Friday, August 18, 2006
Plums, Greengages and Damsons
The plant of the first day of Fructidor, the month of the French Republican calendar which derives its name from fruit, is appropriately enough the plum. I didn’t think I liked plums until I had one at the Farmer’s Market two weeks ago. It was sweet and firm, not at all the mushy, rather tasteless fruit that I was used to from supermarkets.
Of course, whenever I feature a fruit, the best place to look for information is Mark Rieger’s Fruit Crops website and so that’s where I will send you for all the details.
But I’ll summarize some of the salient details below.
Plums are members of the Rose family, like other stone fruits (like peaches, cherries and apricots). There are several hybrids that cross apricots and plums including the plumcot (50% apricot, 50% plum), the aprium (75% apricot and 25% plum) and the most popular, the pluot (75% plum, 25% apricot).
There is also a wild plum native to Europe called the damson.. Wikipedia has a special article on damsons:
They are named after the town of Damascus and are quite old. Archaeological digs of Roman sites in Britain have turned up remnants of damson plums. The skins were used to create purple dye. Because they are so acidic, they are used mostly for jellies, preserves and making damson wine. Patience Gray mentions that they make an “astonishingly delicious and perfumed jam,” but are not favored by her Italian neighbors because it's hard to separate the pit from the fruit. According to Isabella Beeton, these plums were brought to Italy, around 114 B..
Prunus domestica is indigenous to western Asia and was brought to America by Spanish missionaries. It is mostly grown in California where most of the plums grown are converted into prunes (that is, dried plums). There is also a plum native to China, prunus salicina, which was brought to Japan in the 1800's and then to the US (where it is sometimes called the Japanese plum). These include the Satsumas and Santa Rosas, the plum most often sold in grocery stores.
I’ve always loved the name greengage which is the name of a plum (also called reine-claude) according to Larousse Gastronomique which grows in France and ripens at the end of July, while the golden greengage (claude doree) ripes towards the end of August. Beeton says the name comes from the Gage family, who first brought it to England from the Chartreuse monastery in Paris. Another European plum, the Mirabelle, a small round plum, yellow in color streaked with red, also ripens at the end of August (and according to Grey is the ancestor of the damson). The LR also mentions a varieties called Saint Catherine, the early yellow, the quetshe (used to make the famous liqueur, slivovitz) and the ente or Agen plum, a medium-sized fruit, pinkish violet in color which ripens in Septemebr and is usually dried and turned into prunes.
This website lists several American plum cultivars
including Empresses, Yakimas, Casselmans and the Santa Rosa plum which was developed by Luther Burbank and named after the California city where it is grown. Plums with yellow flesh include Santa Rosa, Black Amber, Nubiana, Laroda, El Dorado, Kelsey and Friar. Plums with red flesh go by the names of Elephant Heart and Black Beauty. Freestone. Green-fleshed plums, like Italian and Standard, are usually used to make prunes (dried plums).
The more research I do the more I realize that the family history of plums could be a long and fascinating article all on its own. Patience Gray, writing about Italian foods, says (following Roach) that domestic plums are a cross between sloes (prunus spinosa) and cherry plums (prunus cerasfiera), a marriage which she believes took place in forests in the Caucasus where both species abound.
In Asia, plums are often dried or pickled and used in salty plum drinks and as toppings for shaved ice. Plums are known for their laxative qualities. The plum is used to make a colorless alcohol called slivovitz which is the national drink of Serbia:
There’s a slivovitz festival in Two Harbors, Minnesota on September 9, 2006:
Beeton, Mrs. Isabella, The Book of Household Management, 1851, facsimile edition, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969
Gray, Patience, Honey from a Weed, Harper and Row 1986
Montagné, Prosper, The New Larousse Gastronomique, Crown 1960
Roach, F.A., Cultivated Fruits of Britain, Oxford: Blackwell 1985
Plum (variety Tucker). Watercolor, 1894 from the National Agricultural Library of the United States of America Department of Agriculture found at Wikipedia