Of what? Of cherry plums. What are they then?
The simple answer is they are plums that look like cherries and the trees can be found planted in many a street and garden mostly across the southern half of the country.
But you want to know more than that don’t you? Well then if you are sitting comfortably I shall begin.
© Danielle Harlow – Fotolia.com
We’ve lived in our house for nearly 12 years and when we arrived the garden was a bit ramshackle. It had been nice at one point I’m sure but the previous owner was rather old (he had lived his whole life in the house) and it had been left to get overgrown. Both garden and house were in need of a LOT of work. It was a great chance to start from scratch and not have to live with someone else’s idea of the ‘perfect’ terraced house. So we set to work. It took the best part of 8 years for the house to be completely finished and a bit like the Forth Bridge it’s now time to start decorating all over again (no walls to re-plaster though this time).
But I digress.
We have also made plenty of changes to the garden. Sadly the greenhouse hidden at the end was too rotten to save and the pond a little too large to look after. So they went. There were plants that were past their prime or couldn’t survive the severe trim they needed and others we didn’t know what to do with (or didn’t like – pampas grass anyone!). One of these was a quite young looking tree that didn’t show much promise; it was bolting for the light through the trees in our neighbours’ garden. The initial decision was that it would probably have to go. But we didn’t get round to it and then it was February and the tree came into blossom way before anything else giving a wonderful feeling of the approaching spring and providing some brightness in a wintery garden.
The tree in blossom earlier this year
So it stayed. And each year the blossom has been wonderful, sometimes as early as January but never later than the end of February. The blossom is white and because it comes so early I started to assume maybe it was some kind of almond tree.Then we started to get fruit, not many at first and often hard and green with a small stone. It didn’t really look like an almond and I never got very far in trying to find out what it was.
Plums on the tree in mid June
Then this year I became determined to find out what it was. I was spurred on by my day of wild food foraging but it wasn’t until I got a copy of The Forager Handbook (thanks @RachieGraham) that I was finally able to work out what it was. Some cross checking on the internet to confirm and just as the fruits started to be ready I knew at last that it is a cherry plum and that it is edible. And this year there seemed to be quite a lot of fruit.
Just some of the haul
So I started to collect the fruit, and I carried on collecting them, and on and on and on and on and on. And over about 3 days I collected about 15kg (I lost count somewhere I think). And then I needed to process them because eating 15kg of fruit straight off was not going to be a good idea. A couple of tweets later and I had recipes for pickled plums (thanks to @Weezos) and plum chutney (thanks to @TheAmpleCook) and some possible giveaways that in the end couldn’t be managed. Naturally I already had in mind some of my almost legendary fruit vodka so I got to work. Oh my and what work it was.
Bucolic England (Flatford Mill, 2007. copyright Jonathan Taylor (Flickr user Northstander)
When I was a ‘corporate slave’ I harboured dreams of having a little chutney and preserves business, because when you sit at a desk most of the day building spreadsheet models, writing reports and trying to keep 150 very nice solicitors in check your mind roams off into bucolic styled dreams of country England and domestic pursuits such as baking bread and making chutneys. Every now and then I would rustle up a batch of some kind of chutney and dish it out to delighted friends and family – it all seemed such fun. Well let me tell you its not so much fun if you have to do it day in day out. And I say that after only 2 ½ days of plum processing! I reckon that each kilo of plums equated to about 180 actual plums.
Just some of the 2700 plums I stoned
So I’ve stoned 2,700 plums BY HAND. I’m surprised I haven’t developed RSI. And the thing is I reckon I only got about ¼ of the total possible harvest…why? Well the tree is against our fence so half of the branches are over next-door’s garden so there’s 50% I didn’t get and then I was only collecting those that fell and were in good condition and weren’t under a prickly shrub. I took a peak under one of the shrubs and there were loads more under there so I reckon I lost another 25% that way (of the total not of the remainder – see what all those years with spreadsheets did to me). So I guess the tree had roughly 60kg of fruit on – not bad for what used to be a gangly upstart that we nearly got rid of.
Now I have pickled plums, plum chutney, plum vodka, plum compote, bottled plums (in sweet syrup) and I’m still collecting about 500g a day……more vodka with them I think as that’s the easiest to make.
Here’s the final haul
So if you’ve got a plum or damson tree watch out because I think it’s going to be a bumper summer. And if you’ve not well then don’t go too mad at the fruit farm 2½ days of fruit processing is more than enough for anyone.
I don’t use fixed measure for this but ratios.
Select your fruit of choice and weigh it. They tip it in a large glass jar (e.g. a preserving jar with a clip lid).
