Plums and Green Gages

PRUNE: May-June

HARVEST: July-October

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All plums and gages are varieties of Prunus domestica. Gages (small, green plums) tend to be sweeter tasting and more spherical in shape than the darker purple plums, more popularly sold in UK stores therefore investing in your own gage tree at home in the garden is an excellent idea. Do not be put off by the bogey-like colour – they taste divine. 

Plum has many species, and taxonomists differ on the count. Depending on the taxonomist, between 19 and 40 species of plum exist. From this diversity only two species, the hexaploid European plum (Prunus domestica) and the diploid Japanese plum (Prunus salicina and hybrids), are of worldwide commercial significance. The origin of these commercially important species is uncertain.

Plums may have been one of the first fruits domesticated by humans. The most abundant cultivars have not been found wild, only around human settlements. Prunus domestica has been traced to East European and Caucasian mountains while Prunus salicina and Prunus simonii originated in Asia. Plum remains have been found in Neolithic age archaeological sites along with olives, grapes and figs.

It is considered plums came originally from Asia. They were likely first grown in China more than 2,000 years ago and made their way to Rome by 65 B.C. The fruit Prunus armeniaca gained its name from the beliefs of Pliny the Elder who was a Roman historian and scientist of the first century. He maintained the apricot was a kind of a plum, and had originally come from Armenia.

The plum is in fact closely related to the apricot and peach and numerous intermediary forms like Prunus simonii, the Apricot Plum. Prunus salicina, Asian plum native to China and Japan, has been in cultivation for thousands of years and was mentioned in the songs and writings of Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC). Although Pompey the Great is credited with introducing the cultivated plum to Rome in 65 BC, it is likely that wild plums were used by the peoples of southern Europe for many thousands of years. Wild plums flourished throughout the Old and New Worlds. In fact, the domestic plums we eat today descend from numerous sources.  Some sources believe the European plum was carried to Rome around 200 BC, then north to Europe. Others say that the Duke of Anjou carried the plum home as he returned from Jerusalem at the close of the Fifth Crusade (1198 to 1204 AD).

The French enthusiastically embraced the European plum during whichever scenario it arrived, using it in the kitchen as both fresh and dried as prunes. French immigrants carried plum pits to Quebec where a traveler recorded plum orchards flourishing as early as 1771. Plums came to North America with British settlers.

The markings on plum stones are unique to each variety, like a fingerprint. When Henry VIII’s ‘Mary Rose’ was raised after 450 years from the sea-bed, over 100 varieties of plum stones were discovered. It is an indication to how popular plums were in our diets during the Tudor period and are appreciation at the many different varieties on offer. It is a shame that instead of this giant figure increasing, we are lucky if we have more than 50 varieties available nowadays.

Plums are produced around the world, and China is the world’s largest producer, 6,100,000 tonnes during 2015.

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Green Gages

Plums can be self-fertile but it is safer to purchase two, to make sure. ‘Victoria’ is a popular, reliable, high-yielding, self-fertile cooker and eater. ‘Marjorie’s Seedling’, a dark purple and another popular variety is a late-ripening, heavy-cropping type that can give your fruit as late as October. Other popular plums that will be recommended are ‘Czar’, blue plums for cooking that apparently thrive in poor soil; ‘Early Laxton’, a dessert plum with red flushed, yellow fruit yielding in mid to late summer; ‘Blue Tit’, a compact dessert plum with blue fruit in late summer.

For Green Gages, ‘Cambridge Gage’, partly self-fertile, green fruits, sweet; most reliable of the gages, but vigorous and needs a warm garden; ‘Imperial Gage’ is self-fertile and described as ‘reliable’; ‘Oullin’s Gage’ is self-fertile and recommended by River Cottage for cooking or eating fresh and flowers later so it may miss any late frosts – plum blossom is very early and delicate.

You must be warned that some plum varieties do refuse to pollinate each other. ‘Rivers’ Early Prolific’ and ‘Jefferson’ or ‘Cambridge Gage’ and ‘Old Green Gage’ are such examples. Check with your suppliers for further details.

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Plums like fertile, well-drained soil in sunny, sheltered locations. They are particular about water- they like a reasonable amount during warmer months but despise waterlogged soils at any time of the year so a well-drained site is really ideal. Add plenty of organic matter if the soil is too dry to help the plant retain water in its roots. Feed and mulch the tree every spring to kick-start its blossom and fruit production and make sure you water in during dry spells, especially when it is settling in during the first year. The trees themselves are quite strong and hardy but unfortunately, the blossom is often early and hits the frost. Avoid frost pockets or windy sites and follow our crazy example of positioning ladders around the trees and wrapping the blossom very gently and carefully up in excessive amounts of horticultural fleece at night and then, using pegs, hoist it up during the daytime so pollinators can do their business.

A word on ‘Victoria’ plums – they are prone to such heavy cropping that their branches can snap if unsupported. This happened to our one a couple of years back when I foolishly removed some trees growing nearby that were supporting it. It has struggled on though like a brave soldier and produced an excellent crop this year.

