A little sugar and a plum

Cherry plums in abundance- free too!
Cherry plums in abundance- free too!

In ‘Aller Aux Mirabelles’, the writer Jacques Réda recalls his thirties childhood spent in the town of Luneville, a place where the wild cherry plums grew abundantly, reminding him of “big blond smooth shiny pearls spotted with a few reddish freckles, and underneath their shininess the pulp is dense like a chunk of mashed sun.”  To Réda, a cherry plum is one of life’s small and significant things, punching its way through the ruins of twentieth century reality. You may know them by another name, the Mirabelle plum.

Hedgerows and the scrubby outskirts of urban and suburban areas all benefit from its sparse leafy shade and these low spreading trees provide essential food for birds.I was reminded of this as I walked to the supermarket and heard the squabbles of two blackbirds in the thickets of rowan, birch, plum and ornamental cherries shading the pavement. There, in the straggly and friable branches of the cherry plum tree, were mother and (nearly grown) fledgling, fighting over the ripened fruit which dropped around them as they fluttered from bough to bough, clamouring angrily at each other. Ripening as they do on low mother-branches, the fruit is often mistaken for a cherry when it is actually a member of the plum family and these ones were barely hanging on by the slenderest of stems, the thickness of a hair in the bright light. And then with a second glance, the fecundity of the tree was impossible to miss, festooned as it was with tiny yellow orbs, some with a faint-pink blush and others displaying vein-like striations of darker yellow, back-lit by the sun.

The word harvest comes from the Anglo-Saxon word haerfest meaning autumn but the fruits of the forest, meadow and hedgerow start coming long before August wanes. There’s bullace, damsons and medlars; crab apples, elderflowers, and wild strawberries as small as my little fingernail; the fungal harvest of puffballs and chicken of the woods alongside the wild-garlic, sweet cicely, cobnuts, hazelnuts and acorns (the latter can be ground into acorn flour). Some of these wild foods are hard-won, refusing to yield their fruits without a fight through thickets of thorns, protective girdles of stinging nettles and great clouds of wasps, bees and other insects. These protective devices are right and proper, ensuring that foragers leave enough for wildlife to see itself through the winter hunger gap.

Hedgerow and woodland plants possess miraculous skills and which the sloe is a good example, developing a dusty-blue hue which is actually an UV-reflective yeast bloom designed to stand out to birds whose eyes have evolved to detect this. When you go out gathering sloes to make gin, remember this and the words of Alison Uttley who was perfectly capable of grasping the science (being a physics graduate) but could also spin it into something ethereal and, in the process, captured on the page the essential mysteries which science always seeks to unravel: “The bloom on fruit always interested us, and we were careful…regarding the bloom as something mysterious, like lace on a dress, or a feather on a bird, or a decoration not made by man.”

In my house, cooking with fruit needs to happen immediately because I possess the self-control of the poet William Carlos Williams around it and he had no qualms about raiding the contents of the kitchen:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Alongside popping plums into bottles of brandy in homage to Manet’s The Plum, with its mournful depiction of a prostitute leaning on a marble-topped Parisian bar where a large green-flushed plum plugged the top of her glass of brandy, there are a myriad of things one can do with a bowl full of cherry plums. Their flavour is less tart, sweeter and subtly spicy, the skin thinner and the stone smaller. Perfect with tiny goat chevres and plum tomatoes (I have had them sliced, in a small hand-sized tomato tart, the similarity to the yellow tomatoes used as a visual pun), fresh basil and peaches, they have a sharper, vegetal undertone, a grassy-green note which cuts richer foods brilliantly.

The well known combination of cherries with meats such as duck, pork and mackerel would also work here and their colour, both cooked and uncooked, is pretty. They can be turned into mellow and gentle preserves (I would add some vanilla sugar) or a soft-set coulis if you add a slug of Chambord with its darkly-berried flavours and eat with ice cream. Or why not celebrate their long British history (plum stones were discovered on the the Mary Rose when it was saved from the sea) and use them in a classic crumble, a fruit pie or one of the chutneys we do so well? Bottle them with tomato, spices (star anise is good), chilé and tomatillo for a pickle that is visually confusing and very pretty to look at.

The Poles and Ukrainians are skilled at preserving wild fruits and my old Ukrainian neighbour would give me tall bottles of plums and cherry plums, preserved as pickles with brine and vinegar or bottled in vodka and brandy to make a glorious cherry plum liqueur. He would include their leaves too, pressed dimpled and dark green against the glass sides of the jars and sometimes he added the stones too although I won’t recommend you do that for health reasons- it is hard to accurately gauge the risks. For more information on the cyanide risk from fruit stones, this blog post makes for interesting reading. If you want some fabulous suggestions for fruit pickles and preserves, read ‘Mamushka‘ by Olia Hercules, a Ukrainian chef and food stylist who lives and works in London.

Here’s the method for cherry plum vino. Chin chin!

2.8 kg cherry plums, washed and dried.
1.4 kg sugar (I use brown caster sugar to add caramel tones to the flavour although it will affect the colour)
approx 4 litres of water
1 sachet wine yeast – doesn’t matter what red wine yeast you choose
1 tsp yeast nutrient
1 tsp pectolase

First you’ll need to extract their juices and the most efficient way to do this is boil 1 litre of water and carefully pour this over the fruit. Use the end of a rolling pin or similar sturdy tool to crush the fruit then eliminate all the stones by sieving- they are quite small so you will have to allow some time to do this. Leave this for a couple of hours then add the remaining water and the pectolase, the latter breaks down the pectin from the plums prior to fermentation. You don’t want the wine to be hazy so not only does pectolase stop this, it also increases the yield of juice from the cherry plum pulp as pectolase liquifies this.

Leave the resulting micture for two days, somewhere cool and clean then strain it through a fine sieve. Put the juice into a large pan, bring it to the boil then switch off the heat straight away. Do NOT omit this step or you will produce acetone because the mixture will not have been sterilised.

Pour the hot juice over the sugar and stir until it is totally dissolved then allow to cool down to room temperature. Add the yeast and yeast nutrient then pour it all into your demijohn using a funnel. Add the trap then rack off into a sterilised demijohn after four to six weeks and again a few weeks later if you prefer. Bottle when clear but don’t worry if it doesn’t ever completely clear- bottle it anyway as it will still taste as good.

Here’s a method for Cherry Plum-Cello:

Inspired by the proper Italian Limoncello’s I have drunk in Alghero, Naples and Palermo and various other locations, I thought I’d have a go with cherry plums. The drink is milder, obviously lemon is far more dramatic but the grassy fruitiness of the cherry plums work well and if you add a tiny sprinkle of Jamaican long pepper to your poured drink, you’ll have something quirky and very delicious.

200g of super ripe cherry plums, stones removed.

750ml vodka

200g granulated sugar

Put all the ingredients in a large, sterilised jar then seal securely and leave to infuse for 2 weeks. Every few day, invert and shake the jar to ensure the fruit and sugar is well distributed. After two weeks are up, sieve and strain into a large jug and keep the strained cherry plums to one side. Taste and add more sugar if necessary then pour into sterilised bottles and store in the fridge. Drink in three weeks and don’t waste the discarded fruit- eat them with cream, ice cream, piled into a brioche and dolloped with clotted cream for a riff on a Cornish Split, scattered under a crumble crust…

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