16 April 2008. -
Making the most of plums

"Damson in Distress."

By: Julia Gasper
Plums are part of the British culture, woven into nursery rhymes, proverbs, and folklore. We speak of a plum job, and a “plummy” voice”. Little Jack Horner pulled out a plum, because Christmas pudding was originally made with plums (not raisins or sultanas). And where would the Nutcracker be without the Sugar Plum Fairy?

All this might be meaningless soon to the next generation of children if plums of all kinds die out completely from the British Isles. And what a shame that would be. Plums come in so many different colours, shapes and sizes that they are fascinating to compare. Yellow, red, mauve, dark purple or green, each type is subtly different in flavour as well as in appearance. The most popular British plum has long been the Victoria, and no wonder. Large, firm, very sweet, it is a soft red colour like a piece of polished carnelian, and it has the virtue of being self-fertile i.e. if you have only one tree in your garden, it can still produce fruit. Books written in the 1960s said it was a pity that too many people grew Victorias and we ought to plant a few other varieties. You couldn’t say that now. You could walk around most parts of Oxford all day and not see a Victoria plum tree. Yet once one of these is established in your garden, it is surely less trouble to go and pick the fruit than it would be to go and buy some from a shop.

The modern plum has evolved from the earlier, and sharper damson, which is excellent for making jam and is very useful in cooking and wine-making. The damson itself derived from the sloe-berry, wild ancestor of the whole plum family. Clever horticulturalists over thousands of year have coaxed the genus into producing fruits that are ever larger and sweeter. The blossom is like a bridal veil, all white lace, and it is worth having a plum tree in your garden for that reason alone. So long as the root-stock it is grafted on is carefully chosen, it should not grow too large or require much troublesome pruning. All you do is admire it and scoff the fruit. You can cook plums in various ways and they need very little sugar - unlike rhubarb, which needs so much that it is hardly worth growing in my opinion, (even if you like rhubarb). The final triumph is the dried plum, the prune preserved in brandy, to brighten up the bleak days of winter.

The trouble is that supermarkets have swamped us with a supply of imported peaches and nectarines that are now available year round and make us uninterested in the smaller plum. Peaches and nectarines are botanically types of plum themselves, prunus persica, as indeed is the apricot, prunus armeniaca. But while these are all excellent in their way, why should they take over and completely replace the homely plum? Just because peaches are difficult to grow in this country and plums are easy, does that mean that plums are looked down on? If size were everything, we would soon be limited to eating vast and insipid melons. Plums have a much smaller stone than peaches and for flavour rival even the most luscious peach. You can eat them more elegantly without juice running down your chin, neck and wrists. They are far juicier than apricots, a fruit which is apt to disappoint.

One of the best types of plum is the greengage, a fruit that looks as if it is carved out of jade. In fact, the Chinese do make and prize egg-shaped pieces of jade very like these fruit, as they believe that handling them makes one feel calm. If you are growing fruit for their colour, choose their cousins, the soft golden-yellow, or amethyst-purple plums, but if you need a pollination partner for your yellow or purple plum, you cannot really do better than the greengage. I think that the fact they remain green discourages birds from pecking at them on the tree. It haven’t actually got any proof of this theory, but be that as it may, greengages combine marvellously with the cheese at the end of a meal. Try them with an organic cheddar, or if you are more adventurous yet, with a rich, mild English cheese like Berkswell, Cotherstone, or Oxford Isis.

Two things are threatening the plum. One is the mysterious epidemic that is decimating our bee population. This is not just a little local difficulty - there are very worrying figures that show the bee population in America has fallen sharply and severely. While nobody really knows if this is owing to a virus or to other environmental factors - even to mobile phone signals - it is certain that this will have a major impact in making all kinds of fruit more expensive. Peaches and nectarines also need to be fertilized by bees. So do strawberries, raspberries…in fact, just about every kind of fruit I can think of.

The other problem is that people are a teeny-weeny bit lazy. They are not replacing the old fruit trees in their gardens, and sometimes actually cut them down rather than go to the trouble of gathering the fruit! Why not keep the tree and if you don’t want the fruit, let other people come and pick it? If more people treated themselves to a plum tree or two in their gardens, the avenues of suburbia would be a fairer sight, and the fluffy white blossom would help to nurture the remaining bees, which are struggling to survive. The help would be mutual. It would be well worth going to that trouble to preserve something that has taken so many clever growers so many centuries to bring to such a height of excellence.

by Damson in Distress.
Making the most of plums


Plums are part of the British culture, woven into nursery rhymes, proverbs, and folklore. We speak of a plum job, and a “plummy” voice”. Little Jack Horner pulled out a plum, because Christmas pudding was originally made with plums (not raisins or sultanas). And where would the Nutcracker be without the Sugar Plum Fairy?

