The damson season has brought a lush bounty of the purple gems of early autumn. The village has seen an excellent year for these delicious delights and they are being picked, shared, swapped and processed to bring joy in many forms. Penny has made many jars of purple delicousness in the form of jam, which will feature on a special or two as autumn progresses. A damson compote is lined up for the crème brûlée as the flavours change each batch. We await the first taste of damson gin ageing gently nearby. Not perhaps the most glamorous and well-known of the plum family, Victoria being the queen bee, top of the tree, look at me superstar, its beguiling colouration of pinky-mauve and yellow stands out on the shelves, for those not having the good fortune of a tree handily within reach. Unregally tart, the sour edge of firm skin, giving way to the tender yellow-orange flesh of sweet juiciness to the fibrous tendrils that cling to the rubbly kernel which though often discarded has found a home in other products.
Plums originate in the rose family like strawberries, cherries, peaches, and apples that flower then fruit. Specifically they are a member of the Prunus family, less well known than that 70’s classic The Partridge family, they number 430 trees and shrubs encompassing plums, their close chums, the apricot along with cherries, peaches, nectarines and, surprisingly, almonds. Originatiing in the distant Caucasus, home now to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and south western Russia. Another fleshy friend, the grape, gave rise in Georgia to what is allegedly, no really, not in the other sense, many experts indeed, the cradle of viniculture, where somewhere around 6000 BC the first wine was made, enjoyed and possibly laid down for investment for those with a strong sense of delayed gratification.
Easier to market than its closer named product prunes, plums are widely consumed and readily transported by those, er, emigrating or travelling, as its early spread to europe was credited to Alexander the Great. The term plum’s exact origin is unclear, probably a translation from an eastern term rendered in cyrillic. By the 18th century it had also become known a way of describing a prize piece, something desirable. By the late 20th it had become a slang reference for something more intimate from the male of the species and used as a slur in southern vernacular, “you’re a right a plum!” Previously it had been used to denote one who spoke well, “plummy”, denoting the use of the loooooooong vowel, to deliver speech in a drawly, laid-back manner believed to be rooted in the aristocracy, people who had no need or speed, rush or urgency, as if they had a plum in their mouth – not a kind reference either.
Of the many varieties of prunus, the most common to us include:
- Victoria (yellow flesh with a red or mottled skin) – Origin unknown but named as so many were in the 19th century after the Queen. What is known is that a Swedish plum Denyer’s Victoria was produced commercially in 1844.
- Damson (purple or black skin, green flesh, clingstone, astringent) Used primarily in preserves and spirits as harsh when raw. Damson gin or vodka adorns many a pantry shelf in the country. Only one variant – Merryweather, can be eaten raw with any pleasure. The name, in the UK, comes from plum of Damascus, damascene, as it was believed to originate there before being brought by the “emigrating” Romans. However, this is bunkum, as that plum is sweet. Testing reveals that it is a wild offshoot of the sloe. Famously used as the sole base for the spirit Slivovitz in Central Europe. Cultivated widely by farmers as a windbreak, field border and prickly fence to contain livestock. They take a long time to deliver fruit. Thinking how nice it would be to have one of your own? Consider the old rhyme:
- “He who plants plums
Plants for his sons
He who plants damsons
Plants for his grandsons“
- Greengage (firm, green flesh and skin even when ripe) Sir William Gage (1651-1727), 2nd Baronet of Hengrave who was responsible for introducing the greengage to England, imported from France, its origin is with the wild green plum of Persia (Iran). Considered by many the finest of the dessert plums it is normally green but can range from red to purple/black.
- Yellowgage or golden plum (similar to greengage but yellow) A cultivar of the green it has a less well regarded yet still delicous flavour.
- Sloe (small, green-fleshed, inky-skinned, acid flesh and bitter skin) Otherwise known as blackthorn, this small, tart fruit, harvested after the first frost is commonly used to make sloe gin, the wood used for making walking sticks or the shillelagh by the Irish.
- Mirabelle (dark yellow, predominantly grown in northeast France) Mostly used for jam or spirits, eau de vie or brandy, they are sweet and good to eat. Most popular in France, especially around Lorraine, where it is protected by a Geographical Identification. It appears now on restaurant menus and titles as a sophisticated take on the plum.
A much anticipated autumn fruit, following on the heels of apples, plums are best known in:
Plum duff, forerunner of Christmas pud, dating from the 16th century.
Plum sauce, the unctuous accompaniment to duck and pancakes.
Plum tart or crumble
Prunes in armagnac
Devils on horseback – image below
How to use the kernels?
In the making of brandy, infusing with the mush before distillation.
As a cold oil as with extra virgin olive oil.
In cosmetics for its rich emollience, sensorial qualities, and antioxidant profile.
Containing cyanide the kernels do one should approach such preparations at home with caution, I know, ’nuff said.