August is a great month in the food calendar as a whole host of great ingredients come into season. Not only do beetroot, crab, aubergine, samphire, peaches, tomatoes, lettuce make their debut, the sun usually makes an appearance too. Towards the end of the month, into September, it’s the turn of the plum to make its entrance and signal that Summer is almost at an end. Growing up in Sussex and Kent there were an abundance of trees and so it was quite usual to eat them straight from the trees – from the vermillion-skinned Victoria to the contusion-blue Marjorie’s seedling. British plums are soft-fleshed and loose-stoned and can be divided into two groups: sweet ‘dessert’ and ‘cooking’.
This Summer has been the wettest in England and Wales for 100 years according to MeteoGroup – 14.25 inches (362mm) has fallen in June, July and August so far – making it the wettest since 1912. That has brought one of the toughest years for some of our fruit growers. Plums have split and cracked under the strain of excessive rain and one fruit farmer in the Cotswolds claims he has just 30% of a crop of Victoria plums and almost no Marjorie seedlings whatsoever. That said, whilst yields are down for some, there are extensive orchards throughout the UK and some have a reasonable set. There will still be good supplies of English plums but what you may see is an increase in price.
On a recent trip to Morrisons I grabbed some Victoria plums but also got punnets of the Plumigranate and Watermelon Plum which I’d not seen or heard of before. Both varieties hail from Israel and the Watermelon takes its name from its unique green skin and beetroot-coloured flesh.
This plum is high in anti-oxidants and when ripe the dark flesh melts in the mouth. They’re also known as also known as ‘Avatich’, the Hebrew word for watermelon. These beautiful plums became the star ingredients for my plum and almond tart and their skin took on a dark red after being baked.
The Plumigranate is one of the juiciest plums I have eaten and I recommend not to do so if wearing white. They are fat, and round and look like a water balloon full to bursting. With the super-sweetness of a plum combined with the super-food power of a pomegranate these have a flesh that is an intense burgundy colour with a lightly speckled skin. The bloom suggests freshness and once cleaned with kitchen paper they shine like garnets. The real plus though is that these fruits have four times the anti-oxidants of a pomegranate.
I discover the Israeli grower of the plums is Ben Dor Fruits and Nurseries. In their orchards they grown ten varieties which include the scarily named ‘Sharks-Teeth’ plum and the ‘Lamoon’ which has a bright yellow flesh and skin. The coloured apricots they’re developing have to be seen to be believed. http://bendorfruits.com/index.html. The San Jose Growers ‘Family Tree Farms’ http://www.familytreefarms.com in the States have a vast selection of what they call ‘Plumcots’ also known as ‘Pluots’ the name give by the California plant breeder Floyd Zaiger who is widely credited for developing the fruit.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Summer fruit hybrids on the supermarket shelves. Do you remember the ‘Pineberry’ introduced by Waitrose a couple of years ago? The berries are tiny and combine the shape and texture of a strawberry with the flavour and smell of pineapple. The huge difference is that they’re as white as the cream you’d pour over them.
The other joyful pleasure in the Summer months is a trip to a Pick Your Own Farm. If and when we get a good day, it’s good to know where these farms are. Here’s a link to an excellent website with details of PYO farms in England, Wales and Scotland. http://www.pickyourownfarms.org.uk
Of course we all know that dessert plums have a natural affinity with almonds and one of my favourite desserts is a plum and almond tart. Here’s a really simple recipe, the results of which are always stunning and look professional.
Plum and Almond Tart
Makes enough for a 10-12 serving tart dish – I use a Pillivuyt round flan dish (No9) 285mm. Lakeland have a 21cm dish on sale for £19.99. http://www.lakeland.co.uk/16314/Pillivuyt-Flan-Baker
To make the shortcrust pastry
250g plain flour
175g unsalted butter
25g golden caster sugar
1 whole egg
1 tbsp cold water if you need it
For the filling
6 tbsp plum jam
150g unsalted butter
150g caster sugar
3 medium eggs
200g pack ground almonds
100g plain flour
1 tsp almond essence
6 ripe English plums, stoned and halved (if the plums are large, use 5)
I use a food processor to make this totally pain-free. Put the flour, and sugar in a bowl or food processor (if you have one). Cut cold butter into 1cm cubes and add to the dry ingredients. Process or work briefly until the mix resembles breadcrumbs and has turned a totally different colour – look for a buttery brown. Take out of processor or add your egg and mix with a palette knife until the dough comes together. If you need the water, add it. Knead very briefly – you’re trying to handle the dough as little as possible – to bring mix to a smooth dough. Wrap in cling film and put in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
Remove dough from fridge. If it feels very cold and solid, leave for 10 or 15 minutes at room temperature until it is easy to handle. Roll out pastry and line greased dish or tin. Do not cut the excess pastry edge leave enough for shrinkage so you can cut when cold to give a perfect finish. Put the flan case back into the fridge.
Preheat the oven to 200°C, gas mark 6 (fan 180°C), and place a baking tray in the oven to preheat. Roll out the pastry and use to line a 28cm, loose-bottomed, fluted flan tin or flan dish. Spread the plum jam over the base.
Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, using an electric mixer, then beat in the eggs. Stir in the ground almonds, almond essence and flour, then spread on top of the jam over the pastry base.
Top with the plums, skin side up, arranged in circles starting from the outside, until the mixture is covered.
Scatter with flaked almonds. Place on the preheated baking tray and bake for 40-45 minutes until risen and set.
When cool, get a sharp knife and trim off the excess pastry from the tin edge.
Serve in slices, either warm or cold, with single cream.