Sweet sen­sa­tions tions

Living France - - A LA MANSION -

With sum­mer in full swing,

Sue Bradley sam­ples plums ahead of choosing a cul­ti­var to grow in her gar­den and makes sure she keeps her pots well wa­tered

Life is sweet when there’s a plum tree grow­ing in the gar­den and Au­gust is the per­fect time to seek out and taste lots of dif­fer­ent cul­ti­vars ready to choose some to plant later in the year.

The French are well known for their love of this de­li­cious fruit, both in fresh and dried forms, priz­ing them for their flavour and nu­tri­tional and di­etary fi­bre con­tent. Pop­u­lar ways to use them in­clude tarts, clafoutis, cakes and breads, along with a va­ri­ety of savoury dishes.

Pruneaux d’Agen, grown around the towns of Agen and Vil­leneuve-sur-Lot, are seen as the best in the world. Its cul­ti­vat­ing and dry­ing tra­di­tions date back to the 12th cen­tury, when the monks of the Ab­baye de Clairac in the Lot val­ley re­turned from their third cru­sade and were in­spired to graft Da­mas plums from Syria onto lo­cal va­ri­eties. This pro­duced a fine-skinned fruit, known as Prune d’Ente, well suited to the soil and cli­mate of south-west France.

Gen­er­ally the plum is one of the eas­i­est fruits to grow and many cul­ti­vars are self-fer­tile, which means it’s not nec­es­sary to have an­other tree nearby. If space is in short sup­ply, se­lect cul­ti­vars grown on dwarf­ing root­stocks that can eas­ily be trained against walls or cul­ti­vated as space­sav­ing spin­dles.

Plums like a shel­tered spot, usu­ally in full sun­shine and cer­tainly not in a frost pocket, but there are some that will thrive in cooler con­di­tions. Th­ese in­clude Belle de Lou­vain, a large and oval-shaped cul­ti­var that can even cope with north­fac­ing walls. It has a rel­a­tively dry flesh, which makes it great for cooking in pas­try or cake mixes that shouldn’t get too wet.

Later-flowering types in­clude Mar­jorie’s Seedling, a pur­ple plum with good re­sis­tance to dis­ease.

One of the big­gest prob­lems from grow­ing fruit is har­vest­ing, es­pe­cially if it all comes at once. Sweet-tast­ing Jef­fer­son’s plums are ready in Septem­ber but don’t ripen all at once, which means it’s pos­si­ble to stag­ger pick­ing them.

Other forms of plums in­clude the mirabelle, with its small and sweet cherry-sized yel­low fruit that can be eaten fresh or used in cooking, par­tic­u­larly in jams and liqueurs, and rich and spicy-flavoured damsons – also known as the Da­m­a­scene plum due to its Syr­ian ori­gins – which are usu­ally eaten cooked rather than fresh. They do well in colder cli­mates.

A close rel­a­tive of the plum is the green­gage, the sweet flesh of which can be en­joyed straight off the tree or in dishes. It thrives in cooler cli­mates as long as there is a sunny as­pect. Among the most pop­u­lar cul­ti­vars is Reine Claude de Bavay, which orig­i­nated in Bel­gium in the lat­ter half of the 19th cen­tury and is eas­ier to grow than some other gages.

The cheap­est way to buy plum trees is to get them as bare-rooted spec­i­mens to plant over the win­ter months, al­though make sure the ground is not frozen when they go in. Con­tainer­ised plants have a wider plant­ing win­dow, but re­mem­ber that any put in dur­ing the sum­mer will need a lot of wa­ter­ing.

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