Fruitful foraging can happen in unlikely places — you just have to look
“So what did you do over the summer?” someone says — which is a perfectly reasonable question at this time of year. “Oh,” say I, palms starting to sweat, “just, you know, very cool — just very cool and normal stuff.” Is it possible or even appropriate to explain that I spent multiple weekends picking and processing cherry plums (not quite a treeful) into jam (two kinds), liqueur (three kinds), and pickle? And almost as much time compulsively checking on the readiness or otherwise of the fruits which were about to come into season. I wonder if it might be better to confess that I saw — and actually enjoyed — Guy Ritchie’s universally panned King Arthur film twice (a film that refers to the Knights of the Round Table as “the lads”).
Looking out for fruit trees is a great pastime for the summer (again, I must stress, only if you are very cool) and the cherry plum is one of the easiest to spot, once you realise what you are looking at. They are just small plums, and helpfully bright yellow or shiny red. I’ve spotted the trees laden with fruit on roadsides, hanging over urban streets in SE11, and on odd bits of land by railway stations. One tip is to notice the ground: ripe fruits fall and make a mess. Millennials, according to various bits of research, value experiences over possessions, so perhaps I’m acting my age when I persuade my siblings to form a human pyramid to get a sample branch down. (In the throes of the glut it’s hard to be sensible.)
The fruit of the particular tree I picked from — which is wild, or at least feral — is not even nice, unless it’s cooked, or preserved in some way. At best the raw plums, like bright yellow juice-sacs, are just watery and tasteless; at worst they are actively unpleasant, woolly, bafflingly pasty. The tree is also wildly overproductive, despite the dire rumours I had heard that there had been a Hard Late Frost which would damage the fruit.
The first batch of 4kg of plums (for 10 jars) went into a fairly classic jam: stoned, very gently simmered for a couple of hours, then boiled up with about 2.5kg sugar. (Get the fruit boiling before you add the sugar.) With cherry plums this makes a beautiful golden-orangey-yellow, firmly-set jam, and it’s a really safe jam to try making because the fruit has so much natural pectin that it’s guaranteed to set. To my mind it’s much livelier and zingier than regular plum jam. “Almost as good as marmalade,” according to my sister, spreading it on her bacon. The second batch (again 4kg) got better reviews from some quarters. This was a roasted plum jam: the stoned plums were put in a deep baking dish, some sugar scattered over, and roasted in a very hot oven until the top of the plum mass was dark and caramelised. If you are very tough you try to jar it immediately; if you are not you boil it up in a saucepan with the rest of the sugar as for any other jam to make sure it sets. This method ruins the lovely colour but gives a deeper, more complex flavour to the jam.
But not all the plums were ripe. I began looking into recipes for unripe plums: in Turkey, unripe plums (erik), green and sour, are eaten in the spring with salt as a crisp, refreshing snack. (If this seems odd it’s worth remembering that spring in Turkey is short and therefore precious.) In Japan, the ume fruit (in English usually called a plum, but in fact related to the apricot) is picked when unripe to make umeboshi (tiny salted sour plums) and umeshu — green ume fruit liqueur. This appealed to me (but to no one else in the household). The unripe cherry plums were the same size as ume fruit and similarly mouth-puckering. The method for umeboshi is in some ways simple: sterilise a jar, rinse the plums individually in edible alcohol (shochu if you are being proper; vodka or gin if not), layer them into the jar, alternating plum with sprinkles of salt. The salt needs to be 10-20 per cent of the weight of the plums: the higher percentage is safer (to deter mould). Cover it and then leave it. Nothing gives you serial killer vibes like packing something in salt, covering it in clingfilm, tying it up, and hiding it in a dark place. After a month or so take the plums out, dry them in a low oven, then return them to the brine they’ve exuded (this is called umezu, plum vinegar, and this alone is worth the whole process, I think).
And you don’t need to be in the countryside to enjoy the early autumn glut. London, once you start looking, seems full of useful trees. Online tools help, such as the massive collaborative maps Fruit City (www.fruitcity.co.uk), which shows fruit trees in London; Falling Fruit (fallingfruit.org), which is more freegan-focused, maps any public source of food (community gardens, bins). I’ve seen plenty of fruit trees (tiny apples in the Docklands! grape-sized plums in Kennington Park!) which seem to be overlooked. Some must be opportunists growing from pips or seeds. Some must have been planted by considerate urban planners — people who hoped to make the city easier to live in.
In the middle of Sayes Court Park, next to the Convoys Wharf development site in Deptford, there’s a wizened mulberry tree. When I saw it I thought some public-spirited Victorian must have planted it. But by repute it’s much older: the park is built over Sayes Court, the house and garden of John Evelyn, the diarist and contemporary of Pepys. He was an early advocate of vegetarianism, and believed in planting trees, particularly sweet-smelling ones, in urban spaces to mitigate pollution. His amazingly-titled essay Fumifugium is a treatise on “the inconveniencie of the aer and smoak” in London; his Sylva is a “discourse on forest-trees”. It seems unlikely it is the same tree planted by Evelyn (or — another rumour — that it was planted by Peter the Great, who rented Sayes Court in 1698). More likely it’s a descendant. But it’s hundreds of years old and still fruiting. May all trees be so lucky.