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Bury St Edmunds food writer Nicola Miller shares her pecan, nectarine and blackberry salad perfect for bridging the seasons





Bury St Edmunds food writer Nicola Miller doesn’t welcome the thought of autumn arriving, but here gives us a bridge between seasons with her salad mixing autumnal and summer fruits

Autumn approaches. The season of mists, mellow fruitfulness and unmellow grumpiness that summer is drawing to a close. The Americans have it right when they call it fall because that’s exactly what happens to my spirits.

Over the years, I have tried hard to embrace autumn, but the heart doesn’t get it. (Fellow summer-lovers will be screaming at me for reminding them that autumn is coming, and I owe a particular apology to Andi Oliver who has begged me to stop mentioning it.)

Nicola's Toasted and roasted pecan, nectarine and blackberry salad (58569036)
Nicola's Toasted and roasted pecan, nectarine and blackberry salad (58569036)

I had an interesting conversation on Twitter about whether blackberries are autumnal. I remember them fruiting much later than August when I was young, but this may be a false memory.

Opinions vary: Lucy Antal writes Finom, a blog about Hungarian food and refers to blackberry season as ‘sumnal’; it is “an August fruit on the cusp of seasonal change”. James Ramsden, author of the upcoming cookbook Every Last Crumb, distinguishes between a summery cultivated blackberry and the more autumnal wild bramble. For Nigella, they “occupy the liminal space between summer and autumn”.

One tweeter remembers picking wild blackberries on their first few days back at school after the summer holidays in Ireland. Another recalls their shock at seeing bushes in full fruit at the beginning of July, whilst food writer Sejal Sukhadwala (author of Curry), reminds me that “four seasons are not enough, like some other countries such as Japan, we should have micro-seasons. The in-between seasons are seasons in their own right,” Sukhadwala says. (On this subject, Lev Parikian’s book Light Rains Sometimes Fall: A British Year in Japan’s 72 Seasons is wonderful.) Andi Oliver should have the last word: “They’re a bit of a bridge, I think. . . the late, late deep summer fruits. . .”

Blackberries feel autumnal to me, as do pecans, another ingredient in my salad recipe whose berries, leaves and nuts are flavoured with maple syrup and chilli, both of which were produced and harvested by Indigenous people before being processed in such a way as to make them available year-round.

Nectarines, the salad’s other ingredient, are most definitely of the summer, although roasting them feels more autumnal. This is a plate of food with a North American vibe despite the nectarine’s origins as a naturally mutated peach, a fruit whose ancestral roots probably lie in China. Both are members of the rose family.

Spanish colonisers took the peach to the landmass we now know as The Americas via Persia, Greece, Italy and Great Britain. Although there is evidence of the peach being grown in Mexico in the 1600s, commercial growing in the United States didn’t get going until the 1900s. And where there are peaches, there will be nectarines whose slight gene variant means they lack fuzzy skin. Most nectarines in the USA are grown in California, whereas the peach is mainly cultivated in California, South Carolina, Georgia and New Jersey.

The Indigenous people of America would gather berries and eat them fresh, cooked into jam or dry them on racks. The berries would be pounded into a pulp and spread onto flat surfaces to dry before being rolled up and stored. The pulp was added to bread and stews or pemmican, a form of dried meat designed to be high energy and portable. Sometimes nuts would be mixed in, and many modern Indigenous-inspired recipes pay homage to this ancient practice of combining fruit and nuts in food.

In 2019, Sean Sherman, known as the Sioux Chef, published his recipe for Roast Turkey with Berry-Mint Sauce and Black Walnuts in the New York Times in a feature about ten dishes that Sherman believes ‘form a portrait of Native American food in the United States’. Blackberries feature in several other of his recipes too: he crushes them to serve with salmon and seaweed, and an Ohlone Tribe-inspired chia and popped amaranth pudding is dotted with fat juicy berries.

The pecan tree grows wild in North America and pre-dates the arrival of the colonisers. The shells of wild pecans are harder to penetrate, so it is just as well the nut offers a high-energy, nutritious reward. Modern cultivars are easier to crack. The Algonquin Tribe prepared nut milk by boiling small pieces of ‘paccan’ (pecan) in water. The resulting liquid was used to thicken and enrich broths and added to corn and squash as a seasoning and was an excellent energy food for infants and elders. Ground wild pecans would be added to meat, pemmican and stews, and roasted to take on long journeys. Tribal members would plant pecan trees along their trails to provide fresh nuts to trade and eat. It’s sad that in today’s USA, their equivalent is the fast food chains strung along every road and highway. (Even more poignant when one considers the effects of the ‘modern’ American diet on the health of Indigenous people who are genetically more vulnerable to conditions like type 2 diabetes.)

Yet the movement to decolonise Indigenous diets of harmful food is growing: I am a big fan of native chefs Sean Sherman and Freddie Bitsoie, Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino from Cafe Ohlone in California, Loretta Barrett Oden, who is the food consultant at the First Americans Museum and a Native American chef, the writer Tom Pecore Weso (author of Good Seeds, a book about Menominee foodways) and the chef-historian Lois Ellen Frank who is navigating a healthier ‘middle way’ between ancient pre-Colombian foods and more recent arrivals of the edible kind.

Toasted and roasted pecan, nectarine and blackberry salad

For the salad:

Olive oil for griddling

75g pecans

¼ teaspoon chili powder

3 medium nectarines, sliced.

100g blackberries at room temperature

100g salad leaves

For the dressing:

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

¾ tablespoon dark maple syrup (used to be labelled ‘grade b’)

1 teaspoon smoky tabasco

⅛ teaspoon ground cumin

⅛ teaspoon sea salt

Rub olive oil over the griddle pan and heat over a medium heat.

Scatter the chili powder over the pecans and toss.

Place the nectarine slices cut side down and griddle until they are striped and hot. Remove the nectarine slices onto a plate, wipe out the pan, rewipe with olive oil, reheat then add the pecans. Toast them gently, stirring them continuously so they don’t burn. This will take a couple of minutes. When they start to smell rich and nutty, they are done. Remove to a plate.

Mix all the dressing ingredients together in an empty jar and shake until they are well combined.

Arrange the salad leaves on a large serving plate. Place the nectarine slices on top, scatter with blackberries and top with the pecans. Pour over the salad dressing.

Notes:

Use whatever mixture of salad leaves you can find although I tend to avoid rocket; its pepperiness jars a bit in this salad. The rich colour and deep, iron-y flavour of beet leaves work nicely with the berries. Ideally, I would use the rosily pink Radicchio del Veneto, red and green frilled Biscia Rossa or the speckled yellow and pink-leaved Castelfranco Radicchio lettuces, but I couldn’t find any in time. I am also trying to avoid ingredients that can only be found in large urban markets, although you can get these lettuces delivered (or grow them yourself) if you have a mind to.

I am obsessed with smoked Tabasco sauce at the moment and because I suggested you buy it to make the spicy hush puppies in last month’s column, I thought it sensible to offer another opportunity to use it creatively.

Wild or garden blackberries are always better than the ones sold in supermarkets if you can find any. The nectarines shouldn’t be so ripe they collapse when you slice them; get plump ones but not too soft.

This salad gives four generous portions and goes well with grilled pork chops and duck breasts, or have it with young pecorino cheese and bread.

Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale

Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020

Fortnum & Mason Cookery Writer of the Year 2022