At this time of year, when the garden is full of a bright light and the leaves are just thinking about turning yellow I begin to stalk around the orchard, keeping a close check on fattening fruits, hoping I discover them in their perfect state of ripeness before the wasps do. And the ones I’m most impatient for, practically tapping my watch in a what-sort-of-time-do-you-call-this fashion, are the plums.
Our plum trees bless us with gorgeous blossom in spring and then there’s the fruit, from golden mirabelles and translucent gages, through to deepest velvety-purple damsons, they’re beautiful.
The British love affair with these jammiest and juiciest of fruits is long-standing. There were plum orchards in medieval monasteries, and Chaucer described a garden cultivating “ploumes and bulaces” as long ago as 1369, though it wasn’t really until the 19th century that we went potty for plums. The Victoria plum was cultivated from a seedling found in a Sussex garden in 1844 and remains the most popular variety grown in Britain. Though some are sniffy about it, I think it’s still one of the best cooking plums. Raw from the tree they can be a bit tart, which is fine if you want to pile them into a pie or simmer them into compote. If you want to eat them raw, leave them to ripen in a warm room for a day or so before you tuck in.
But if raw is what you most hanker for, then plant the sweet, round gages: Cambridge, Early Transparent, Reine Claude and the extra-large Oullin are all rightly popular. Larger plums that will sweeten nicely in a sunny summer are Marjorie’s Seedling and Warwickshire Drooper.
When it comes to cooking them, one of the easiest ways is to poach them into a compote sweetened with a little sugar and/or honey and a split vanilla pod, perhaps a little star anise, too, if you fancy. Or roast them to intensify the flavour. Spoon over thick Greek yoghurt or ice-cream, or serve with subtle, creamy puds such as panna cotta. Add a little dollop to the bottom of crème brûlée, too, to make a fruity change.
Plums are related to apricots, peaches and cherries, and many of the dishes you can make with their cousins work brilliantly with plums. Try them quartered and stoned and crammed into tarts filled with frangipane, snuggle them into a tarte tatin, or envelope them in a cloud of clafoutis.
Of course, we love plums in sweet things, but their acidity works well in savoury dishes, too. Traditionally, either in their fresh or dried, pruney state, they’ve been made into stuffings for goose, pork or other fatty meats. But they are great in lighter dishes, adding a bit of sweet tanginess to salsas and juicy vitality to salads. Try sliced gages or plums with prosciutto and some blue cheese, or arranged on a plate with roasted beetroots lightly dressed with vinaigrette and some soft goat’s cheese crumbled over the top.