The nana fruit
For some reason, plums, for me, conjure nanas, images of pretty blossoms and the English countryside. The nana connection is easy enough to explain – stewed plums used to be a staple in my nan’s fridge; she’d eat them for breakfast with muesli and yoghurt, the plum juices creating the most beautiful stain on the white of the yoghurt.
The blossom link is also obvious; plum trees are a member of the rose family and closely related to peaches and nectarines, all trees that produce the most startling flowers in spring. These are called drupes (also my new favourite word), which refers to fruits with a single stone. They’re also related to almonds, and combining plums with this nut works so well, which could be a case of kissing cousins.
Finally, the English connection derives from the old belief that English plums are superior in flavour, a myth that likely stems from the English themselves. Generally speaking, there are two main types of plums: European and Asian, though there are actually a few native to Australia, such as the pine and Davidson plums. European varieties, such as the damson, are often quite tart, whereas sweeter blood plum varieties tend to come from Asia.
Plums range greatly in colour and sweetness. There’s green, called a greengage plum, all the way through to varieties with white to yellow, to slightly purple, and also dark red flesh. Even blood plums have sub types, such as the mariposa, a slightly tart variety with a beautiful red colour, or the satsuma, a Japanese plum that is sweeter with a rich flavour yet bitter skin.
Although there’s a reliable season for plums (Summer/Autumn), various types will ripen at different times within this period. The Santa Rosa plum is generally available early, whereas most blood plums are ready later in the season and for a shorter time.
The perils of growing fruit trees
I spent some time speaking to my friend Phil Lavers – a biodynamic farmer from Moonacre Farms, as he grows plum trees and, like all his crops, growing them commercially using organic practices is fraught with danger. Firstly, lots of water is needed in the initial stages to allow the plums to grow plump, however too much water too fast forces the plums to swell quickly, causing the skin to split.
Then there’s a little beast called the pear and cherry slug – a fly larvae that lives in the ground in winter before appearing in spring to climb the trees and eat all the leaves. No leaves, no flowers, no pollination, no fruit. Too much wind? The blossoms get blown off the tree and, again, no fruit. Chill factor also needs to be taken into account, which is the case for a lot of fruit trees, and this is a calculation stating how many hours the trees need to be exposed to temperatures below 10 degrees to produce well.
When it comes to plums, not all is as it seems. Firstly, umeboshi plums, coming from the ume fruit, are those delightful sour and salted morsels used so well in Japanese cooking and reminiscent of Chinese dried salted plums. Ume fruit is also used to make umeshu, a delicious gentle plum liqueur. Thing is, ume isn’t a plum at all, it’s the fruit of a tree that’s more closely related to an apricot.
Now let’s speak of plum or Christmas pudding. Are there any plums in it? Nope. So what was little Jack Horner doing in the corner with his thumb? Well, it turns out he was actually pulling out raisins, as the pre-Victorian word for raisins was plum. Sadly, we have all been tricked.
Dried up like a prune
Finally, we have prunes, which are dried plums and, although not generally any one particular variety, they are often made from the freestone rather than clingstone types. Poor prunes are often associated as being a laxative. This is only true if you overindulge; overindulgence being the problem, not really the prune.
Prunes are delicious, work wonderfully with chocolate, and are particularly delightful when steeped with booze and put in an ice-cream. They’re also used in savoury preparations – think Moroccan tagines, French braised pork with prunes, and the classic Scottish Cock-a-leekie soup.
Booze and food
There is a worldwide history of some very serious winemaking and firewater-like alcohols using plums. At Berta, we too have carried on this tradition, infusing Phil’s lovely blood plums in alcohol, resulting in a deliciously thick, and slightly strong digestive.
Crumbles and tarts are very good homes for plums, making an Italian crostata a particularly delightful way to use the fruit. Plum jam is also a delightful thing, the high amounts of pectin make it possible to create something similar to a quince paste if you so desire. And, of course, there's the humble stewed and poached plum, loved by nanas everywhere.
Photography by Benito Martin. Styling by Lynsey Fryers. Food preparation by Suresh Watson. Salad plate in colour slate from Mud.