranates in June, and apricots in September. Maybe it’s the shopping-mall mindset of a consumer society, assuming that everything is perpetually available – but fruit isn’t perpetually available, that’s why I love it. Yes, farmers do their best to disguise this fact with fast-ripened, out-of-season produce which purists (like me) disdain, but Mother Nature can’t be fooled. Fruit is seasonal, and indeed some fruit (mangos, say) only appears in a brief summer sliver before disappearing.

‘But wait!’ I hear you say. ‘I’ve bought mangos in spring/autumn/winter, and they tasted fine!’ I’m sure they did, but those weren’t local mangos. They may indeed have been better than local mangos (they probably were) – but my point here is to write about fruit not just as something you eat in summer, but as an extension of summer, a communion with summer, a veritable snapshot of summer. Different fruit will always evoke different parts of a hot Cyprus summer to me. So, without further ado, here’s A Guide to Summer Fruit – or, if you prefer, A Guide to Summer Through the Medium of Fruit. Pretentious, moi?

In chronological order:

Blackberries growing in Agros
Blackberries growing in Agros

WATERMELON (late May – late August). An Armenian friend informs me that the Armenian word for loquats (“nor ashkar”) means ‘new world’ – which makes sense because loquats are the first summer fruit, the yellow ovals with the sweet slithery flesh and shiny pits heralding a new dawn after the six-month drought of endless citrus fruit and grim local strawberries. Yes – but summer doesn’t really start till you take a big watermelon (you can find 15kg monsters even in May), heave it onto a table, plunge a knife in it as far as it’ll go, draw a circle then grab the thing and pull it apart with your bare hands till you hear it crack open. That crack is the true harbinger of a new season.

Watermelon is the king of summer. It’s always been my favourite fruit, so much so that I’ve now become something of a connoisseur. The French concept of ‘terroir’ applies to watermelons, which change noticeably (even in a small place like Cyprus) according to where they were grown: those from the Paralimni area ripen first, their crisp texture contrasting sharply with those from Akaki, which ripen last and are much more dense. There’s something wildly sensual in eating watermelons, a fruit that stirs the sense of sight (that bright red colour!), sound (those satisfying cracks and crunches!) and above all touch (the thrill of burying your face in a huge wedge of watermelon! the joy of spitting out pips and hearing them ping against the plate!) as well as taste. It’s beach food, it’s post-souvla food, it’s comfort food. It’s even good for you, being packed with lycopene which protects against cancer as well as being among the most alkaline foods you can find, which is handy for folks with acid stomachs. In short: I heart watermelon.

APRICOTS (early June – July). My rule of thumb with apricots goes as follows: the bigger they are, the longer they’re available and the less I like them. The best are the so-called kaishia, light yellow with blushes of pink, which are smaller than other apricots and only available for a couple of weeks in early June – a scarcity that always leads me to pig out on kaishia after which I lose some enthusiasm for apricots proper, which are larger and darker (orange rather than yellow) as well as stiffer and less juicy. Apricots are the Michael Carrick of summer fruit – unspectacular but solid, and somehow always there.

CHERRIES (June). Ah, cherries. ‘Life is a bowl of cherries,’ goes the saying – but that’s clearly false, because if life were a bowl of cherries it would be sweet, delectable and altogether marvellous, its only downside being that the bowl is eventually depleted. Cherries may have been variable in the old days (I assume that’s where the saying comes from) but today they’re one of the miracles of early summer – another very tactile fruit experience, part of the pleasure being that your hands and mouth get stained with cherry juice (I’m speaking here of the purplish-black petrokeraza, not the pinkish-white ‘French’ variety) and another part being the sensation of meaty flesh separating cleanly from hard little pit when you pop it in your mouth. Plus of course that glorious burst of sweetness with a tart aftertaste. Cherries are a June fruit (I always associate them with the World Cup), though I spent the first week of July in Platres some years ago – eating nothing but hunks of bread and big bags of cherries – and the little buggers were everywhere, so maybe mountain people get a few more weeks of cherry season. Lucky mountain people.

FORMOZES (July). It’s a little-known fact that summer fruit comes in two waves – the first burst in early June, the second in early August – with July as a bit of a plateau. Watermelons are still around, of course, and you get peaches and nectarines which are often spectacular (especially the fragrant ‘white’ peaches) – but the only real excitement for a fruit buff like myself comes from formozes, those speckled greenish-red plums with the firm yellow flesh and sweet-and-sour taste.

