More than a dozen years ago we were given a greengage plum tree as a Christmas present along with an ill-fated Seckel pear. The pear made about a dozen perfectly-formed little fruit that were eaten by someone other than us as soon as they began to blush pink. Soon after, the tree tragically succumbed to fire blight. The plum thrived, in contrast, but has been tipping over for a few years now, making it that much easier for various denizens of the night to climb on in and feast on the sweet fruit. Not that those plum-ivores had trouble getting up there anyway. I can count on both hands how many plums I’ve had off the tree all these years. Until late summer 2023.
Cameron kept bugging me to check on them, but one, it was way to early for anything to be ready, and two, if there were any fruit that were even slightly ripe they would be in the belly of a possum. After a couple of strong storms passed through I finally took a closer look at the literal windfall and realized that not only was the tree loaded with fruit, but it was also ripening quickly and was fully intact save a few bird-pecked drupes in the highest branches. Apparently the hot weather has them reaching fruition a bit earlier than they should, and I fear I have lost my possum, no matter how annoyed I was at his frugivorous tendencies. I suppose there is some comfort in knowing he was well fed.
I have never thinned the fruit on this tree. In my defense, I have never had to because it was all pilfered. Next year I will pick off enough of the little green ones to keep the branches from hitting the ground in late summer, and this winter I will give it a good pruning to take out the water sprouts and dead limbs. Winter should be reliably wasp-free. I had no idea how much wasps adore plums until I got under the tree. The whole area smells like a jam factory and sounds like a jar full of sugar-drunk bees.
It is also pretty obvious that my “greengage” is a purplegage, perhaps mislabeled at the plant nursery. The flesh does start out green, but then ripens to gold as the skin turns purple-y red. It may be a Reine Claude d’Althan, which has fruit that are the same size and color as these that also start to ripen in mid-August. It is also self-fertile, meaning I don’t need another plum in the garden for it to produce fruit. Although to be honest, I had been counting on the crabapple to take care of that for me. The flavor is sweet, but the skins retain a bit of tart tannin that balances out flavors when they are cooked. They also stain skin and fingernails an oily shade of brown. Glove up as necessary, or just look like a gardener for a few weeks.
Plums are delicious on their own or at breakfast with yogurt and granola. That’s homemade cashew-coconut yogurt. If you have a tree, even after eating as many fresh plums as one might care to, there are still large numbers to be dealt with. Apart from handing out bags of fruit and tucking them in people’s pockets as they leave the house, I’m working through a few ideas I found online and in my cookbook collection. When I came across a recipe for roasted plum sorbet I immediately started prepping sheet pans full of plums and sliding them into the oven whenever bread was baking. They went into quart containers that are now in the freezer so I can make the sorbet at some later date.
Plum season is also marked by a famous torte recipe from the New York Times. Ruth Reichl has adapted the classic a bit, and you can find the original in all sorts of places across the interwebs. The cake is simple in terms of both ingredients and methods, you can mix the whole thing by hand in one bowl, but it produces a beautiful and delicious celebration of late summer bounty that tastes deceptively complex. Add some cardamom instead of cinnamon. Or maybe vanilla.
If you, like me, have to make the cake gluten free, I suggest turning the plums skin side down on top of the batter. Something about the density of the GF batter makes the fruit sink like lead weights, and the bottom of the cake will be uncooked and wet when the top part is fully baked. I found out the hard way and ended up flipping the first cake over to finish it off under the broiler. Still tasty, but less than ideal. Beginning with the second cake, I now serve up unintentionally upside-down plum torte.
Plum preserves are also on the menu. I use Christine Ferber’s recipes from her book, but there are lots of different ideas out there, all of which will be lovely. That is a vintage copper pan I found at a thrift store a few years ago, and it is the perfect size for small-batch preserving. If you want to try preserves with no commercial pectin, use a candy thermometer and cook the whole mass to 8 or 9 degrees above the boiling point of water at your altitude. The set will be softer and glossier with a more concentrated fruit flavor, and plums are a good place to start, as they are reliable producers of their own pectin. I processed the jars in a steam canner for 15 minutes to make sure they sealed.
There will undoubtedly be more plum recipes to come, as the tree is still cranking them out like gangbusters. Even the latest boule got in on the spirit of plum season. Enjoy the last days of summer!