As we bid farewell – for the time being – to Shakespeare, and move on a few years into gory Jacobean revenge drama, we say hello to the apricot. It has been speculated that the apricot originated in either Armenia – about 50 different varieties of the fruit are grown there nowadays – India or China. By Roman times apricots had spread into the Mediterranean region, and they have been known in England since the 16th century; one story says that Henry VIII’s gardener introduced apricots to England from Italy in 1542.
In fact Shakespeare does make reference to the apricot more than once. In Richard II (first performed 1595) in a scene set in the Duke of York’s garden, gardeners, overheard by Richard’s queen, discuss the neglect of the garden with clear parallels being made to the disordered state of the kingdom. The senior gardener instructs his companions to “bind … up young dangling apricocks” (III, 4, 29), the weight of which are forcing the tree’s branches to bow down, just as unruly children (ie. subjects) oppress and burden their parents (ie. the monarch). Then in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (written c. 1594/5) the Queen of the Fairies, Titania, bewitched by a magic potion to fall in love with the donkey-eared weaver, Nick Bottom, tells her fairy attendants to feed her new lover with “apricocks and dewberries, / With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries;” (III, 1, 144-45)
Whilst Shakespeare’s references are rather slight and undeveloped, apricots – and the eating of them – play a far more important role in John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi (written c. 1612-13).
The play, loosely based on real events that happened in Italy in the early 16th century, dramatizes the story of the young widowed Duchess of Malfi who secretly marries her steward, Antonio, a man who is her social inferior. The Duchess has two brothers: one is known only as the Cardinal; the other, the Duchess’s twin, is Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria. Neither brother wishes their sister to share their inheritance and thus forbid her from remarrying, hence the need for her marriage to Antonio to be kept secret. Furthermore, Webster suggests that Ferdinand has incestuous desires for his sister. When the marriage is eventually uncovered, the tragic outcome is inevitable, with both villains and good characters meeting grisly ends. The play ends with the Duchess and Antonio’s sole surviving child, their elder son, inheriting his mother’s position and presenting a faint hope for a better future.
Apricots appear in the play in Act II, Scene 1. The servant Bosola, sent by Ferdinand to spy on the Duchess, suspects that she is pregnant and, to confirm his suspicions, comes up with a plan:
… I observe our Duchess
Is sick o’ days, she pukes, her stomach seethes,
The fins of her eyelids look most teeming blue,
She wanes i’th’ cheek, and waxes fat i’th’ flank,
Wears a loose-bodied gown – there’s somewhat in ‘t!
I have a trick may chance discover it,
A pretty one: I have bought some apricocks,
The first our spring yields. (II, 1, 66-74)
Presented with apricots, the Duchess is delighted and eats them with enthusiasm, exclaiming with delight: “…I thank you; they are wondrous fair ones” (II, 1, 136). The ‘trick’ of the apricots is threefold: firstly, the common 17th century form of the word “apricock” has phallic overtones, and the Duchess’s blush on being offered the fruit – Bosola notes, in an aside, “Good, her colour rises” (II, 1, 135) – suggests that she is in a sexual relationship. Next, the Duchess’s greed for the apricots hints at her pregnancy, and thirdly it was widely believed at this time that apricots induced labour, and almost as soon as the Duchess has finished the apricots she starts to feel unwell: “O, I am in an extreme cold sweat!” (II, 1, 160). She asks to be escorted to her chamber, saying as she leaves “I fear I am undone” (II, 1, 163).
Nowadays, thankfully, we know that apricots don’t have this dangerous effect so, whether you are pregnant or not, you can indulge in my recipe in honour of the courageous, albeit doomed, Duchess. Cookery books from the period include recipes for sweet pastry for tarts with custart and fruit fillings – see, for example, A Proper New Booke of Cookery from 1575 – www.medievalcookery.com/notes/pnboc1575.txt.
Here is my version.
THE DUCHESS OF MALFI’S APRICOT TART (Makes 8 individual or 1 large tart)
For the sweet shortcrust pastry
250g plain flour (plus a little extra for dusting)
50g icing sugar, sifted
125g cold unsalted butter, cubed
1 large egg, beaten (and 1 tablespoon milk, if needed, to bind)
pinch of salt
For the creme patissiere)
6 egg yolks
120g caster sugar
80g plain flour
500ml whole milk
1 vanilla pod
Apricots – 12 fresh ones (approximately) or 1 large tin of canned apricots
Apricot jam and lemon juice to glaze
Begin by making the pastry. Sieve the flour and icing sugar into a large bowl. Add the cubes of cold butter and work them into the flour and sugar by rubbing your thumbs against your fingers to create a fine, crumbly mixture.
Add the egg to the mixture and bring it together into a ball of dough – if need be add the milk.
Flour the work surface, place the dough on top. Using the palm of your hand, pat it into a flat round, flour it lightly and wrap in cling film. Put in the fridge to rest for at least half an hour.
Preheat the oven to 180C / 160C (fan), Gas mark 4.
Roll out and cut the pastry until it’s big enough to generously fit the tin/s. Line the tin/s with the pastry and bake blind for 10 minutes (for small tins) or 15-20 minutes for the large tin, returning to the oven for another 5-10 minutes to brown the pastry after removing the baking paper and baking beans.
To make the creme patissiere, begin by whisking the egg yolks with the sugar until pale and creamy. Then lightly whisk in the flour. Cut the vanilla pod in half and remove the seeds using a small sharp knife. Place the milk, vanilla seeds and vanilla pod in a small saucepan, and heat until it is just scalding around the edges of the pan – do not allow the milk to boil. Immediately remove from the heat and pour into the egg mixture, stirring all the time. Then return the mixture to the saucepan, put it back on the heat and bring it to the boil, stirring continuously. When it is thick and has bubbled up a few times, remove from the heat and spoon into the pastry case (if you are not going to use the custard immediately, spoon into a bowl and cover with clingfilm pressed down onto the surface of the custard to prevent a skin forming. The custard will keep in the fridge for up to 2 days and can also be frozen).
Cut the apricots in half, removing the stones if fresh, and place over the custard, cut side down. If you are using fresh apricots you may like to remove the skins first and, if they are hard, they might benefit from being lightly poached in a little sugary water. If you are making individual tarts, you could cut the apricots into thinner slices. In a small saucepan over a low heat warm a couple of tablespoonfuls of apricot jam with juice from half a lemon. Using a pastry brush, brush over the fruit to make a shiny glaze.