A February dessert – the curious peach

When Modern Practical Cookery was written and published, over ninety years ago, unless you were extremely wealthy and had a hot-house, out of season fruit was something to only dram of. When we were children we had a white peach tree in our garden – well, the tree was a normal colour, brown bark and green leaves with pink blossom and a distinctive dark purply-red centre… the peaches on our tree had white flesh and were utterly delicious, much better flavour than the golden peaches grown by our neighbour. I didn’t realise until a few moments ago when I looked it up that peaches were originally thought to come from Iran, or Persia as  it was called, and the name peach comes from the word ‘Persia’..

…and a verse from Andrew Marvell’s The Garden:

What wond’rous life in this I lead! 
Ripe apples drop about my head; 
The luscious clusters of the vine 
Upon my mouth do crush their wine; 
The nectarine and curious peach 
Into my hands themselves do reach; 
Stumbling on melons as I pass, 
Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.

Back to peaches; peaches were summer fruit, and in Cambridge where we lived with that chill est wind and the low rainfall, the blossom didn’t often set to produce fruit, and the fruit didn’t often develop properly, or fell from the tree as small green bullets, or never ripened… but when they did ripen properly, they were heavenly, just the smell was divine.  Now we are able to buy peaches all year round if we choose, but it’s not easy to find them which have any flavour at all.

In the past, when Modern practical Cookery was written, before the imports we have, or the freezers, having tinned fruit was wonderful, it meant you could eat them with the family, or serve them at dinners with friends. So for the dessert course for the Little Dinner menu for February, guests might expect to be presented with them in this way:

Peach cream

  • 1 large tin of peaches
  • 2 egg yolks, beaten
  • ½ pint milk
  • ½ a lemon
  • 1½ gills cream whipped until stiff
  • ¾ oz gelatine
  • ¼ pint peach syrup
  • 3 oz castor sugar
  • a few glacé cherries and angelica
  • ½ packet lemon jelly dissolved in 1½ gills hot water
  1. pour some of the jelly into the bottom of a mould to form a thin layer and leave to set
  2. dip the cherries, angelica and a few pieces of peach into the rest of the jelly and decorate the mould, before pouring on more jelly and leaving to set – reserving a little jelly for later
  3. heat the milk, place in a bain marie and stir in the beaten egg yolks and stir well until thickened, turn into a basin to cool
  4. rub the rest of the peaches through a sieve and add the castor sugar and lemon juice
  5. dissolve the gelatin in the heated peach syrup
  6. stir the sieved peaches into the whipped cream, stir in the custard and then the gelatin and peach syrup
  7. when it begins to thicken, pour carefully into the jelly mould
  8. when all is set and you’re ready to serve, turn out onto a dish and decorate with a little of the left over jelly which has been chopped

This seems awfully complicated… I can imagine doing the jelly with fruit in the bottom of the mould, then using modern jelly and making it up with whipped cream or custard or evaporated milk, and maybe having a layer of peach purée… but all the faff with gelatin… probably not for me!

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