Depending on the variety, location and type of plum, you can harvest from July to October. The first few fruits falling from the tree are a sign it is ready to start picking. Colour, squidgyness and ease of the plum being pulled from the tree branch is the next indicator. The fruit ripens very gradually over time so do not be too hasty – harvest every day whatever seems ready over time. Pick carefully to avoid bruising the fruit and try to leave a short stalk to keep the fruit and next year’s buds intact.

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‘Victoria’

Silver leaf disease is the most likely nuisance for plum trees. Minimising pruning helps reduce the likelihood of this disease a lot. Brown rot, blossom wilt, bacterial canker and rust are also a possibility. Spots of gummy looking resin on the bark are a sign that the tree is under stress. Aphids can appear in early spring but rarely do more than cosmetic damage. Worst case would be larvae in some of the fruit.

100g of fresh plums also contain 350 IU Vitamin A, 10mg Vitamin C, Vitamin K, 150 mg of potassium and smaller amounts of B vitamins and other minerals.

Some plums are best eaten fresh, others need to be cooked. All plums can be frozen. The best way is to de-stone them and put the halves in freezer bags but if you don’t have time, you can freeze them whole and remove the stones once defrosted at a later date. I freeze most of my plums to make jams and save the fresh ones for people to eat or to make delicious plum crumble from.

I offer two recipes: my green gage jam (feel free to apply the same recipe for other plums or half and half) and plum crumble. Dig in.

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Fresh batch of Green Gage Jam on toast from this afternoon

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Green Gage Jam

My favourite way to eat homemade green gages –  or plums –  is in jam.  Plums have an (almost) high amount of pectin in them so the jam should set without the aid of extra special pectin liquid however, I have been known to resort to using it in plum jam before so do not be afraid to do so yourself.

Serve the jam slathered thickly on buttered toast with a cup of tea on a sunny afternoon and you will be in heaven. 

(Makes 2.25kg worth)

  • 1 kg plums – 1kg granulated sugar – Juice of 1-2 lemons – 125ml Certo liquid pectin, optional
  1. Slice and remove the stones from the plums and place in a large pan. Add the sugar and lemon juice.
  2. Stir over a high heat and then allow the fruit to stew, checking the temperature with a jam thermometer. When it has reached boiling point, allow it to bubble furiously for at least ten minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, put a china plate inside the freezer so that it is cold. Spoon a small dollop of jam onto the plate and put it back in the freezer for a minute. Take it out and run a fingertip straight through the middle of the jam splodge on the plate. If the jam ‘crinkles’ and leaves a trail as you push your fingertip through, then it is done. If it doesn’t, continue to boil the jam and check in this manner until it is ready.
  4. Once done, turn of the heat and if using, add the liquid pectin and stir in before you allow the jam to cool slightly.
  5. Bottle in steralised jars and store in a cool, dry place overnight. You can use them from the next day onwards.

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Plum Crumble

Traditional plums look gorgeous in a crumble – the red juice makes it look so pretty – but mixing in some green gages as well takes the dish to a whole new sweet level and I urge you to try it at lease once!

(Serves 6

– Lots of plums, about 1kg – Caster/ granulated sugar, to sprinkle over the plums

For the crumble topping: – 170g plain flour – 110g salted butter – 55g caster/ granulated sugar

  1. Preheat the oven 150C.
  2. De-stone the plums and cut into halves or segments. Place them in an oven-proof dish. Sprinkle a generous amount of caster or granulated sugar over the top of each layer of plums as you put them in. You want to have a nice thick layer of fruit as it is going to decrease in size during the cooking process.
  3. Put the flour into a bowl followed by the sugar and salted butter. Rub together using your fingertips until the mixture resembles large bread crumbs (add more butter if too dry and more flour if too sticky). Sprinkle the crumble topping over the top of the plums that have been placed in layers inside the dish.
  4. Bake in the oven for about 45 minutes – 1hr, or until hot and golden brown on top and the fruit is cooked underneath (once done, you can turn off the oven and leave the crumble inside to stay warm until you are ready to eat it). Serve hot with custard.

Raspberries

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Raspberries, Rubus, are of the rose family. They are a widely commercial fruit crop, grown in all temperate regions across the world. Many of the modern commercial raspberries are hybrids of Rubus ideaus and Rubus strigosus. Recent breeding has resulted in thornless cultivators that stand upright strongly without the need of staking.

They are believed to have originated from Eastern Asia. Archeological evidence has shown us that Palaeolithic cave dwellers consumed raspberries and that the berries have been part of the human diet for centuries although the canes were not cultivated until about the 4th century. Raspberries were associated with fertility and in Greek mythology, raspberries were white until Zeus’ nursemaid, Ida, pricked her finger on a thorn and stained the berries red. Rubus ideaus translates as ‘bramble bush of Ida’. During the 13th century, the juice of the berries was used to stain artwork red.

