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Black gold

Last year I had a huge slice of luck: before I had really considered making anything other than quince cheese I stumbled across some local damson trees heavily laden with fruit. As it was clear that the crop was just going to waste I determined to try my hand at a traditional damson cheese. The result was such a hit that the first block I supplied to Wildes for Alexandra Palace farmers market sold out in half an hour. Unsurprisingly they have been asking when the next damson cheese would be appearing ever since!

Anyway, as life is rarely simple, the trees which had supplied me so handsomely last year decided they were overdue a holiday. The entire crop of fruit would have fitted in an egg cup. Biennial bearing is common amongst some types of fruit trees and damsons are no exception, although a poor crop can be just as much to do with weather and soil conditions. Either way, after much asking around it became clear that it had generally been a bad year for them (although whether just in my local area or more widely I don’t know) but amazingly, just as I had resigned myself to a damson-less 2015, I was delighted to get two offers in quick succession and damson cheese was back on the menu.

Damsons are a type of small plum originating in Damascus, Syria (the name is thought to be derived from “Damascene plum”). They have an intense, sharp flavour and produce a dramatic-looking fruit cheese, so dark as to be almost black. Although they can be eaten fresh when fully ripe they tend to be used for cooking.

There is a strong tradition of growing this fruit in the north of England, especially Cumbria and Shropshire where orchards of them used to be widespread. This is no doubt due at least partly to the fact that they are particularly hardy and able to tolerate higher rainfall and less sunshine than many other types of plum.

Daiv Sizer has written a great little guide to these lovely fruits here

And for information on plums generally, check out this guide from Orange Pippins fruit tree nursery

damson drops 2

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Lucky find

Right at the start of August I got a message that a local garden had small plums ready for picking – would I like to go round? I was in two minds about this – the previous day I had been painstakingly picking cherry plums and, as it was still early in the season, I suspected this tree would be more of the same. Lovely though these are it had taken me an age to collect enough to work with and I wasn’t feeling enthusiastic about repeating the exercise. However the garden was very close to me and my curiosity got the better of me.

How glad I was that it did! The tree was not a cherry plum at all but a huge Mirabelle, laden with golden fruit.

The Mirabelle is a type of plum which originated in France and is much better known there than in the UK. Although the fruit is small it is renowned for being one of the best-flavoured cooking plums and is commonly used in French patisserie. There are a number of different cultivars but the most widely grown is Mirabelle de Nancy, which I think was the one I had been lucky enough to come across. And, to my delight, I found that the wonderful gold of the skin and flesh was retained in the finished fruit cheese.

mirabelle drops 3

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First of the plums

These little beauties are cherry plums, also known as Myrobalan (latin name: Prunus cerasifera), which are the first of the plums to fruit in the UK.

The tree is not native, coming originally from southern Europe and Asia, but it has naturalised widely here and can often be found growing in hedgerows and wild places. It tends to grow in thickets and sometimes hybridizes with sloe so that you may come across a rainbow of different fruit sizes and colours, as in the photo. The garden plums we all know so well are thought to have descended from one of these natural sloe/cherry plum hybrids.

The dark purple-leafed variety is often planted as a small ornamental tree in streets and parks – you see them everywhere – and the fruit is also dark.

So, the fruit is small but it is early and I was in need! Fruit season is just starting to ramp up and I have yet to stock the freezer so I am still working with what I can find right now. Anyway, I like the fact that the ‘cheese’ I’m selling is seasonal at the moment. After spending some time gathering enough to work with (there is a good reason it is called a cherry plum – the fruit really are not much bigger than cherries!)  I did a pectin test (good) and acid test (also good) and off we went. This was the first time I had tried making fruit cheese with this fruit but I’m pretty happy with the result. Oh, and what a colour!

cherry plum droplets

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Garden Open Day

The last couple of weeks precious little has been going on in the kitchen but plenty in the garden, the reason being that I was preparing to open the garden to the public for an afternoon under the National Gardens Scheme.

The National Gardens Scheme is a simple idea: gardens that are usually private open to the public for a small entrance fee with all funds raised going to a range of caring and nursing charities.  Often people (as we did) also sell teas and plants. The scheme has steadily grown into a huge fundraising enterprise with now £2.5million raised and given away every year. Last year two local friends and I took part for the first time, opening as a group, and this year two of us did so again.

Well, the day dawned neither bright nor clear but in anticipation we had erected not one but three gazebos and advertised that there would be somewhere dry to sit at least. Watching the weather forecasts had been a nerve-wracking experience as we knew that poor weather could easily reduce our turnout down to little more than our most loyal friends. In the event the rain held off and we were delighted to get nearly 120 visitors – just a fraction under last year’s total.

 

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Fruit gap experiments

I would like to say that the setting up of Fruit Magpie has been smoothly coordinated affair, with a steady supply of product matching customer demand and of course absolutely no panicking over fruit supply. Well, you didn’t really believe that, did you?! In the first few months demand rose so fast that the product meant to last until August sold out in early May. Wow, what a great ‘problem’ to have!