Add between half to the same weight of sugar (I usually used granulated) depending on how tart the fruit is and how sweet you want the result to be.
Then pour over about 1 ¼ -1 ½ times the volume of vodka as you had weight of fruit; so if you had a 750ml bottle of vodka you’d be looking to find between 500-600g of fruit.
Add any extras you think you’d like, a shaving of lemon peel is good with damsons or sloes.
Stir it all round to get as much as the sugar to dissolve as possible.
Close the jar and leave for a minimum of 6 weeks.
Check regularly and shake to help the sugar dissolve. After the first 6 weeks test the flavour and either leave to extract more flavour or strain and bottle.
Leave the bottle to mature for a further few months minimum. It gets better with age if you can resist for long enough.
- If you haven’t got a large glass jar but have a glut of fruit you need to use up quickly then put everything a big non-reactive pan, cover and then track down a jar – it’ll be fine for the first few weeks in a pan.
- You can use gin instead of vodka but remember gin already contains its own aromatics so you’ll get a different flavour. Sloes and damsons work particularly well with gin.
- If the fruit is quite hard then you need to break the skin to allow the flavours to mix – I do this by putting the fruit in a large freezer bag and bashing it a bit with the rolling pin. If you’ve stoned the fruit (or its a soft fruit) then there’s no need to do this.
- You might want to strain through muslin or even a coffee filter before bottling if you want a really clear result. If you don’t mind sediment there’s no need to bother.
- Be wise whom you share the vodka with; once people have tried some they’ll always be angling for another bottle.
Plum Pickle (adapted from a series of Tweets by Weezos)
1ltr wine vinegar
spices of your choice
Salting the plums
Stone the plums and place them in bowl sprinkling salt over each layer as you go. Leave for 12-24 hours.
Sterilise glass jars in an oven for 10 minutes at R2/150C and leave to cool.
Bring the vinegar, sugar and spices to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Allow to cool.
Rinse the salt from the plums and pack in jars. Cover with pickling vinegar.
Seal and allow to mature for a minimum of two weeks (longer is better) in a cool place.
Good with terrines and game dishes.
Spiced Plum Chutney (thanks to TheAmpleCook)
Nearly ready for the jars
This recipe is from Delia Smith.
3 cloves garlic
2 heaped tsp ginger
1lb seedless raisins
1lb soft dark sugar
1lb Demerara sugar
1 pint vinegar (recipe says malt I used cider)
2 tbsp salt
2 cinnamon sticks
1oz allspice berries
1 dsp whole cloves
large non-reactive pan
Note: you can adapt the spices to a mix of your favourites but you need roughly the same quantity, for example I had a smoked chilli in mine, and coriander because I like them.
Put the spices in a muslin square and tie it tightly with string.
Stone the plums, finely chop the apples (cored but leave on the skins), finely chop the onions and put them all in a large pan.
Crush the garlic and add it, the raisins, ginger, sugars and vinegar to the pan. Sprinkle in the salt and stir well.
Suspend the whole spices in their ‘bag’ into the pan and tie to the handle for easy removal later.
Bring to the boil and then simmer pour about 3 hours until the vinegar has almost disappeared and you have a thick, soft chutney. Remember to stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
Sterilise the jars and fill whilst both they and the chutney are still warm.
Leave to mature in a cool place for a minimum of 3 months.
“Here, turn right here, this has got to be it”.
We swerve round the corner and bounce along the driveway. “Nice pond, but where’s the big house?” There’s plenty of rolling parkland and a cluster of outbuildings but no grand house to be seen.
There’s also a tall affable looking chap wearing wellies and a big chunky jumper so we slow up and roll down the window. “Here for the food foraging?” he says, “follow the track round between these buildings and you’ll see a group of parked cars and over to the right people on the lawn, that’s were you need to be.” So we drive on as instructed and sure enough there’s about 15 cars and a bunch of people standing about having coffee. I get out and amble over and my husband drives off to a day of peace and quiet.
I get a coffee and Polly (half of the duo that makes up Food Safari) passes me some still warm flapjack (yum! this is a good way to start) then introduces me to the rest of the group – none of whom I’ve met before but some of whom I’ve been chatting to via twitter (yes that’s you @Farctum and @EssexGourmet). Once everyone is here Tim (the tall affable chap in wellies, he’s the other half of Food Safari) tells us the format of the day. We’re going to be foraging for wild foods here on the estate and then also down by the river Blyth (also on estate land) then we’ll be off to The Anchor at Walberswick for a lunch show-casing some of the wild foods.