The black raspberry is Rubus occidentalis with a distinctive flavour. Purple raspberries are hybrids of red and black types. They can be found wild in a few places, such as Vermont. A blue raspberry is a cultivator called ‘Columbian’, a hybrid of a purple raspberry, black and red. There are about 200 different species of raspberries in total. Raspberries have also been crossed to create the wonderful boysenberry and before that, the loganberry. My gran gave us a loganberry last year and we purchased a boysenberry plant this year after discovering ‘Bunny Loves: Boysenberry Jam’ when on holiday in Dorset a couple of years ago.

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Raspberries are grown for their fresh fruit market and their ease at being frozen, pureed, dried and made into wonderful conserves. Traditionally they were a midsummer crop but due to cultivation and travel, they can be obtained all year round. We often start picking our own around June until late autumn, often coinciding with the frosts.

Raspberries need ample sun and water and thrive best in a soil pH 6-7.

Raspberries are a rich source of vitamin C, 26g per 100g serving, and dietary fibre, 6% total weight and one of the highest recorded in whole foods.

Raspberry leaves can be dried and used for a flavoured tea that can soothe the digestive system and ease cramps. There was a time when the leaves of the raspberries were values higher than the berries due to their medicinal uses.

Raspberries have long been associated with herbal remedies. Today, we recognise cancer and heart disease fighting properties within these berries, notably ellagic acid. Raspberry tea is recommended to women after childbirth to ease pain, a mouthwash can be made including raspberries that prevent gum bleeding and the tannins in dried raspberry leaves can soothe sunburns and other minor burns. Raspberries also contain antimicrobial properties that can inhibit Candida albicans, a trigger for IBS. Like strawberries and other dark berries, raspberries fight macular degeneration and promote healthy eyesight.

The biggest threat to your raspberry fruits will be birds. If you have a severe issue, netting or bird scarers are the only defence. We fortunately have so many, our birds seem to run out of steam and target the strawberries, blackcurrants and redcurrant bushes more often. As far as diseases are concerned, raspberries can develop severe root rot from an overly-wet ground that can destroy the plant itself. You want to make sure the raspberry is well-watered when it is fruiting but is planted in well-drained soil to prevent this tragedy from happening – otherwise you will be forced to get rid of your plants and start again and Verticillium wilt can stay in the ground for years at a time.

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Raspberries are usually sold as dormant bare-rooted canes. Plant them 45 cm or so apart in well-fed soil in rich, rotted, organic matter. Leave 2 metres between rows of summer-fruiting varieties and 1 metre for winter-fruiting varieties. Raspberries are shallow rooting so resist planting them too deeply. Summer raspberries produce fruit on canes that grew the year before so do not expect any produce the first summer. Each cane fruits only once so remove the old canes after harvest is over to leave room for new ones to grow. If the canes flop over, tie them to bamboo sticks or some other prop to hold them up and make them easier to pick (we finally did that this year and it is making it a lot easier for us, and regrettably most likely the birds too, when harvesting them). Autumn raspberries ripen their fruit on the current year’s canes so they will not produce anymore the next year. Raspberries are very good at spreading suckers and creating new plants, hence why we have so many which we are very pleased about! If you do not want to extend your crop, pull up the baby plants as the sprout. It is recommended to replace your raspberry plants at around ten years. If you are considering growing one in a container, autumn varieties are smaller and are more suitable for you.

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Summer raspberries should be ready for picking from mid-June to August and autumn varieties will ripen from August to October. Keep an eye on them as they ripen and mould quickly. Keep picking as it encourages more growth from the plant. They are delicious eaten fresh but we almost always have a glut which I am happy about as I freeze them and make them into our ever-popular raspberry jam. Otherwise, I am happy to use frozen raspberries in baking, such as cakes.

Fresh raspberries can be eaten on their own, with yoghurt or ice cream, whipped in cream to make a fool, baked in a crumble, tart or pie, made into a fruit leather, bottled for preserving or juiced with apples or blackberries for a drink.

I start the raspberry recipe collection with my latest discovery, Nigella Lawson’s lemon and raspberry muffins (‘How to be a Domestic Goddess’). 

Lemon and raspberries pair quite nicely together. I would try replacing the raspberries with blueberries when they are in season, or bilberries if there are any ready for picking now. Happy baking!

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Nigella’s Lemon-Raspberry Muffins

(Serves 12)

– 60g butter – 200g plain flour – 2 teaspoons baking powder – ½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda – 150g caster sugar – ¼ teaspoon salt (omit if using salted butter) – Juice & finely grated zest of 1 lemon – Approximately 120ml milk – 1 large egg – 150g raspberries

1. Preheat the oven to 200C and line a muffin-tray with 12 large paper cases.

2. Melt the butter in the microwave or in a pan over a medium flame. Set aside.

3. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, bicarb, sugar, salt (if using it) and the lemon zest, finely grated.

4. In a measuring jug, pour in the lemon juice, then enough milk to reach  the 200ml mark. Beat in the egg and melted butter.

5. Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl of dry ingredients and stir briefly , until just combined. Fold in the raspberries gently.

6.Spoon the mixture into the muffin cases and bake in the centre of the oven for about 25 minutes. When cooked, the tops should spring back to your touch and be golden coloured. Leave in the tray for about ten minutes before turning them out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container.

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