If I lived in Vermont, I’d know autumn had arrived with just a glance at the burnished golds and russets on the leaves of the maple, poplar, birch, elm and hickory trees.
If I lived in a made-over garret flat in a side street near the Arc de Triomphe, the falling leaves on the Champs Elysées would make me think of autumn — and Jacques Prévert and Yves Montand.
But I live in Palma where I am always in dire need of harbingers of autumn because at the end of September and well into October the temperatures are too much like summer for my personal comfort.
As I left the lovely air-conditioned ambience of El Corte Inglés on Saturday at 1pm, an oven-like heat hit slammed into my face and the sun was blazing down all along the Jaime III: this was summer, not autumn.
I was on my way to the Mercat d’Olivar and when I got there I soon found various signs of autumn: quince tucked away in the corner of some stalls, grapes in generous bunches, oranges and other citrus fruits that will soon be at their best. And, of course, the first pomegranates.
The pomegranate is the fruit I have always most associated with autumn and winter. Even as a child I was fascinated by it. I suppose it was partly because it’s so exotic when compared to the apple, pear, orange and even the banana.
Whatever it was, I was truly captivated and I never tired of getting at all those seeds and slurping them down with a messy smile on my face. And when I grew up I always had to have three or four pomegranates on the winter fruit platter.
Apart from the pleasure of sharing one with another member of the family or a friend, pomegranates always enhance a winter fruit display.
Albert Finney and Joyce Redman have a sexy scene in the movie Tom Jones in which they eat a lobster sitting at a table and facing each other. You can get similar sensations when sharing a pomegranate with a friend of the opposite sex. And pomegranates are so much cheaper than lobsters.
If I were an artist, or could just handle a brush in a basic kind of way, I’d want to paint pomegranates every autumn. The colours are so gorgeous and of such surprising hues. And I adore the way the different shades run into each other.
When I was in my early teens I realised adults didn’t get as much fun out of eating pomegranates as children do. I suppose they didn’t want blouses and shirts stained with pomegranate juices, so difficult to remove.
I know only one adult who has no qualms about eating pomegranates every year — mainly because she has worked out a neat method of getting at the seeds.
She first cuts the fruit through the middle, and over a wide bowl she then patiently removes the seeds with a small spoon. It’s a slowish process but she eventually ends up with a hillock of seeds and east them with a teaspoon for dessert. And there’s not a drop of juice on her blouse, the tablecloth or even her napkin.
That method suits my friend because she is the careful meticulous type, but her way of getting the seeds into a bowl isn’t really suitable when you’re cooking a dish that calls for deseeding half a dozen pomegranates — and making as little mess as possible.
When faced with several pomegranates that have to be deseeded quickly, one way is to slice the fruit into quarters through the stalk end. Take a quarter in the fingers of both hands. Over a deep plate or bowl, skin side up, gently bend from each end with enough pressure to separate the seeds from the pith.
The seeds come away in segments and it is then easy to separate them. There are usually bits of membrane on some of the clusters and they must be carefully removed because their tannins have a bitter taste.
Another way is similar to my friend’s. You halve the fruit through the middle and hold one half in the palm of your hand over a wide bowl. You then scoop out the seeds with a small spoon. Total lightness of touch is called for so that you don’t scrape against the pith, thereby releasing unwanted tannins.
When I wrote about deseeding pomegranates some years ago, a Danish reader e-mailed me with a sharp rebuke, saying “you must be the only person in the world who doesn’t know Jamie Oliver’s way of deseeding pomegranates”.
Jamie, my favourite TV cook (I have most of his books) apparently holds half a pomegranate in his left hand (cut side down) and taps the skin with a spoon…and the seeds come falling out like pink hailstones.
I haven’t got round to trying that method, partly because it sounds too easy to be true and partly because I have been present when TV food programmes were being shot in the studio.
I can assure the Danish reader that a great deal of visual sleight of hand goes on: it makes life easier for the film crew and it looks better on the screen.
In the silent film The Gold Rush (1925) one of the most memorable scenes is Charlie Chaplin in a Klondike cabin having what looks like a scrummy supper with an old boiled boot on his plate.
It looks as if the boot is made of something edible (and with lovely flavours) but it was just an old boiled boot. The delicious flavours were in Chaplin’s mind…and on his face. That was also visual sleight of hand, although they called it make-believe in those days.
The pomegranate has a long pedigree that goes back to the ancient Greeks. According to Greek mythology, pomegranate juice sprang from the blood of Dionysus, the god of fruitful vegetation, wine and revelry. Sensual ecstatic rites sometimes marked his cult and pomegranate juice became the drink of the gods.
