The Hidden Pleasures of Compote

Earlier this week, I visited a farm in southwestern France. After an introduction and a long tour of the property, the animals, the machinery, it got to be lunchtime.

The family served a local aperitif, rillettes made in their kitchen, white asparagus from their garden and a chicken from their flock. At the end of the meal, the proprietor plunked down on the table a bowl of dark fruit in a thin liquid. 

“From my cherry tree, out front,” he said, spooning up small bowls. I looked in mine, wondering if I had heard him correctly. They were cherries, cooked but with the pits still inside, some of them still on the stem. He served them accompanied only by a plate of shortbread biscuits. “They’re just done in water,” his wife told me.  “Water and a little sugar to bring out the juice.”

As the meal wound down, people talked about the philosophy of the farm cooperative they belong to, about the chances of the local rugby team, about politics. I loved being immersed in the hospitable, informal chat, but I was distracted. I kept thinking, Man, these cherries are great.

Photo of a bowl of cherries.

Photograph by Maryn McKenna

The group were warm and kind and the lunch was extraordinary, but it was the cherries that nagged at my attention as my contact drove us away through fields of fodder corn. It occurred to me that we don’t often serve cooked fruit, by itself, in the United States. And that’s something we should remedy, because cooked fruit—compote, to be correct—is seasonal, thrifty, and uniquely delicious.

Defined loosely, compote is fruit cooked in its own augmented juices, but not with the intention—or the sugar burden—of preserving it for canning as in jelly or jam. Applesauce is a compote, more or less, and it’s probably the one we see most in the US. But we consider applesauce a dish for children, which is a waste. Done with just a little more attention—starting with old-breed apples, adding a vanilla bean, serving it warm—applesauce can be a grown-up treat.

You can find compotes, I think, in the cuisine of any country where sturdy fruits grow. Baked apples aren’t compote, if they are stuffed intact, but baked peaches bathed in a bit of wine could be. You might see those in Italy, with some amaretti alongside. At my English boarding school, stewed rhubarb was a standard lunch dessert, accompanied by a small boat of custard. Rodegrod, the loose Danish pudding of red berries married by a thickener, is compote of a sort too.

Other than applesauce, our most American compote is probably stewed prunes, which carry an unfortunate whiff of housecoats and grandmothers. (Their supposed laxative power is so associated with their name that they have been wishfully redubbed “dried plums” by American growers.) That bad reputation is a pity, because good prunes by themselves are remarkable, winey and chocolatey with a hint of tobacco perfume. Warming them gently in Cognac with a curl of orange peel makes them deliriously adult.

Compoting extends the life of fruit that has gotten a little too ripe, but it can also soften the flesh and concentrate the flavor of fruit that is a little too young or hard. (It is equally useful for prettifying organic fruit that proudly bears its imperfections.) I employ it to get a few more days out of things that have already gone from the counter to the refrigerator and are headed to the compost. In August, I over-bought prune plums, and after baking three cakes, still had about 15. I pitted and chopped them, plopped them in a covered pan with a spoonful of sugar and a few of of water, and let them bubble until the dark skins lent their color to the yellow flesh. It made a pint of ruby sauce, brilliant and chunky, that was the best thing to grace my morning yogurt all year.

Photo of compote.

Photograph by Maryn McKenna

I’ve never had the courage to serve compotes to guests, as my host did this week. I suspect that is because they are so self-evidently humble, something that signals “I needed to use this up” rather than “I made this just for you.” But I am thinking now I might try it, with close friends anyway: maybe pears with lemon thyme from my garden, or the dried apricots that are always in the pantry, poached, with pistachios on top.

I am pretty sure I would be bringing a new dish to their experience. I hope I learned from my French hosts to bring a new attitude as well: that what demonstrates hospitality is effort, not expenditure, and that the humblest ingredients express welcome when they are served with modesty and grace.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.

(Mille fois merci à Bernard et Marie-Odile et à mon guide Maxime.)