Skye Gyngell: Ripe for the cooking

It's Skye Gyngell's favourite time of year, with Nature at its most abundant. And this week, it's the humble plum that is proving the biggest star in the Petersham kitchen.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Can it really be that time of year again? It feels too quick to be the beginning of autumn. In one way, I'm sad; summer seemed hardly here at all and it has been more than a month since we last ate outside. Ahead of us we have shortened days and low grey skies; soon I will arrive at work before first light and not leave again until the light has fallen from the sky.

But, right now, I'm excited because for the next couple of months or so autumn presents us with a wealth of bounty. It is my favourite season by far - for its abundance of produce is unrivalled. There are plums, damsons, pears, apples and the last of the summer tomatoes; not forgetting cobnuts, walnuts, quinces, mushrooms, pumpkins, gourds, game, mussels and all the delicious cold-water fish such as mackerel, sardines and anchovies; and cabbages, kales and beautiful chards.

We have two plum trees espaliated against our south-facing wall and they have produced fruit for the last month or so. Dusky and deep, like the purple of a bruise, they are sweet as only fruit properly ripened on a branch can be.

We have begun to lay them down, ready to be used when fruit of any sort is in short supply, making sorbets, sherbets, crostatas and plum cheese. Spiced plums work beautifully with cured meats and game, while the tea-poached prunes are lovely served with a creamy, dense, slightly acidic Greek-style yoghurt.

Greengages and blackberries are a delicious breakfast dish or, simply folded through a rich Jersey unpasteurised cream, make a loose, light dessert - a perfect end to a midweek family supper.

These are some of the ways that we at Petersham are using plums - perhaps you have ideas of your own.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, off Petersham Road, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627

Pickled plums

This is a good, simple pickling brine - we pickle all sorts of fruit using this particular recipe (try cherries or currants). At this time of year, when there is still fruit around, it is really worth taking the trouble to preserve it - so you can savour its flavour during the cold, sometimes barren winter months.

1kg plums (Opus or Victoria work well)
275g caster sugar
1 pint of good-quality red wine vinegar
6 cloves
10 peppercorns
4 star anise
1 cinnamon quill

Rinse, dry and pick over the plums, discarding any blemished ones.

Stir together the sugar and vinegar in a non-reactive saucepan; add the cloves, cinnamon, star anise and peppercorns. Bring to a boil and cook for 3 minutes.

Pack the plums into prepared, sterilised jars and pour over the hot syrup. Cover and seal the jar ensuring that they are airtight. If you can bear it, let them sit for two months in a cool, dark place before using them.

They are delicious with cured meats or duck.

Greengage, blackberry and lemon verbena compote

Lemon verbena has a heady, lemony flavour that works beautifully with late-summer and early-autumn fruits. Lucy grows it for us in our kitchen garden. You should be able to find it at any good garden centre, or your greengrocer should be able to order it for you.

1kg greengages
250g of blackberries
5 sprigs of lemon verbena
50ml of water
100g sugar (substitute honey if you prefer)
1 vanilla pod - split in half lengthwise

Split the greengages in half with a sharp knife and remove the stone. Place them into a heavy-based pan, add the blackberries, lemon verbena and the vanilla pod, then sprinkle over the sugar and pour over the water.

Place the pan over a medium heat, bring to a simmer and cook vigorously, stirring once or twice, until the sugar has dissolved and the blackberries have burst and bled their inky colour into the plums (about 8 minutes). Remove from the heat and allow to cool, before refrigerating. Wait until it's really well chilled - that's when the flavours are most fragrant - then serve with cream or thick, creamy, Greek-style yoghurt. (omega)

Warm grouse salad with speck, pickled plums, strawberry grapes, watercress and toasted hazlenuts

Grouse is a delicious small bird that comes into season on 12 August - come mid-September its flavour has become more intense and just that bit more gamey in taste. At this time of year I prefer it served in this way: its strong flavour is counterbalanced with the peppery taste of watercress, the freshness of fruity grapes and the sweet, delicate flavour of cured meat.

Strawberry grapes, also known as Isabella or Fragolini, are a lovely variety that comes into season early in September. Imported from Italy, they taste extraordinarily like wild strawberries. If you can't find them, use muscat grapes or omit them altogether.

(Serves 2)

1 grouse - plucked and trimmed
20g of unsalted butter
2 sprigs of sage
2 sprigs of rosemary
sea salt & black pepper
1tbsp olive oil

Pre-heat the oven to 220C. Rinse and pat dry your grouse, before placing the knob of butter, rosemary and sage into its cavity and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle the olive oil over the bird and roast it in the oven for 12 minutes. Remove it from the oven and cover lightly with foil and let it sit, while you prepare the rest of the salad.

All other ingredients:
1 small bunch of watercress
2tbsp hazelnuts, gently roasted and roughly chopped
4 slices of speck or Parma ham
8 grapes (if small, leave whole and if larger then cut in half lengthwise)
3 pickled plums (from pickled plum recipe)
half tbsp Dijon mustard
the juice from the roasting pan
1tbsp of red wine vinegar
40ml walnut oil
10ml gentle-tasting olive oil (Ligurian or Sicilian)
sea salt & black pepper

Place the mustard in a bowl and pour over the warm grouse juices. Add the vinegar, salt and pepper and whisk in the olive oils. Taste and season, if necessary.

To assemble the salad, tear the flesh from the grouse, place it in a bowl with the watercress and spoon over the dressing. Then tear the plum into small pieces, add them to the salad and toss together gently with your hands. Divide the salad between two plates (or one large one if you prefer), then scatter over the grapes and nuts and spoon over a little more dressing.

Serve immediately.

Plum sherbet

This is a lovely, slightly sharp sherbet with a clean, pure taste. In my mind, the definition of a sherbet is a sorbet with just the smallest amount of cream added or, in this case, crème fraîche. Leave out the cream if you prefer. The flavour will be just that much more immediate.

1kg plums (we use Opus, but Victoria plums are delicious too)
220g caster sugar
100ml water
pinch of salt
50ml crème fraîche

Place plums, water and sugar into a heavy-based pan over a medium heat and bring to a simmer for 8-10 minutes, or until plums are soft and falling apart. Remove pan from heat and pass plums through a chinois (a fine mesh strainer). Press down firmly on the purée to push some of the flesh through, giving the sherbet a lovely rich body.

Place the crème fraîche in a bowl and pour the strained purée over it, stirring as you do so. It is important to add the purée to the crème fraîche and not the other way round to ensure an even and smooth purée.

Add the salt (this helps to bring out the flavour of the plums). Allow to cool completely, before pouring into an ice-cream maker (follow the manufacturer's instructions).

If you don't have an ice-cream maker you could do without the cream and pour the purée into a shallow tray and place in freezer. After 45 minutes, drag a fork through the fruit, drawing in from the sides. Return to freezer and repeat this process twice more at half-hour intervals.

Really good, sweet, ripe plums make a delicious granita (fruit that is less than perfect performs best as sorbets or sherbets).

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