So, how to deal with a potential gap in supply before the new fruit season starts? My first thought was whether I could make use of surplus fruit wasted in the usual consumer supply chains. Food waste reduction has always been a core ethos of Fruit Magpie, albeit through food that never normally reaches shops or markets. (As an aside, I have been delighted to discover that there is a large and growing movement actively fighting food waste – more on this in another blog). However many food suppliers quite rightly want to donate to charities and others shamefully don’t seem to be tackling this issue at all. After a number of promising leads came to nothing, I approached my small local grocer shop. Result! I had thought they would be too small to have much useable surplus but I was wrong, and for a few weeks we happily made a daily visit to collect everything from apples to loquats.

This was a very useful experiment but it soon became apparent that this would not be a long-term solution as the vast majority of the fruit available was not really suitable for making fruit cheese. Also, unsurprisingly, much of it was older than I would have liked and I was concerned that this would affect the flavour as well as meaning pectin levels would be lower than needed. Last but not least all fruit I had used previously had been grown without chemicals and I really wanted to keep things that way. I thanked my kind collaborators and continued looking for another solution.

Whilst we were making fruit collections from the corner shop I had started to experiment with rhubarb. As every jam-maker knows, rhubarb is tremendously useful as it is the first crop of the British season that can be used for this purpose. I thought it seemed promising as a candidate for fruit cheese, that is to say tart and quintessentially British, but I certainly wasn’t about to find a recipe on the internet! Experimentation was the only way forward. Rhubarb is low in pectin and my first few attempts failed to set properly but eventually I figured out how to manage this consistently. But would the customers would like it? Wildes took a batch to Borough and Alexandra Palace farmer’s markets to find out. The report came back: “get making”!

So, a happy ending to the story. What started as a supply problem has resulted in another fruit cheese being added to the range.

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Quince Charming (1)

The last of the quince blossom has just dropped its’ fat pink petals, spreading confetti over the garden. I love the tree in bloom; the flowers are much larger than those of most fruit trees but have a wild rose simplicity to them. At this time of the year the leaves are a fresh green and covered with the soft downy hairs that later appear on the fruits.

Quince (latin name Cydonia oblonga) is native to the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains of Turkey and Iran, stretching east into south west Asia, but is now naturalised across much of southern Europe. The fruit is still very popular in its’ region of origin and in my part of north London the Turkish-owned shops often sell imported quince in the autumn. When I first gave some fruit to my Turkish friends I was very surprised to see them happily munch the fruit like an apple! That idea is probably beyond the pale for most Brits as, although the fruit softens a little from its’ usual rock hard state when properly ripe, it is still very sour and full of mouth-drying tannins which need a good spell of cooking to break down. Most references in English say that the fruit cannot be eaten raw for this reason. However it seems that in Turkey and other countries in the region this is the way the fruit is usually eaten, probably because the varieties grown there are more suited to this purpose and because the heat of the summers help to ripen them better. If anyone from that part of the world is reading this, post a comment! I’d love to know more.

Considering where it comes from, the quince is a very accommodating tree. There are several varieties which cope with our grey and soggy climate, many of which succeed as far north as Scotland. However the fruit really needs a long growing season to ripen well and so in more northerly or exposed spots it does best fan-trained on a south or west-facing wall. In a poor summer you may need to ripen the fruit off the tree, although I have never had this problem with my tree which seems to really thrive. I suspect this is a combination of the warm urban environment, the sheltered sunny spot it is growing in and having its’ ‘feet’ in our moisture-holding London clay.

Going for growth

damson tree

 

Last season (2014) was a great year for fruit and many trees near me were heavily laden. I was lucky to have access to some of this bounty and particularly pleased to get my hands on one of my favourite fruits, wild damsons. The customers seemed pleased too – the damson cheese sold out super-fast!

Wild damsons are a rare treat. They have a wonderful intense flavour and make a glossy, almost black fruit cheese which looks stunning on a cheeseboard. However the fruit is small and I knew that, even if I was lucky enough to get them again, they would certainly not go very far. So, while I am looking for some more north London damson trees, wild or otherwise, I thought I’d take the future into my own hands in a small way; the little beauty in the picture is a young tree of the cultivated damson variety ‘Farleigh’ which we have just planted. It will be at least a couple of years before it produces any fruit but I am delighted none-the-less. I am looking forward to nurturing this little tree and watching it grow.

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Marvellous Medlars

Last autumn I was lucky enough to be offered a large quantity of medlars and I have of course used them to make medlar cheese.

Medlars are strange fruit indeed. They have been grown in Britain since Roman times and would have been a familiar sight in on a medieval table but are no longer well-known. They are inedible until ‘bletted’: a stage beyond ripening when the flesh becomes brown and mushy. Their appearance at this stage is is quite enough to put many people off trying them, but even before that they resemble nothing so much as a large, brown squashed rosehip. Glamour is not their middle name.

Yet the taste of the fruit is a rare treat. It is sweet, fudgy, earthy, complex and like nothing else I know.  It combines beautifully with spices such as cinnamon and allspice which seem to ’round out’ and enhance the flavour (indeed spice was often used in old recipes). Who knows, perhaps we will ‘rediscover’ this forgotten fruit yet.