I’ve spent hours (well OK, 10 minutes) scanning plum varieties on Google Images, and I’m still not sure what to call them in English: they’re not the small mirabelles, or those black plums with psychedelic red flesh – they’re a kind of Victoria plum (according to Google) but bigger and firmer-looking. Formozes are so curvy they seem about to burst out of their skins (seen from above, the ends resemble a baby’s bottom!), and in fact this is one of those fruits that mustn’t be too soft and ripe, or you miss the whole point. Philippe Delerm wrote an essay called ‘The First Sip of Beer’ some years ago, but I reckon the first crunchy taste of formoza runs it close.

FIGS (August – October). Those dates are a bit misleading, because they refer to the more watery black figs – whereas my faves are the green Smyrna figs which only appear in early August, part of the fruity decadence of those few weeks. Figs are extremely decadent. Their rich overpowering taste is decadent, the way the flesh falls apart in your fingers is decadent. They’re so decadent they don’t even travel – take that, globalisation! – and most Brits of my acquaintance only ever sampled dried figs in Britain, even in the modern Britain of supermarket plenty. Above all, though, I always associate figs with the decadence of August in Nicosia – a time when it’s so hot, and the city is so empty, that those of us who choose to stay can only wander around in a daze, gorging on rich luscious fruit in between bouts of doing nothing like some decadent Arabian Nights potentate. Figs are an expression of the dog-days of summer in Cyprus, when it all gets too much and you wallow in hot, sickly ripeness.

PRICKLY PEARS (August). No-one said it was going to be easy. Prickly pears, like oysters and durians, come under the category of ‘Whoever thought that would be good to eat?’. Stories of unsuspecting tourists biting into the skin, and getting a mouthful of spikes, are not apocryphal. Peeling the fruit is an art in itself – unless you wear gloves – and even eating it is a challenge, since the pips are as numerous as (and harder than) a pomegranate’s. Add the fact that prickly pears grow on cactus trees, making them almost impossible to pick, and you have to wonder why this odd fruit is so ubiquitous. One answer: because – just like summer itself – prickly pears are a hassle and a joy, and the joy lies partly in the hassle. Another answer: because they’re delicious.

MELONS (May-September). Let’s rewind a bit: I said loquats were the first summer fruit – but of course you also have melons, those small round honeydews with the pale-green flesh that precede even watermelons on the summer slate. Melons, like apricots, are a seasonal standby – but I’d rather include them here, towards the end of the season, because early August is when my favourite variety comes out: those melons known as piel de sapo (Spanish for ‘skin of toad’) with the heavily mottled green-black-yellowish skin, delicately fragrant white flesh and masses of crunch.

Not only are they great, but piel de sapo melons – unknown in Cyprus a couple of decades ago – are also a reminder of something else: that the range of available fruit keeps changing, and expanding. We now have blackberries and raspberries in early August, grown in Dymes and Kyperounta – and meanwhile Paphos produces papaya (still a work in progress) and of course the aforementioned mangos, which are pungent and wonderful but only for about 10 days in early September (I don’t even know how those farmers make money). Nothing like fruit and summer – and summer fruit – to make you appreciate our fertile little island.

DAMSONS (mid-September – early October). Well, it was nice while it lasted. I forgot to mention pears (another fruit I adore) and the crisp Gala apples that come out in early August, but now it’s too late because summer’s nearly over. End-of-summer fruit carry an inevitable air of melancholy – and they’re nowhere near as sweet as mid-summer fruit, the sun having lost much of its searing intensity as August shades into September. We’re talking pomegranates here. We’re talking guavas. And of course we’re talking damsons.

Damsons aren’t even edible raw in much of northern Europe, being used for cooking and jams – but the purple plum with the angry yellow flesh does become sweet enough to eat in Cyprus, albeit with a definite sour, astringent aftertaste which I always associate with the end of decadence. I eat damsons in abundance as the nights begin to turn chilly, delighting in their ambiguity (yikes! that one was a little too sour!), thinking back to the first days of summer and always consoling myself with the same wistful thought: Until next year.

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