The ancient Romans considered the pomegranate a symbol of fertility. They called it the ‘love fruit’ and believed its juice-filled seeds were an aphrodisiac.
The pomegranate was one of the Seven Foods of Deuteronomy that God said the nation of Israel would find in the Promised Land. The other six were wheat, barley, grapes, figs, olives and honey.
The Israelites had eaten pomegranates in Egypt and the fruit had an important symbolic place in daily life: The High Priest Aaron’s sleeveless coat had on its hem a series of dangling pomegranates made of blue thread, reddish-purple wool and a scarlet material.
Later, when the temple was built, the tops of two copper pillars were decorated with chains of pomegranate figures.
The status of the pomegranate in biblical times was on a par with that of the olive and the fig. Some biblical scholars say the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden was a pomegranate tree.
The word pomegranate occurs 33 times in the King James Bible, compared with only 11 for the apple. The word comes from Latin and means ‘fruit (or apple) filled with seeds’. It was the abundance of seeds that made the fruit a common symbol of fertility.
Jewish tradition says a pomegranate has 613 seeds for the 613 commandments in the Torah. In fact the fruit has exactly 840 seeds — at least it has had every time I’ve counted them.
In the Middle East the pomegranate is a favourite fruit that is eaten on its own and used in savoury and sweet dishes.
The Iranians are especially fond of adding pomegranate syrup to their dishes and in some Arab countries it is poured over crushed ice to make a refreshing and colourful drink.
Pomegranate juice and the syrup made with it have been used for centuries in Middle Eastern cooking.
The syrup can be bought in jars (although I’ve never seen it in Palma) but conscientious Arab housewives make their own because it is one of cooking’s easiest little chores.
All it entails is simmering pomegranate juice (bought at the supermarket) in a stainless steel or enamelled saucepan until it thickens to the consistency you want. El Corte Inglés in Jaime III stocks pomegranate juice that is 100 per cent fruit and I imagine it’s available at other supermarkets and also at health food shops.
You can also make it with fresh pomegranate seeds by boiling them in a stainless steel or enamelled saucepan and crushing them. When the mixture reaches the consistency you want, it is strained through a fine sieve to hold back the tiny pips. Some cooks like to add a tablespoon of sugar (or more depending on the amount of seeds) to get a quicker syrup effect. But, of course, you then have a sweeter mixture.
The Iranians prefer a tangy syrup and use a sour variety of the fruit. I’ve never come across sour pomegranates, not even in London, but you can achieve a tangy touch adding the juice of a lemon before reducing the pomegranate juice.
If necessary, a little more lemon juice can be stirred in when the syrup is at the right consistency. But go easy with it: you don’t want to mask the natural taste of the pomegranates.
Pomegranate juice or syrup are hardly ever used in Spanish cooking — except in Mallorca. Cooks here use it in meat, poultry and game dishes and it’s exactly the same Arab sauce as described above.
This isn’t at all surprising because the island was under Arab domination for a couple of centuries and traces of Arab ingredients and methods can still be found in some Mallorcan dishes.
Mallorcan cooks use the syrup for recipes with poultry, ox tongue, pork, lamb and all kinds of game. The syrup is sometimes stirred into stuffings for chicken, hen or turkey.
The astringent juice of the pomegranate, which some people dislike in the raw fruit, is especially good for imparting fruity flavours to meats.
For a chicken dish you will need 8-10 large drumsticks (or more, or less) with bone and skin intact, a litre of pomegranate syrup made as described above, 2 large onions, large whole head of garlic cut across the breadth, a glass of white wine, 2 tbsps lard, coffee cup of virgen extra olive oil, fresh oregano, celery leaf and parsley, plus salt and pepper to taste.
You can leave out the lard if you want to and use extra olive oil but you’ll be making a less authentic dish.
Heat the lard and the oil in a suitable greixonera and sauté the finely chopped onions and the garlic halves until the onions are soft. Add the drumsticks and sauté over a medium heat until golden.
Pour in just enough pomegranate syrup to cover the drumsticks. Add plenty of roughly chopped parsley, leaf celery and oregano. Simmer for 10 minutes and take out the drumsticks and the garlic halves.
Blitz the sauce in a blender and return it to the greixonera. Add the drumsticks and their juice and the garlic halves, pour in the wine and simmer, uncovered, until the chicken is tender and the sauce thick.
The sauce will reduce during cooking but if it is still rather thin when the drumsticks are almost ready, remove them and reduce the sauce over a high heat.
You can serve it with creamy mashed potatoes or plain fluffy basmati rice. Or you could give the dish an Arab touch by serving it with cous-cous.
This recipe can also be done with pigeon, quail, lamb, or feathered game such as partridge or pheasant, so it’s a dish to bear in mind for special occasions.