An English plum orchard in Kent or Warwickshire rustling in a late summer breeze, trees drooping with dusky Farleigh damsons and blushing Victoria plums ripe for picking, is to some French students as appealing as the idea of snipping bunches of grapes in a Languedoc vineyard is to their British counterparts.
A few French enthusiasts are helping to harvest plums from the trees of the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale Horticultural Trust in Kent. As they move from tree to tree, these visiting students will find some of the finest plums ever grown here: intensely flavoured purple Early Rivers not much bigger than a small damson; ultra-sweet yellow Cambridge Gages ("gage" is a British term for particularly fine-flavoured green, yellow or blushed plums); or perhaps a delicious Jefferson plum (raised in Albany by Judge Buel in 1825 and introduced here in 1840).
As the 18th-century market gardener Stephen Switzer wrote in The Practical Fruit Gardener (1724): "A good plum should have a sweet sugar'd Juice, a tender melting Pulp and a rich and Exquisite Taste something perfum'd." These are not necessarily the first words that spring to mind when you eat a round, firm-textured and often sharp plum from the supermarket, but then these are not what Joan Morgan, fruit expect and author of The Book of Apples (£22.50, Ebury Press) would call "proper plums".
She says: "People don't realise that the plums that are imported for most of the year come from a completely different species from our Prunus domestica plums. They belong toPrunus salicina (the Japanese plum) and were developed about a century ago by Luther Burbank in California, to solve the problems of transporting plums across the United States. They can be picked early, don't bruise easily and stay firm, so are much easier to ship across the world."
Supermarket stone-fruit buyers, such as Velda Fitzpatrick at Sainsbury's, maintain that their customers expect to find plums for sale throughout the year, and that by satisfying this demand they can then sell even more during the brief British season, which usually lasts from the end of July until the end of September.
All the supermarket buyers are aware, however, that there is strong support among their customers for British plums. Consequently, in a good year such as this, they will cut back their imports to promote British plums, starting with Opals and ending in September with Marjorie's Seedlings. Sainsbury's, for example, is selling a line of culinary plums alongside its dessert varieties. They began with tart Czars and followed with the large, flavoursome Belle de Louvain, and are now crossing over to juicy damsons. Once cooked, such fruit makes amazing, intensely flavoured pies, jams, liqueurs and – best of all – fruit cheese. This is made from cooking the fruit purée with sugar until it sets firm; damson is the best known, but other plums make lovely cheeses.
Waitrose, meanwhile, has joined forces with Brogdale Horticultural Trust to sell what it calls "vintage" dessert plums – neglected varieties such as Early Rivers and Jefferson, or the grape-sized, sweet-as-sugar Charcuty – in selected stores.
"We only have two or three trees of each," explains Simon Elworthy, the man responsible for picking the Brogdale fruit, "and they each have a very brief season of a week, so depending on how heavy the crop is, we may only send 32 [750g] punnets of a particular plum." In other words, snaffle them up when you see them, they may be the best plums you have ever tasted.
Finding a truly delicious domestica plum has never been easy. "All plums are under Venus, and are like women – some better and some worse," wrote Edward Bunyard, a renowned fruit grower and writer, in his Anatomy of Dessert (1929). For a start, an unripe plum is hard and mouth-puckeringly sour, while an over-ripe one is woolly and bland. Then there is the question of fruiting. The British climate, with its erratic spring weather that promises summer one day and brings frost the next, frequently prevents a crop from setting.
Tony Webster, the tree-fruit specialist at Horticultural Research International (HRI) at East Malling in Kent, has spent much of his time researching new varieties of Prunus domestica – P. salicina will not grow here. "There has been a resurgence of interest in growing plums here," he says, "although it may in part be from growers wishing to diversify from apples and pears."
Patience is required for those investing in and experimenting with plums, as it will be three or four years before a tree will bear fruit, and a further two years before it yields a proper crop.
"The plum industry went into decline after the Second World War," continues Mr Webster. "Cheap and easy to produce, plum jam had been a staple part of the wartime diet and people had just had enough." Many of our commonly grown plums, such as the 1827 seedling Yellow Egg or the once popular Purple Pershore (1877), did not have a particularly good taste, although they were fine for processing. Others, like the exquisitely flavoured Transparent Gage and Coe's Golden Drop, almost disappeared because they bruised too easily and fruited too erratically for commercial production.
However, the Plum Club, a band of commercial growers, has enlisted the help of HRI at East Malling and is currently experimenting with new smaller root stocks, different mixes of old and new plum varieties, new growing techniques and even different native bees (for pollination) to improve their annual yields.
Curiously, orchards that were temporarily protected from frost during flowering were also preferred by the bees, so in time we may all be buying plum-blossom honey alongside our Victoria plums. As the season progresses, unfamiliar varieties such as the large round dessert plum Jubilium or East Malling's large Avalon and Excalibur will appear on the supermarket shelves.
As Edward Bunyard points out in his book, "the choice gages are known to garden-owners only, and not all of these realise the length of season and wealth of flavour which is at their disposal". Those bent on such gustatory pleasure should head down to Brogdale and select some trees for their garden by tasting the fruit. It might even lead to another renaissance in plum breeding; after all, both Victoria and Marjorie's Seedling were discovered in domestic gardens when home-grown plums were all the rage.
The National Fruit Collection, Brogdale Horticultural Trust, Brogdale Road, Faversham, Kent ME13 8XZ (01795 535 286)>
Useful books for plum lovers:
If you are interested in finding 'The Anatomy of Dessert' by Edward Bunyard (Chatto & Windus, out of print) contact one of the following second-hand cook book dealers: Tessa McKirdy at Cooks Books, 34 Marine Drive, Rottingdean, Brighton, Sussex BN2 7HQ (01273 302707) OR Janet Clarke, 3 Woodside Cottages, Freshford, Bath BA2 7WJ (01225 723186)
'Good Housekeeping Complete Book of Preserving' (Ebury Press, out of print) is full of plum preserves, including plum butter (a soft form of plum cheese)
'Jane Grigson's Fruit Book' (Penguin, £6.99) has recipes for everything from greengages to damsons.Reuse content