By Bee Wilson
Last Updated: 11:26AM GMT 02 Jan 2009
The kitchen thinker: Grapefruit
When you taste its puckering segments for the first time, the name grapefruit seems a cruel joke. Grapes are among the sweetest fruit. Grapefruits are among the sourest and bitterest. What maniac would name one after the other? Lemonfruit would be more appropriate.
In fact, the word probably refers to the way that grapefruits are grown . About 1820, when grapefruits were still largely unknown in Europe, a French botanist, the Chevalier de Tussac, described seeing a type of large pomelo growing in Jamaica 'in clusters’. The French word for cluster is grappe, hence grapefruit.
Another word for grapefruit in the 19th century was 'forbidden fruit’, which also now sounds odd. For most people grapefruit is something you force yourself to eat – particularly in these remorseful weeks of January – rather than forswear. Unlike grapes, they are not a fruit of temptation. For many, grapefruits are a kind of masochism. There’s a type of businessman – the same kind who pounds the treadmill at 6am every day – who always opts for the grapefruit juice in the hotel buffet, then knocks it back in one unpleasant gulp.
The fruit’s sour image wasn’t helped by the grapefruit diet. This 18-day regime started in Hollywood in the 1930s, when it was advised that every meal should start with half a grapefruit. For years a grapefruit half topped with a glacé cherry – sometimes grilled, sometimes not – was the most joyless starter on the standard restaurant menu.
There’s plenty of pleasure to be had from a grapefruit, however, if you stop seeing it as punishment. Forget long-life grapefruit juice, which really is nasty, and search out the best fresh fruit. The modern red and pink varieties have enough sweetness to offset the bitterness – I’ve had excellent organic Star Ruby grapefruits this winter from Abel & Cole (abelandcole.co.uk).
A good pink grapefruit is deliciously astringent for breakfast, just segmented and mixed with orange (add honey, or some drops of orange-flower water if you like). Another delicious way of eating it for breakfast, and not at all punishing, is pink-grapefruit marmalade. There’s a good recipe in Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess. The bitter peel takes on a candied depth as it boils with the sugar. It’s lovely with toasted brioche.Or you can buy a Waitrose own-brand marmalade at £1.19 for 340g.
And I know it sounds like a nouvelle cuisine monstrosity, but pink grapefruit is also glorious in salads. As the doyenne of Californian cuisine, Alice Waters really knows her grapefruit. In Chez Panisse Fruit she raves about the way they 'perk up tired taste buds’, especially when combined with 'wedges of rich, pale, green avocado’. Waters describes a salad of ruby grapefruit, ripe avocado (Hass is best), rocket and spring onion, with a dressing made of olive oil, vinegar and a little of the juice from the grapefruit.
It is an energising combination, just the thing to shake off the January blues.
Until now I wouldn’t have associated grapefruit with pudding, but I’ve been won over by the pink grapefruit and sherry sherbert in Skye Gyngell’s lovely new book, My Favourite Ingredients (Quadrille, £25). This is halfway between an ice-cream and a sorbet, made from fresh grapefruit juice, cream, sugar and that ingredient of the moment, pedro ximénez sherry. The result is as light and luscious as a bunch of grapes.