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A Garden of Visual Delights : FRUIT: A Connoisseur’s Guide and Cookbook, <i> By Alan Davidson (Simon & Schuster: $30; 192 pp.)</i>

I’ve often wished that someone could design a contemporary counterpart to the beautiful color-illustrated fruit manuals that poured forth during the 19th Century. We need more works that convey the sense of delight and discovery that practically breathes from the old fruit manuals. This is just what the British team of Alan Davidson and Charlotte Knox have done, in what has to be the handsomest culinary volume of the year.

The format loosely follows the same pair’s excellent “Seafood,” 1989. We experience again Knox’s ravishing watercolors--roughly 70 full pages, representing about 165 fruit and nut species as well as many more wild or cultivated variants--and partner Davidson’s detailed descriptions of these and even more kinds, common and exotic.

With such a subject, any reader is bound to second-guess the selection and emphasis--what, no tamarind? Why paint a dozen strawberry varieties and only one kind of grape? Shouldn’t the sawdust-like quality of much modern fruit be deplored? I can only say that this is the work of two sturdy individualists pursuing their own interests, not a committee.

The heart of the matter is the Knox paintings. More imposing than pretty, they are exactly what is needed to rekindle the old sense of fruit, even an apple or a banana, as a rare and royal privilege. Most feature rich jewel tones and starkly precise shapes, flatly deployed in compositions that are severe and monumental, but suspensefully varied. At every turn of the page you wonder whether old friends (pears, dates, pomegranates, apricots) or strangers (medlars, rose apples, the bizarrely fingered “Buddha’s hand” citron) are coming up next and what the artist will do with them.

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The surfaces and leafy crowns of pineapple fill the frame like some cryptic tapestry. Four blackberry varieties hang against their own green leaves like earrings pinned on fabric. Sections of a gleaming, massive watermelon and a kiwano confront each other from opposite corners with reverse contrasts of exterior and interior, two brilliant translations of the same motif. These amazing pictures recall a time when illustrators did much to conjure up the wonders of the world for a wide public.

Anyone familiar with Alan Davidson’s other works--this retired British diplomat’s usual beat is seafood--will expect the text to match or surpass the artist’s contribution. And it probably would, had he not suffered a near-fatal heart attack at a late stage of the work. Apparently it took frantic eleventh-hour efforts by various hands to get the copy into final shape. The result is about 95% of a splendid achievement.

Each page of text contains either a lively mini-essay or a few succinct notes on the pictured fruits, providing scientific names, information on origins, botanical relationships, and culinary history, and all sorts of odds and ends. (Mulberry buds were said by Pliny the Elder to grow so fast you can hear them; walking under a durian tree in season exposes the unwary to the double hazards of being brained by fruits falling from a 100-foot altitude or eaten by a tiger out for a durian fix.) Still more material is densely crammed into the left-hand margins in small type: keys to the paintings, cook’s tips, names for each fruit in several languages ( souris vegetale --"vegetable mouse"--is perfect for kiwi), occasional notes on commercial growing practices or minor members of particular clans.

All this is browsers’ heaven. But for serious reference purposes there are glitches one wouldn’t associate with the careful, erudite Davidson. Be prepared for scattered roadblocks such as the missing page number for watermelon in the index, the omitted botanical name of a major entry (figs), or reversed keys to the paintings of soursop and a trio of close relatives. (The keys to paintings, by the way, are often confusing to follow. The companion seafood volume, with captions directly beneath the illustrations, was better designed.)

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It’s also annoying that the bibliography leaves out many interesting-sounding sources--too briefly cited in the main text for clear identification--to which the author surely meant to draw readers’ attention. Still, under the circumstances these lapses are a small price to pay for a major food writer’s treatment of a major subject.

If thoughts of fruit inspire you to thoughts of cooking, you can go on to a final section of about 120 recipes. Lovers of fruit in savory or main-course contexts are out of luck; virtually all the recipes are for some kind of sweet dish, but otherwise they run a stimulating gamut from the likes of gooseberry tart and persimmon pudding to guava jelly and soursop mousse.

What will they be like to cook from? Wonderful or very difficult, depending on your knowledge. This is one of those “packaged” British volumes meant for joint British-American distribution. A skilled, inventive cook familiar with the somewhat condensed recipe-writing style common on the other side of the Atlantic can use just about anything here as a takeoff point. Those dependent on inflexible formulas and yards of detail may be frustrated.

For myself, I think this is an absolutely glorious selection of dishes--historical or ultramodern, everyday or weird, and drawn from sources as diverse as the Kingston, Ontario farmers’ market (strawberry-rhubarb crisp) and an ice cream shop in Majorca (a sort of almond sherbet). But on the theory that fruit calls for spontaneity and experimentation, I would automatically fool around with proportions and other details to my own taste. The bottom line, I think, is that this is a work of manifold pleasures, whether you intend to cook from it or not.


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