Michael McCarthy: Singing the praises of a humble plum
Nature Notebook: In France it is prized, as one of the supreme fruits of high summer
Tuesday 01 September 2009
If you look around the world and see how much trouble there is you might be considered frivolous in the extreme, not to say trivial-minded, to want to sing the praises of a plum. But here goes.
It is a small plum, one of the smallest, about the size of a cherry tomato, although I prefer to think of it as the size of a songbird's egg. It is – technically – yellow, but to say that does its colour no justice. It is golden, and as it ripens it takes on a deeper, more burnished patina, and really the colour is old gold, flecked with tiny red spots.
You can pop it into your mouth whole (for the stone detaches from the flesh with perfect ease) and when you burst it against your palate, a rush of juice floods around your tongue, a juice which is not only sweet but possessed of the subtlest, most perfumed flavour imaginable. It is not only delectable, it is addictive to a degree, dragging you back time after time to try to pin down that ephemeral taste, but always leaving you wanting more.
It is the mirabelle. We hardly know of it in England, but in France it is prized, as one of the supreme fruits of high summer. It is not only enjoyed by itself but made into one of the most delicious of all pastries, tarte aux mirabelles, and also into an eau-de-vie, one of the clear fruit brandies which are the speciality of the Jura and the Vosges. I used to think these were the greatest alcoholic drinks in the world: Framboise, which set your mouth on fire and left it with a bang, a tiny bang of raspberries; Poire Williams, where the liquid fire was infused with the intense acid sweetness of pears. Mirabelle, with a capital M, is one of these, and it was in this form that I first encountered the fruit, but I have to say, I didn't get it; it was just too subtle for me.
Last month that changed. On holiday in Normandy, we had a mirabelle tree in the garden and the branches were groaning with fruit, perfectly ripe; to taste them fresh was a revelation. Nay, it was an infatuation; it still is, with me sneaking down in the middle of the night to savour one more of the rapidly diminishing bowlful we brought back and keep in the fridge.
There are more than 50 of the French clear fruit brandies. Sometimes you can find a bottle of Poire Williams with a whole fat Williams pear inside, seemingly far too big to squeeze through the bottle's neck. Bet you can't guess how they get it in.
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