Food and Drink: Long live our gracious plum - Victorias are helping to lead a revival of a traditional English fruit, says Joanna Blythman

In 1840, a nurseryman called Denyer, of Brixton, south London, introduced a 'new' variety of plum to the market. It is said to have been 'a chance seedling', found in a garden in Alderton, Sussex. How Mr Denyer came by the seedling is not known, neither are its origins. It is simply recorded as 'English. Parentage unknown'. But for Mr Denyer, we would never have known the delights of the magnificent Victoria plum.

If you have ever eaten a good, ripe Victoria, you will appreciate that it is one of the finest table plums in the world. The best are about the size of an egg, with a gentle yellow skin which gradually changes hue to a soft, carmine-rose as the fruit ripens. One bite should reveal a generous ratio of flesh to stone, which will come away cleanly. The flavour is a perfect harmony of sweet fruit sugar balanced by just the right amount of acidity.

We are now midway through the Victoria season: roughly the end of August until mid-September. In previous years, blink and you might have missed it. For all its excellence, the Victoria was neglected. It was a traditional crop, irritatingly seasonal, in danger of being swept aside by waves of tasteless US-style Santa Rosa and Chilean black plums. This year, there are signs that the Victoria's fortune is safer, as I discovered in Lincolnshire.

'The Victoria is a bit like the Cox apple - tricky to grow, but with a great flavour,' explains Mike Bowser, who grows Victorias at Pinchbeck, near Spalding. He is one of 15 English fruit growers enlisted by Marks & Spencer to produce top-class Victorias destined for the bowls of discerning buyers. 'Victorias used to be a secondary crop. In these orchards, for example, we planted them as windbreaks for Bramley apples. If you got a crop from them, you regarded it as a bonus, and it mainly went for jamming or canning,' he remembers. Now his Victorias are grown in recently planted orchards, and have an alder hedge to protect them.

Salvation for the Victoria may well lie in the intervention of M & S, which looks set to pioneer traditional English plums in the way it has 'revived' apple varieties. 'The Victoria seems to be unique to Britain - it grows as far north as Scotland - and no other country seems to be able to make a good job of growing it,' says Peter Village, who has the pleasant task of tracking down interesting table fruit, the world over, for M & S. 'We decided to relaunch Victoria plums a few years ago. We looked around for growers who were prepared to go back to first principles and grow Victorias carefully, as a premium crop.'

Victorias thrive in our climate. 'They flower very early in the last week of March and they come on slowly: that's why they taste so good,' explains Mr Bowser.

It sounds effortless for the grower, but the research encouraged by M & S suggests there is more to it than that. 'In the past, the trees were allowed to grow very heavy with fruit, but the quality wasn't there. Now we go in for radical thinning of the young fruit so that we are left with fewer, but much better plums,' says Mr Village.

In addition, growers such as Mr Bowser pick the plums for M & S 'tree-ripe', an approach which reflects the current thinking at M & S that fruit should be harvested later and more selectively. It is more customary in Britain to pick fruit 'backward', as it is known in the trade, with one quick harvesting. The result is a highly variable end-product - red, ripe plums mixed up in the same box with hard and sour ones, which have a tell-tale background greenness on their skin.

There are signs that Britain's previously beleaguered fruit growers, who in recent years have campaigned against imports of tasteless French Golden Delicious apples, among other fruit, are waking up to the real potential of English plums. Along with David Tingey, sales manager of the English Fruit Company which represents fruit growers' interests, Mr Village and I tasted 12 varieties of plums from our national fruit collections, kept by the Brogdale Trust in Kent. Few, if any, of these are produced commercially, but the possibility was evident.

There is, for example, the Count Althan's gage, which looks squatter than the Victoria but leaves a comparable lingering flavour. Similar in appearance is the Cox's Emperor, less acid, sweet and with a definite perfume. Winey, liquorice notes were to be detected in varieties such as Dittisham Ploughman, Sanctus Hubertus and Altese de Juillet; almost jelly-like flesh in varieties such as red Reine Claude and juicy Utility.

On the commercial front, we moved on to varieties which M & S is already promoting. Of note are plums such as Reeves Seedling, which are opulently juicy with a light, slightly lemony flavour; Black Rosa, which offers a sweet, powdery flesh in a tarter skin; and the Marjorie Seedling, with is big, with a bluish purple skin which gives way to firm but juicy flesh.

It looks as if English traditional plum varieties will have a rosy future.

(Photograph omitted)

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