All this might be meaningless soon to the next generation of children if plums of all kinds die out completely from the British Isles. And what a shame that would be. Plums come in so many different colours, shapes and sizes that they are fascinating to compare. Yellow, red, mauve, dark purple or green, each type is subtly different in flavour as well as in appearance. The most popular British plum has long been the Victoria, and no wonder. Large, firm, very sweet, it is a soft red colour like a piece of polished carnelian, and it has the virtue of being self-fertile i.e. if you have only one tree in your garden, it can still produce fruit. Books written in the 1960s said it was a pity that too many people grew Victorias and we ought to plant a few other varieties. You couldn’t say that now. You could walk around most parts of Oxford all day and not see a Victoria plum tree. Yet once one of these is established in your garden, it is surely less trouble to go and pick the fruit than it would be to go and buy some from a shop.

The modern plum has evolved from the earlier, and sharper damson, which is excellent for making jam and is very useful in cooking and wine-making. The damson itself derived from the sloe-berry, wild ancestor of the whole plum family. Clever horticulturalists over thousands of year have coaxed the genus into producing fruits that are ever larger and sweeter. The blossom is like a bridal veil, all white lace, and it is worth having a plum tree in your garden for that reason alone. So long as the root-stock it is grafted on is carefully chosen, it should not grow too large or require much troublesome pruning. All you do is admire it and scoff the fruit. You can cook plums in various ways and they need very little sugar - unlike rhubarb, which needs so much that it is hardly worth growing in my opinion, (even if you like rhubarb). The final triumph is the dried plum, the prune preserved in brandy, to brighten up the bleak days of winter.

The trouble is that supermarkets have swamped us with a supply of imported peaches and nectarines that are now available year round and make us uninterested in the smaller plum. Peaches and nectarines are botanically types of plum themselves, prunus persica, as indeed is the apricot, prunus armeniaca. But while these are all excellent in their way, why should they take over and completely replace the homely plum? Just because peaches are difficult to grow in this country and plums are easy, does that mean that plums are looked down on? If size were everything, we would soon be limited to eating vast and insipid melons. Plums have a much smaller stone than peaches and for flavour rival even the most luscious peach. You can eat them more elegantly without juice running down your chin, neck and wrists. They are far juicier than apricots, a fruit which is apt to disappoint.

One of the best types of plum is the greengage, a fruit that looks as if it is carved out of jade. In fact, the Chinese do make and prize egg-shaped pieces of jade very like these fruit, as they believe that handling them makes one feel calm. If you are growing fruit for their colour, choose their cousins, the soft golden-yellow, or amethyst-purple plums, but if you need a pollination partner for your yellow or purple plum, you cannot really do better than the greengage. I think that the fact they remain green discourages birds from pecking at them on the tree. It haven’t actually got any proof of this theory, but be that as it may, greengages combine marvellously with the cheese at the end of a meal. Try them with an organic cheddar, or if you are more adventurous yet, with a rich, mild English cheese like Berkswell, Cotherstone, or Oxford Isis.

Two things are threatening the plum. One is the mysterious epidemic that is decimating our bee population. This is not just a little local difficulty - there are very worrying figures that show the bee population in America has fallen sharply and severely. While nobody really knows if this is owing to a virus or to other environmental factors - even to mobile phone signals - it is certain that this will have a major impact in making all kinds of fruit more expensive. Peaches and nectarines also need to be fertilized by bees. So do strawberries, raspberries…in fact, just about every kind of fruit I can think of.

The other problem is that people are a teeny-weeny bit lazy. They are not replacing the old fruit trees in their gardens, and sometimes actually cut them down rather than go to the trouble of gathering the fruit! Why not keep the tree and if you don’t want the fruit, let other people come and pick it? If more people treated themselves to a plum tree or two in their gardens, the avenues of suburbia would be a fairer sight, and the fluffy white blossom would help to nurture the remaining bees, which are struggling to survive. The help would be mutual. It would be well worth going to that trouble to preserve something that has taken so many clever growers so many centuries to bring to such a height of excellence.




by Julia Gasper 16 April 2008.





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