Tim hands over to Jacky (aka WildFoodie) who’s our foraging expert today. She explains that we are on private land so sadly we can’t entertain any thoughts of popping back sometime to bag some more goodies; well I guess not unless we can get to be new best friends with Hektor who manages the estate, I imagine he’s probably got enough friends already though. Jacky also explains that the weather in Suffolk has been so dry recently that we probably aren’t going to find enough stuff in really good condition for us to take bagfuls home. We are going to have to be content to watch and learn, that’s the nature of foraging, it’s a real luck of the draw thing. Jacky had a scout about yesterday so she’s got lots of examples to show us and she’s been able to collect enough goodies for our meal later.
Then we move on to our first spot, I’m expecting we’re going to have to walk a good distance across the park perhaps into a wooded area, but no, there’s plenty to see only steps away from where we are. Take a look – what can you see that’s edible?
Hmmm looks like a bunch of weeds in a badly tended garden if you ask me…..but hold one we are going to find at least FOUR, yes that’s four, edible goodies in this patch.
Okay so clearly I’m in nappies on the foraging front compared to the likes of Jacky – I can’t see a thing I’d fancy eating. But with Jacky’s expert guidance we learn about ground ivy, cleavers (aka sticky willy – hmmm), nettles, ground elder, burdock and elderflower – blimey that’s six – and I don’t think Jacky was even trying hard….she tells use how to identify each of them through look, feel and even sound and also which bits to pick and even how to pick (clever scissor movement with your fingers for nettle tops). We taste as we go when things are okay to eat raw. Mostly everything we test has a fresh but quite bitter taste but there are differences between them.
Next its time to move on to the river. But before that a few of us think a comfort stop might be good so Polly takes us over to the stable block, which has been converted into a rather lovely looking B&B, and we get to use the facilities there. I also get a quick lesson in the intricacies and long running feuds of the Rous family and learn that the final version of the big grand house was knocked down (some say a fortuitous fire…) in 1953, so that’s why we couldn’t see it. There are plans afoot for a new house to be built.
Anyway down to the river – I would say bank but here the estuary is really wide and flat so it’s more like a gentle slope. The estuary systems in Suffolk and Norfolk are havens for all sorts of things and in particular marsh samphire.
If you look really hard you can see the samphire at the front of this picture
I’ve had this before, bought from local farm shops and I love it. We are a little early in the season but we can see the samphire starting to sprout like some kind of mini primeval forest. We get to test the samphire and its wonderfully juicy with a salty tang –I’m looking forward to it being available in the farm shop soon and hoping we get some at lunch. We also find sea purslane which looks a bit like a succulent version of sage although it tastes nothing like sage. Again it’s juicy and salty.
And finally we head off to The Anchor pub at Walberswick with our appetites suitable whetted. But before we get to tuck into lunch we take a quick look at the pub’s allotment where Jacky tells us about poppy leaves (nice and sweet and almost pea like in flavour), hops shoots, dead nettles and chickweed (plus other assorted things you might just throw away but can actually eat!).
At last it really is time for food. We wander over to the beautifully refurbished stable block and are served with glasses of refreshing elderflower scented beer from Lowestoft whilst nibbling on fresh asparagus, tempura hop shoots and absolutely wonderful chickpea and samphire mini pancakes. These are so divine we are nearly knocking each other out of the way to get our hands on them; I’m definitely going to be trying to recreate them at home.
Mark then guides us into the stable block itself where a huge long table awaits us and a further three courses of food with matched beers. Mark is an absolute mine of information about the beers and clearly likes to surprise his guests with things such as a Gueuze he describes as having aromas of sweaty horse saddle and horse piss – great! Hektor and I try to tell him that we are not especially familiar with either of these but to no avail. Food wise every thing was delicious but dishes and flavours that particularly stood out were the chicken of the woods in the risotto,
The chicken of the woods is the pinky/orange bits
a very meaty mushroom that might make some vegetarians shudder, the semi pickled carrots in the salad, the elderflower panacotta
and finally my favourite local cheese, Buxlow Wonmil. It makes a change to have lovely food paired with beers rather than wines and is something I might try myself. Of the beers I think my favourite was the Frambozen although the Gueuze was much nicer than Mark’s description would lead you to expect; its kind of nicely tangy and refreshing, a bit like liquid sourdough.
Its time for everyone to head their separate ways, full of new knowledge, exceptional food and plenty of beers. I have a glass of Benedictine for the road (fortunately my husband is collecting me) and we waddle off clutching our information packs, happy foragers that we now are.
You can find out more about Food Safari’s days out in Suffolk on their website, arrange gift vouchers for loved ones or simply book a treat for yourself. I’m hoping to try another one of their days soon.
To view the menu and other information about The Anchor at Walberswick click here. Go on treat yourself to some great food and beer.