Cherry Plums; and Other Stoned Fruits
Our blog has been quiet in recent weeks. To be honest, life has felt a little overwhelming, with both work and personal life competing for our time and – as always – it has been the things that bring us pleasure that have taken the hit: writing, foraging and crafting had all been put on hold for a little while.
However, a recent discovery has made us step out of our routines and reminded us what we have been missing. On one of our recent lunchtime walks, we found a wild harvest we had never noticed before: cherry plums.
Although we hadn’t made the connection at the time, we had been taking photographs of the glorious early cherry plum blossom since February without knowing it: after the blackthorn, the cherry plum is probably the earliest tree to flower around here, beginning in late winter. The heavy florid branches turned one of our regular walks into a tunnel of white.
This early display was a good omen: unnoticed by us until a few weeks ago, the trees had been quietly putting all their energy into a glut of fruit, the branches slowly pulled down towards the path under the weight of so many plums. It was only when we had to start ducking under the drooping boughs that we noticed the beautiful green fruits hanging beneath the leaves.
Cherry plums (Prunus cerasifera) are cherry-sized fruit, though much more similar in appearance to a plum with its pronounced dimple down one side. As with all members of the Prunus family – wild plums, damsons, bullaces and gages – there is a lot of cross-fertilization and hybrid varieties so it is hard to make generalisations! However, most are initially green, turning yellow and then quickly red as they ripen. They will continue to ripen at home once picked, so it’s best to collect them when they are just beginning to blush red, before they prove too tempting for birds!
In taste, cherry plums are delicious, juicy and jaw-achingly tart, similar in many ways to other Prunus fruits, and can be used interchangeably: they work particularly well in jams, crumbles and mouth-wateringly sour sauces to serve with roasted or barbecued meats.
Discovering this generous harvest growing just a few minutes’ walk from our home feels quite nostalgic. At the bottom of the garden at my parents’ house where I grew-up we had a number of damson and greengage trees. While the greengages were very temperamental – I was in my early teens before we noticed a significant enough crop to warrant harvesting – the damsons were reliable as clockwork, and seeing my mother making damson jam in the kitchen was one of those essential milestones in the annual calendar. A sweet tangy air would hover over the whole house for days.
I have been recreating that memory at home over the last few days: two separate harvests of ripe cherry plums have been transformed into a sharp fruit crumble based on a version for damsons in Nigel Slater’s Tender II, a rich spicy variation on Olia Hercules’ recipe for the Georgian sauce tkhemali from her Mamushka, and six jars of sweet plum jam for the larder.
Following Pam Corbin’s advice in the River Cottage Preserves Handbook, I used a nutcracker to break the stones of a few of the cherry plums and extracted the kernels inside. After a quick soak in boiling water and a firm squeeze to remove the outer skin, this kernel had a warm almond-like smell, which added a nuttiness to the jam.
The only drawback to using cherry plums is that you need a lot more of them than you would cultivated plums, and each one needs to be individually stoned: while this wasn’t such a problem when using 350g of them for the tkhemali, the jam required 1.25kg! However, as mentioned when piercing sloes in our recipe for sloe gin, there is a kind of luxury in relaxing the usual expectations we place on ourselves every day, and instead allowing ourselves the time to enjoy being in the kitchen, focused on a single task, with perhaps only some music for company.
More than anything, it has been this quiet, patient, calming time spent preparing food – jams, sauces and desserts – that has made me reconsider my priorities. It is an indulgence, a pleasure, to make something from local, seasonal ingredients for our home with your own hands: make the most of it!