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Flavouring the Garden: Plums Part 2 – Preserved Plum Torte

LambsFor me, two things have heralded the arrival of spring this year: Victoria plums and lambing – and this was a weekend of both! Growing up in North Devon you know spring has arrived when the fields start to fill with gamboling lambs, their white wooly coats speckling the view of the landscape for miles around. Having lots of farming friends meant that from a young age, every year come spring my sisters and I would help with the lambing at a friend’s sheep farm up on Exmoor called Ovis (Classicists will no doubt appreciate the name!). Unfortunately I haven’t been able to help for many years now since leaving home, but as I was at home this weekend and asked if I wanted to see how this year’s lambing was going on Ovis Farm, I couldn’t resist a visit and getting stuck in!Curious

Whilst the day was filled with lambing, in the evening my mind turned to my preserved plums and the delicious spring dessert they would make! I’ve been looking forward to making this all week and it hasn’t been a disappointment, but turned out to be a wonderfully bright and sunshiny spring torte…

 To prepare visciola cherry tourte without cheese.
Get visciola cherries, cook them in a little butter over a low fire and strain the thickest part of them. Have ground marzipan paste ready, fresh eggs yolks and mostaccioli, the amount of each at your discretion. When the filling is made up, have a tourte pan lined with a sheet of dough made from egg yolk, butter, sugar, rosewater, salt and fine flower, put the filling into it with a similar sheet of dough on top. The same can be done with plums.

 – The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book VI, Recipe 128

Plum IngredientsIngredients

800g preserved plums (see Plums Part 1 – Preserved Plums)
500g shortcrust pastry
250g marzipan
250g biscotti/ cantucci

Method

  • Pre-heat the oven to 180°C and lightly grease a 23cm tart tin
  • Roll the pastry out to about 3mm thickness on a lightly floured surface, then line the tin and prick the base with a fork
  • Fill with baking beans and bake for 15 minutes until golden, then allow the pastry shell to cool completely before adding the filling
  • Roll the marzipan out to about 6mm thickness and cut to size and place in the base of the pastry shellMarzipan Base
  • Crumble the biscotti/ cantucci (put into plastic bag and bash with a rolling pin – very therapeutic!) and sprinkle over marzipanBiscotti Base
  • Drain the liquid from the preserved plums and cut each plum into segments and starting from the centre, arrange over the top of the torte, starting from the centre and working your way out

Plum TartThis torte had just the kind of taste that appeals to me, not too sugary, but with a natural sweetness that comes from the fruit as the pervasive taste, much like the apple crostata of a few weeks ago. The first bite is wonderfully unexpected, too: the soft, yielding fruit just melts in the mouth whilst the crunchiness of the cantucci hidden beneath and the smoothness of the marzipan offers a perfect compliment of textures. The fruit was a little too soft for my taste, I’d have liked a little more bite so I will simmer them for a little less time in future, but they were still firm enough to keep their shape once sliced, so I’m happy with the outcome.

As for aesthetics, I think this makes such a marvelous-looking spring dessert, like a burst of sunshine or a flower unfurled. Whilst this recipe was made with Victoria plums, I’m now curious to try it with different varieties to see what other colourful creations they would make – mirabelles would give this even more vibrant a yellow and combined with damsons with their purple skins still on would look fabulous. I also quite like the idea of damsons and greengages for a more interesting colour combination, which certainly wouldn’t look out of place at a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party…

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Flavouring the Garden: Plums Part 1 – Preserved Plums

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.

Plum Tree (Prunus domestica)

Plum Tree (Prunus domestica)

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

Plum Tree Detail, House of the Fruit Orchard, Pompeii

Plum Tree Detail, House of the Fruit Orchard, Pompeii

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


Plum IngredientsIngredients

200g preserving sugar
800g plums
400ml water

Method

  • 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 fleshPreserving
  • Fill the jar with the plums and syrup, leaving about 2cm from the top and seal

Preserved PlumsAlthough these plums would be quite lovely to eat as they are, or with a scoop of ice cream, I will be saving them for the plum torte which will feature in next week’s blog post…