Product of the week: British plums

Categories: Product of the week

A wide variety of sweet but acidic seasonal fruits, perfect for both eating and cooking

Whisper it quietly: autumn is coming—that time when, as the evening sets in, a cloudless sky means reaching for an extra layer rather than discarding one. But for food lovers, it is a season awash with compensations for the falling temperatures, one of which is the current glut of British plums. The familiar red and green victoria plums (pictured above); large, deep purple presidents; sweet, coarse-fleshed marjorie’s seedlings; small, tart damsons; brightly coloured greengages—all can be found bursting forth from orchards and hedgerows across the country.

With their balance of sweetness and acidity, plums are extremely versatile fruits: soft and sugary enough to be enjoyed raw, but with enough sharpness and substance to be cooked, pureed or preserved. To get the best out of their potential as a cooking ingredient, a tarte tatin using plums instead of apples is a good starting point: the fruit gives the tart a lovely, rich, autumnal colour. Other plummy treats, both sweet and savoury, include Flor chef’s James Lowe’s plum and yoghurt fool, Jenny Chandler’s amaretti stuffed plums and Tony Rodd’s duck breast with bulgur, plums and plum sauce

Decadent treat
One traditional method of preserving victoria plums is to make sugared plums, a rich and slightly decadent treat. “Get a clean jar, fill it with plums and a few strips of lemon zest, and cover them with a simple sugar syrup,” explains demo chef Lesley Holdship. “The sugar syrup ratio is roughly 60 per cent sugar to 40 per cent water. Heat the water, but don’t boil it, and keep mixing in the sugar until it’s all dissolved.” Traditionally the syrup contains just sugar and lemon, but it can be flavoured with aromatics of your choice to add an extra layer of complexity.

“Then just leave the jar somewhere dark and cool for at least four weeks. You can store them for much longer, though, and they just improve with age,” Lesley explains. “It is a really nice feeling to take something that’s in season now and store it, knowing that you’ll be bringing it out at Christmas as part of your festive feasting. Sugared plums go beautifully with ice cream or natural yoghurt—or some brandy cream, if you’re feeling indulgent.” A delightful side effect of letting the plums sit for several weeks is that once the jar is empty, the sweet, fruity liquor can be used as a plum wine. Or for a tipple with more of a kick, check out Ed Smith’s idea for using plums to flavour vodka or gin

Honey sweetness
The greengage is one of the more tasty but less widely appreciated members of the British plum family. Until the fruits have reached optimum maturity, they can be very tart, but when properly ripe, enough honey-flavoured sweetness comes through to offset that astringency. “When they’re a bit underripe, greengages go fantastically with savoury food,” Lesley reveals. “They work really well with oily ingredients like mackerel—I would pan-fry the fish, then make a sauté of the greengages with a little butter and ginger.”

Ed Smith’s greengage bakewell tart, a twist on the classic, is a great showcase for its more sugary charms (and will leave you with plenty of leftover greengage jam for other uses), as is an indulgent custard tart. “The texture of the greengages, the silkiness of the custard and the crunch of the pastry are a lovely combination,” Lesley says, with a wide smile. Blind bake a pastry case at 180C, put it aside, then cut your greengages into halves. Whisk together a custard using cream, egg yolks, some vanilla and sugar. Pour the mixture into the baked pastry case, place the greengages into the custard and slide it carefully into the oven. Cook at 150C for 35-40 minutes until the eggs are just set. “Once cool, it is a lovely tart,” says Lesley. “Marjorie’s seedlings or presidents would also work extremely well.”