Summer. Such an evocative word; a word about which countless poems and songs have been written. Say it to yourself a few times – what associations does it bring up? To me, summer will always mean the summers of my childhood. Days when you would awake to the sound of cicadas and could smell the heat outside before you'd even opened the curtains. Beach sand underfoot so hot that you either needed sandals or sprinted instantly for the waves. Endless games of Marco Polo in the swimming pool after school. Hot classrooms where the back of your legs stuck to the desk chairs if you didn't arrange your skirt carefully. The smell of barbecues and the sound of music carried on the night air from a neighbour's garden. Warm, still evenings filled with the sound of crickets and frogs. My mother carrying drinks out to us by the pool – if we were lucky, lemonade mixed with orange juice and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Plates of ice cold watermelon slices for dessert. Limited overs night cricket matches when practically everyone you knew would be at the match, barbecuing meat on a Cadac gas barbecue. Driving to summer holiday houses and stopping along the roadside for a picnic of cold roast chicken, Granny Smith apples, Elite cheddar cheese, and Appletiser.
As soon as I moved to London, I discovered that although the memories I have just listed might resonate with me and with fellow South Africans, the English have a whole other list of things that they associate with summer. Wimbledon, Ascot and the Henley Royal Regatta. People departing en masse for cheap package holidays in Spain the day that schools break up for summer. The BBC Proms. English strawberries – and in fact, berries in general. Picnicking in the parks – or even just sunbathing in the nearest park during your lunch break. Hot, sweaty Tube journeys. Weddings every second weekend. Standing on the pavement outside pubs drinking beer in the sun. And usually also endless predictions from all sorts of "experts" on what sort of summer to expect. It seems that every year since 2003 when we had a SCORCHER of a summer, somebody predicts it will be a "barbecue summer" and the hottest since records began. And pretty much every year since 2003 they have been wrong. Because, you see, the most reliable characteristic of the English summer is its total unreliability.
Which makes it all the more ironic that the Engllish have named a pudding after this most unpredictable of English seasons. Summer pudding is one of those dishes that makes you dubious when you see the description on paper, but when you taste it you realise that it just works. It is made of sliced white bread, layered in a deep bowl with fruit and fruit juice, which is then left overnight to soak overnight before being turned out onto a plate. Like me, you might be saying "whoa – mushy white bread soaked in fruit juice? You have to be kidding…" But when I tried it recently, it was a surprising hit, both with me and Nick (who does not usually like dessert much). The beauty of it is that it isn't too sweet, and that it is low-fat and surpiringly healthy as deserts go (if you moderate your cream accompaniment!). And even if your summer (like this one) proves unreliable and disappointing weather-wise, this pudding is one part of an English summer that you really can rely on, every time
SUMMER PUDDING (serves 6-8)
850g mixed berries (I combined raspberries, redcurrants, blackberries and a couple of strawberries) – fresh is preferable but frozen works fine too
7-8 slices white bread
3 Tbsp white sugar
3 Tbsp water
Mint leaves and a few extra berries to garnish
cream to serve
Rinse the fruit, remove redcurrants from their stems if necessary, halve large strawberries. Place the fruit in a saucepan over low heat with the sugar and water (reduce the amount of sugar if you like your pudding tart) and bring to a gentle boil. Boil for about 3 minutes, or just until the currants start to purst and release their juice; then turn off the heat.
Slice the bread thickly – about 8mm thick slices. Cut the crusts off the bread and then cut a circle from one of the slices as big as the base of the 1 litre pudding basin you are using. Push this bread disc firmly into the bottom of the pudding basin.
Line the inside of the basin with the remaining pieces of bread, reserving one for the lid. Overlap the pieces of bread and push then together snugly to seal the pudding (I usually wet the overlapping edges to help the bread stick). Once the entire basin is lined, tip the fruit and its juice into the basin, filling it almost to its rim. Lay the remaining slice of bread on top, using offcuts and spare bits to fill in the gaps so that no fruit is showing.
Place the basin on a large plate to catch any escaping juice, then place a small plate on top of the basin snd weigh it down with a heavy weight (I find a tin of baked beans works well!) to put some pressure on the fruit and make the juice soak into the bread. Leave overnight in the fridge.
When you are ready to serve, remove the weight and carefully slide a palette knife around between the basin and the bread (NB – do not tear the bread!). Turn a plate (larger than the circumference of the basin) upside down and place it on top of the basin. Holding the plate and basin firmly in place, turn them quickly upside down and shake to dislodge the pudding – it should come out easily. Serve immediately with plenty of fresh cream.
And while you are here… please don't forget to send me your favourite braai or BBQ recipes by 23 September for Braai the Beloved Country, my annual event celebrating summery outdoor cooking. Click here to read the submission guidelines!