By Ellen Kelly
Plums, as well as pluots and apriums, are part of the same stone fruit family as almonds, cherries, peaches and apricots. Botanically they are called drupes; simply put, fleshy fruit surrounding a single seed encased in a hard shell. Plumcot, the original cross between a plum and an apricot, was developed by the pre-eminent American horticulturist Luther Burbank, the plum being a personal favourite of his. His outstanding contributions to agricultural science include well over 800 plants ranging from the Santa Rosa plum to the Russet Burbank potato with numerous flowers, nuts and grains in between.
We’ve been seeing these interesting (and delicious) crosses more and more often in markets in recent years. The original plumcot was an equal cross between a plum and an apricot. Now, many years and permutations later, we have pluots, plum-dominant, and apriums, apricot-dominant. They are both described as having an intensely sweet and spicy flavour, frequently surpassing the qualities of either parents.
There are hundreds of varieties of plums, divided into two types, European and Japanese. The European plums are very often chartreuse, green or yellow skinned, while the Japanese tend more often to be red, blue or purple. For instance, the Greengage plum is considered European and the Santa Rosa, Japanese. What is fairly common to both is that the ripe flesh is sweet and the skins are very tart. They range in size from cherry-tomato sized to the size of a peach.
The season is quite long — May to October — so keep an eye out for various varieties throughout the summer and into the fall. When buying plums, look for fruits that are heavy for their size, and blemish free, without cracks, soft spots or otherwise damaged skins. Many plums have a pale, silvery – dusting. This does not affect the quality; in fact, it suggests the fruit has been minimally handled as the dusty appearance easily rubs off. Choose firm fruit that yields slightly to palm pressure. Don’t be that person who pokes a finger into fruit and then puts it back. Very firm plums will soften at room temperature. These can then be refrigerated in plastic for up to 4 to 5 days.
In my estimation, plums make stellar jams, chutneys, sauces and baked tarts. As a matter of fact, oven roasting improves the flavour considerably through caramelization. Jam made with oven-roasted Santa Rosa plums is superb, but feel free to experiment with other varieties, including pluots and apriums.
Damson plums (small, oval and dark blue) are a little hard to find. They aren’t especially good to eat out of hand, having a pronounced and slightly astringent taste. The skins have been used to dye fabric a deep purple. However, they do make a lovely cheese which, much like quince cheese, is perfect to serve on a cheese board. A “cheese” is one step beyond a “butter” in that it is long-cooked, becoming stiff when set, and then easily sliced to serve. Use a straight-sided jar as the cheese needs to slide out in order to be sliced. A little glycerine rubbed on the inside of the jar will facilitate this. Personally, I prefer a damson jam and find it even more versatile, equally as good on toast as it is with warm nutty cheeses like French Compte and Swiss Gruyere.
Many recipes for damson plum jam tell you to cook the whole fruit and scoop out the pits as the fruit breaks down. They say the stones float to the surface to facilitate this, but I pit them first and worry less about dentist bills thereafter. Plums contain lots of pectin, so they make a good starter jam.
Stone about 5 lbs. of damson plums and begin to cook the fruit down with 1 cup water and 12 cardamom pods in a cheesecloth bag. Add 4 cups of white sugar and bring to a boil. Put a saucer in the freezer for testing. Cook until a set is reached, about 20-25 minutes. Pull the pan off the heat and put a spoon of jam on the saucer, returning it to the freezer for a minute or two. If you are able to run your finger through the jam and it doesn’t flow back, you’re set, or at least your jam is. If not, continue the process. When the jam is ready, remove the cardamom and stir in a knob of butter. Jar and process as per general canning directives.
Another excellent use for plums is making your own plum eau-de-vie. And just in time for Christmas gift-giving! Mirabelle plums are a good choice. Haunt the markets for these small, round, yellow-skinned plums. They are sweet – considered by most to be the sweetest of all plums — with thin skins. Mirabelles are a little hard to find, so any tasty plum will work. It’s as easy as letting your choice of plums macerate in alcohol for eight or ten weeks. My preference is gin, but damsons in brandy, with some orange zest and a cinnamon stick tossed in, will give you an interesting Slivovitz-style tipple. For a liqueur, you simply strain the eau-de-vie, sweeten with a sugar syrup (to taste) and Voila! you now have your own holiday aperitif to share… or not. The addition of a small amount of glycerine will help create a desirable creamy mouth-feel. You can even use the leftover fruit to make a boozy jam if you’re so inclined.
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