It’s Mother’s Day and therefore the perfect day for what is in my mind the quintessential mother-daughter activity: preserving fruit. I have many fond memories of helping (and when I say helping, I mean giving the pot an occasional stir) my Mum make jam…or rather, pouring jam! It must be said, it took her a while to get the knack of it (and when I say a while, I mean years and not without the help of a Women’s Institute book on preserves) but she does make a very good jam, although I confess I was also rather fond of the pouring jam, which went marvelously with ice cream, and look forward to the day when it makes an impromptu return. However, I am not making plum jam today, but preserved whole plums that will be used in my next recipe (hence the ‘Part 1’ of this post) for plum torte.
There are so many varieties of plum in a myriad of bright, beautiful colours and flavours: tart, purply-blue damsons, rich and intense greengages, sunshine yellow, sweet mirabellles, rosy-red, juicy Victorias and many, many more. Plums have grown wild across northern Europe and were widely cultivated throughout ancient Greece and Rome – Pliny lists twelve varieties, including the damascenum ‘Damascus plum’ from Syria, from which the damson (Prunus institata) grown today throughout northern Europe may have originated.
The Romans recognised the medicinal uses of the plum tree: respiratory illnesses were treated with its leaves and the laxative effects of the fruit, especially in its dried form as prunes, were also utilised. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a burning branch pulled from a plum tree is used as a weapon in the Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs (12.272) and the aforementioned Philemon and Baucis unknowingly serve plums to the gods when they visit them in the guise of mortals (8.675). It also appears that as well as the learned Pliny, the rustic cyclops Polyphemus was also acquainted with various types of plum as he promises the choicest of cultivars to the nymph Galatea in a vain attempt to woo her (see chestnut torte recipe for Polyphemus’ song).
With your own fair hands you will pick the most delicious of strawberries growing under the trees, the cornel berries in autumn, and juicy plums, not only the dark blue kind, but also the choicer sort with the golden colour of fresh-made wax.
– Metamorphoses 13.826
For Scappi’s preserved plums I shall be using the Victoria plum variety, which are just coming into season now that spring has begun.
To preserve fresh plums in syrup
Skin the plums with a knife. Have clarified sugar ready in a clean, well-tinned copper pot and, for every pound of sugar, six ounces of water. Boil it over a low fire with the plums in it, as many as can go into it without being too close together, until the plums are tender and the sugar has thickened. Then take that out of the pot, put it into dishes and let it cool.
– The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book VI, Recipe 136
200g preserving sugar
- Heat the oven to 130°C and sterilize a jar by washing them it hot, soapy water and then placing them on a baking tray in the pre-heated oven for 10 minutes (or if unlike me you have a dishwasher, just put them through a cycle and voilà), keeping them warm until filled
- Fill a pan with 400ml water and preserving sugar, heat gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar
- Add the plums and simmer for 5-7 minutes until the skins have come away from the flesh
- Fill the jar with the plums and syrup, leaving about 2cm from the top and seal