Back in Hereford for the weekend, I found myself in an overgrown garden. Since I arrived in England I had experienced comically heavy rain, bursting like a cartoon thundercloud whenever I stepped out the front door. Now the rain had just stopped, the sun sparing us a few rays. The garden was sodden. The plum tree in the middle was weighed down, its boughs bending all the way to the grass. Some had already gone over, mould blooming, carefully tracing an intricate map of decay on the dark pink fruit. The rest were different shades of sunblush, pale yellow and dusty speckled rose. Some were small enough to pop straight into my mouth (for an extra plummy accent?), some heavy enough to fill a palm. A few beads of clear sap dotted the plums, Some had cracked, bursting out of their skins.
I started picking absentmindedly, making a sling out of my square cotton scarf. Somewhere else in the garden came the snip and crack of secaturs, voices. I was within the bowed arms of the tree by now, hidden. With so many plums I vacillated from one branch to another, this one, that one, leave one take one. The toes of my boots were damp, my cuffs soaked with the drops of moisture that rolled off the surface of the plums. I cradled several kilos in my arms, in the scarf.
Later that morning we arranged the flowers and greenery picked in the garden into aesthetically pleasing groups, a harder task than I had imagined. There are formulas for flower arranging: odd numbers of individual blooms, threes and fives, the total height to be one and a half times taller than the vase. Like taking a photo you can use the rule of thirds as a guideline, but then you need skill and practice and an intangible feel for an image. The same way I leave white space when drawing, or add a simple asymmetrical decoration on the side of a plate or a cake. Too much frou-frou ruins the effect, too little leaves the dish unappetising, the bouquet flat. Finally we added a plum branch to the table, harvest festival style, their tawny colours brightening that corner. They were Victorias, my mother told me; it is her name too.
For lunch we had the miracle of a whole half hour of sunshine. (What is it called, my mother asked, the thing in the play with weather and emotions? This I knew: pathetic fallacy.) With our sun, we had bread, butter and cheese and a pot of chutney marked hot apple and shallot, and a number that might have been 2005. It had turned tar-black, but was sweet, subtle. Not too hot, just right. In between bites of cheese and chutney, in that farmyard that belonged to a real ploughman once, we relaxed a little and reached for fresh plums, heavy with juice.
After a long drive back home through the drizzle, I lugged my plums into the kitchen. First there was crumble, then a clear pink jam. There was still a kilo left to stone and cook. Chutney, it had to be chutney. Onions, sauteed in a little oil. fruit simmered with water until soft. Then sugar, vinegar and spices. It felt like alchemy, being a little girl playing at witches. Chutney mellows and develops so over time the flavours deepen and blend, twist into new combinations. You can only really guess at the results. Last time I made plum and apple with fresh ginger and a little cinnamon. This time I added cinnamon, cloves, chili and turmeric.
The mixture gradually went yellow-orange, and turned from a watery, lumpy minestrone into a thick ragu. Watch it as it bubbles, drag a spoon over the bottom every now and then. Try not to breathe in too many vinegary fumes and wait for the moment, not long after, when the mixture is thick enough to leave tracks after the wooden spoon. When it takes a second for it to fall back into place. Turn off the heat, carefully pour into a jug and decant into glass jars, right to the brim.
The jars were turned upside down and left to cool and I went upstairs for a bath, for the weather really had turned chill. Later I added a label in masking tape, ‘Granny’s Victoria Plum Chutney, 2013’ a name that has both my mother and grandmother in it. For the best flavour, I will have to wait a month, or better three. (Make some now for it to be ready in time for Christmas presents.) When it is finally opened, probably for bread and cheese, I will be able to taste the results of my alchemy and of that wet morning in the overgrown garden.
Spiced Plum Chutney
makes three or four jars – also nice with half plums, half apples and 3cm fresh ginger, grated
2 onions, diced
100ml water (more or less)
spices, choose any or all:
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp turmeric
a pinch of chili powder
Use a large, heavy bottomed pan – this will help it cook quicker and stop it sticking and burning. Sautee the diced onions in a little oil, until translucent but not brown. Stone and quarter the plums. Add plums and water (more if your plums are unripe) and cover. When the plums are soft, add the sugar, vinegar and spices. Bring the mixture to the boil, and let it bubble uncovered for 10-15 minutes until the mixture looks more like a thick tomato sauce than minestrone soup. The chutney should be thick enough that you can see the bottom of the pan when you stir, it will take a second to come back together after the spoon. Decant into a large jug and pour into clean glass jars, right to the brim. Screw the lids on tight and turn upside-down to cool. Label, and do not open for at least a month, better three.