Tag Archives: plum

ripe for the picking: spiced plum chutney

2 Oct

plums on branch

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

900g plums

100ml water (more or less)

200g sugar

200g vinegar

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.

time for jam

1 Sep

raspberry jam jars

On holidays, you have time to paint your nails, to carefully stroke on three coats of coloured varnish. You can pick your jewel colours and then change them in three days if the whirlwind of meals-books-pool becomes too dull. At work, you are absolutely not allowed nail varnish for how quickly it would chip and fall into the cake mixture. (At home, that is your own lookout!) The times you forget, you have to wear those horrid latex gloves.

On holidays though you have time for frivolities. Like the time we woke up and decided to learn to make jam. My mother said it was easy, as long as you only make a kilo of fruit’s worth at a time. Then you are not stuck stirring at a hot stove for ages, and the fruit doesn’t boil away all of its flavour. Again, not like at work where we had 13 kilos of fruits rouges and a plastic tub of pectin. At home we had some leftover frozen raspberries from coulis for peach melba and best of all a packet of jam sugar – ‘Confisquew’ as my mother calls it. The pectin is already incorporated, so after only five minutes boiling the jam will set like a dream.

Sterilise your jars in the dishwasher or in boiling water. Put a little saucer in the freezer. In a large heavy-bottomed pan you heat your raspberries with half a cup of water until they turn into soup. When it bubbles you add 700g jam sugar (Confisuc)  and bring to the boil. When bubbling and rising up like a angry sea, a ‘rolling boil,’ you time five minutes. At this point you maybe have time to apply nail varnish to one hand. Give the angrily boiling liquid a stir every now and then, in case it sticks. After five minutes, observe your jam carefully. The bubbles should sound a tone deeper, the mixture more syrupy than before. When you drag the wooden spoon across the bottom, it should take a second for the liquid red sea to come back together. If in doubt, test a drop on the cold saucer. When the jam is at room temperature it should hold its shape instead of sliding quickly over the saucer, it should form a slight skin that will wrinkle slightly when you push it. You will see the jam sticking around the edges of the pan and on the wooden spoon too.

When you are pretty sure the jam has jammed, turn off the heat. You will see the bubbles subside, leaving a slight white-ish froth. You can skim it off “if you want to win prizes at the WI” says mother, or strangely enough you can add 10g butter and watch it dissolve the scum.

Wait for 15 minutes. Finish painting your nails. When they are nearly dry but not quite set, you can run them under cold water. Now pay attention to the jam again. Fill the jars right to the brim with the hot jam, screw the lid on tightly and turn the jars upside down to form a vacuum.  (If you have some extra, pour into a little dish and put in the fridge for a snack later.) Leave to cool.

Our 700g raspberries made one small and two medium jars of the brightest jam. We couldn’t stop marvelling at the colour, at all the seeds suspended. It really did look like jam! Total cooking time – no more than half an hour. So we made plum jam too, fom our mirabelle tree. Mirabelles are small yellow plums not much bigger than cherries. We had a kilo, stoned with the cherry pipper. We left them to turn into soup with a cup of water. (Faster in a pressure cooker.) When the mirabelles break down into soft pulp, repeat the process. Sugar, boil, test, jar. Plums already have pectin in them, so we had a slightly thicker texture, of beautiful deep yellow-ochre, a hue just below apricot. It was sweet and bright and simple.

The kitchen had a crowd of upside-down jars, provisions for autumn. We had to clean a few stubborn pink spots off the cooker, and close the lid for the year. We locked the shutters and swept the floors. The sky was already grey, the wind already turned chill.

Back in Paris now, heralded by drops of rain, the summer jam – on croissants or rice cakes or porridge – bolsters me against the day ahead. And fills me with an immense satisfaction, akin to the patisserie I had abandoned over the summer. I learned something, and I made something, tangible, colourful and delicious.

I have been to my Crimée market twice now, once for apricots and once for figs. I am plotting limpid clear jams replete with over-large chunks of fruit, to line up on my kitchen counter. My nails are dark red and gold.

 

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