17 September 2017

Plums and sustainability

The thought that we are into the season for ripe, juicy plums is one of the ones that makes acceptance of the shift from summer to autumn easier to achieve. Some sweet and gorgeous, some more tart, the abundance of plums pretty much coincides with the duration of Autumn running as it does from August through to the end of October.

Plums are a member of the same family that contains peaches, nectarines, almonds, cherries and other stone fruit. They are popularly supposed to have been one of the first fruits specifically grown by humans, going back to neolithic times. It turns out, they are also pretty good for you (until someone does a study that says they’re not, of course). They are low-calorie fruits with a low glycaemic index score. So you can indulge your craving for sweetness within reason without some of the consequences that often follow. They have lots of vitamin C. There are more exotic and less certain potential benefits. They contain what are called phenolic compounds, which may help to reduce inflammation and help neutralise oxygen damage to cells. I wasn’t aware of sustaining oxygen damage to cells, but if I am then I had better get some plums down my neck. And, of course, all the dietary fibre they contain should help to keep you regular.


In principle, there’s nothing much more sustainable than plums. They are native to many countries, low impact, good yield of delicious life-affirming fruit.

With any other product that has a short lifespan of ripeness, the main issue is about food production systems that create incentives for waste. In years when there is a bumper crop leading to a glut of plums on the market, the price can go low enough to make them hardly cost-effective to harvest them. Supermarket contracts that require standard amounts each year can produce perverse incentives to overproduce, and cosmetic standards can rule out a large percentage of the crop as not being good enough.

The main thing though is to take advantage of locally-produced fruit when it’s in season and take pleasure from making it a seasonal indulgence. The air-freighted fruit during the rest of the year isn’t going to be anywhere near as good, so why would you?

Buying plums

The best quality plums will have a smooth skin, probably with a whitish waxy bloom and flesh that is positively voluptuous when squeezed. There are lots of different varieties coming in a range of different colours, so it pays to know which ones are best suited to your intended purposes. Plums that are sweet and therefore good for eating raw include Victoria (yellow with red patches), Santa Rosa (red), Black Amber (oddly enough, yellow) and Denniston’s Superb (green and red). Plums that are tarter and better for cooking include the Mirabelle (dark yellow), Damson (purple or black), Cherry and Blackthorn.

No great surprise that damaged or shrivelled fruit isn’t going to get the job done. If you’re buying a pack from the supermarket, or allowing a stallholder to select for you, just double check that all you’ve got are in good condition.

Lots of supermarkets sell under-ripe plums that should be “ripened at home”. It’s hard to tell the difference here between ones that will indeed ripen satisfactorily and those that were simply picked too early, and will never give you anything you’d want to eat. Properly ripe plums can be found though, and can be detected because they will have a little give when squeezed. If the area where the dimple meets the stem is soft, then the fruit is probably overripe.

Storage / Preventing waste

If you’ve got unripened plums, then keep them at room temperature until ripe, preferably in a paper bag out of direct sunlight. Check them often, because you don’t get a long window of ripeness before you’ve gone too far over.

Ripe plums will keep at room temperature for three or four days. They will keep slightly longer in the fridge, kept in a non-airtight container. But take them out of the fridge long enough before eating for them to come to room temperature - the flavour will be that much better if you do.

According to some sources, plums will last longer if stored in the fridge along with tomatoes. Which is all very well, but storing tomatoes in the fridge is a really bad idea for the tomatoes - nothing kills their flavour more quickly. So you might want to avoid that particular piece of advice.

If you know you have too many, or you want to take advantage of great locally-produced plums right into the winter, you can freeze them. Wash the plums, remove the stones and dice them or cut into slices before storing in airtight plastic containers in your freezer. You might want to lay the pieces on a baking tray to freeze initially, and then once frozen put them into your container or a freezer bag.

Got a glut? Make jam, or chutney. Or do what some friends of mine did, hold a ‘plum party’ where everyone comes and takes plums, and makes something to share at the same time.

What they go with

Plums can be flavour-matched with almonds, hazelnut, cinnamon, citrus, black pepper, honey, vanilla, red wine, ginger, raspberries, goat’s cheese and berries. On the savoury side, you can put them into recipes with chicken, pork, prosciutto and duck (thanks to Produce Made Simple for this list).

In particular, plum sauce is a great accompaniment for duck breast. Give it a try. And plum tarts, with crisp puff pastry and cooked into harmony with a rich vanilla custard - just gorgeous.

How to cook plums

Sweet varieties (dessert plums) can be eaten raw. Otherwise, plums can be poached, roasted or stewed. They can be added to pies and crumbles, and they make great jam.

Usually, you’ll cut the plums in half and remove the stones before cutting. Simply slice the plum around the stone and twist the two halves to liberate them from the stone.