Sunday 30 May 2010

WHB Plums: a history, trivia and a cake

When memories of stone fruit are fading as summer moves into autumn, plums give solace. It is only the last year or two that I have rediscovered my love for plums. An occasional bag of plums in my shopping has provided delicious fresh fruit and the motivation to use them in cooking. As part of my love affair with plums I have delved into their history. It has taken me so long to write it up that plums are now out of season but my enthusiasm for the fruit and the cake at the end of this post is not dinted.

What do plums mean to me?

When I think of plums, I find they are part of my childhood. I think of our abundance of cherry plums from the tree in the backyard of my childhood home, the pleasure of tart blood plums in season, the daintiness of sugar plum fairies in the Nutcracker ballet and the Night Before Christmas, of Little Jack Horner pulling a plum out of his pie, of Professor Plum in Cluedo. If someone spoke posh they had a plum in their mouth. More recently I have found that you can buy Plum baby wear in Australia and there is a Plum organic baby food label in the UK.

Language Notes about Plums

The lovely piece of fruit has given us far more depth of meaning to the word plum. “Plum” is also used to describe a glorious deep shade of purple. It can also mean something of the superior or desirable kind such a plum job.

Most frustratingly when I have searched for information about plum is the wealth of information about plum puddings. This was often a mystery to me as a child but I did find an explanation. The Oxford dictionary tells us that “in 1660, Plum used to mean "a dried grape or raisin such as used for puddings, cakes, etc". Plum pudding never had fresh plums in it, but another explanation is that it had dried plums or prunes. We also have the delightfully named plum duff, plum jalousie and plum shuttle – the latter are both sweet plum plastry dishes – that Jane Grigson writes about.

Plum history

Wild plum trees were harvested in ancient times. It is unknown when plums were domesticated but we do know that the thorns were bred out. The Damson plum is believed to be the oldest plum variety. I have read that it was named for its place of origin, Damascus, that it was grown in ancient Mesopotamia, and that it is even thought by some to have been grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

The Romans introduced Damsons to England. Archaeological digs of ancient Roman camps in England often find remnants of damsons, and ancient writings describe the use of damson skins in the manufacture of purple dye. (Perhaps an alternate use was found for the skins because the is where most of the fibre resides.)

Pompey the Great began cultivating plums in his gardens in Rome in 65 BC and the Crusaders brought back plums from Syria to Europe. Plum stones were found on the wreck of Henry VII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545. I was fascinated to read that plum stones are unique to a particular variety, like human fingerprints, and these stones were traced back to the plum varieties in when the wreck was raised in the 1980s.

One of my favourite places for food history is the Old Foodie. She has some lovely mentions of plums in the past. A “Marmalet of any tender plum” comes from The Queen’s Closet* Opened: Incomparable Secrets in Physick, Chyrugery, Preserving, Candying, and Cookery; As They Were Presented to the Queen By the Most Experienced Persons of our times … by W.M (‘one of her late Servants), 1658. Amelia Simmons (‘an orphan’) published a book in 1798 called American Cookery, or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life.

Plums have been eaten many ways in history. It is claimed that the prune (dried plum) was a staple food of the Tartars, Mongols, Turks, and Huns. There is also a record of a Cheshire retailer in 1524 stocking “nutmeg plums” among the preserved plums in his apothecarial stock. More recently, in the 1870s, Manet painted The Plum, a painting of a prostitute leaning on a bar with a plum in brandy in front of her. Apparently, plums in brandy were all the rage in Paris at the time.

Plums in Chinese culture

"The branches of the aspen plum
To and fro they sway
How can I not think of her?
But home is far away."

So wrote Confucious who included plums in his list of popular foods. Plums are believed to symbolise wisdom and good fortune in China. Hence it was seen to be lucky that Lao-Tse, the Chinese philosopher who was purported to be the founder of Taoism in the 6th Century BC, was born under a plum tree. Plums also feature in 14th Century historical novel, Legends of the Three Kingdoms.

Plum blossoms
represent courage and hope in Chinese new year. They burst forth at the end of winter on a seemingly lifeless branch. In Chinese art, plum blossoms are associated with the entire season of winter and not just the New Year.

Other types of plums

Stephanie Alexander, in The Cook’s Companion, comments that the plums discussed by Jane Grigson are not the ones that are common in Australia. We don’t have damsons, sloes and mirabelles that might be found in Europe. (Don’t expect damson jam and sloe gin on this blog!) There are two main types of plums: European and Japanese. However I have been overwhelmed by the variety of plums in the information I have read about them. Many countries have their own distinct variety.

Stephanie also writes that plum trees used to be common in Australian backyards. That would explain our old cherry plum tree. Cherry plums are quite small with red skins and a soft yellow flesh. Our cherry plum tree was so abundant that the fruit would turn to mush underfoot in that corner. My mum stewed them and served them with ice cream. We would play tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor with the stones. We also had a blood plum tree with larger plums that had deep red skin and firm deep red tart flesh. But this tree was a little more reluctant to bear fruit.

Australia also has a native bush plum that is found in the Northern parts. Also known as the Kakadu plum, it was a seasonal staple of the local Aboriginal people’s diets and is very high in Vitamin C. These days it is being hailed as a 21st century superfood.

The Japanese plum came from China in the 16th Century and seems to have spread around the world but a distinctive Japanese flavour is the plum or “ume”. From this word we have the processed umeboshi, a sour pickled plum and umeshu, a sweet alcoholic beverage made of plums.

The Pilgrim Fathers brought Euopean plums to the New World. America's most famous pomologist, Luther Burbank, not only wrote about plum history but also claimed his import of 12 plum seedlings in 1885 was the single most important fruit importation in American history (and he wasn’t biased, was he!) He successfully bred Japanese plums. Before colonisation, there was the Native American plum that still grows in most USA states and in Canada. Traditionally, Native Americans used many parts of the trees. The Cheyenne ate the fruit (plums), and used branches for the Sun Dance. The Navajo used the roots to make red dye.

Plums in literature

"I have eaten
the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious

so sweet
and so cold"

This is a poem called This is Just to Say by William Carlos Williams. I came across it in the Man Who Ate Everything, in which Jeffrey Steingarten nominates it as his favourite plum poem. I have to agree with him. Though I have not found many plum poems of any significance, the fruit is an evocative reference for poets.

Ben Jonson in To Penshurst wrote “The earely Cherry, with the later Plum, Fig, Grape, and Quince, each in his time doth come:” Keats wrote ode to a nightingale under a plum tree and praised the sweetness of plums in a poem called On Fame (II) with the lovely line “and the ripe plum still wears its dim attire”. He inspired Sylvia Plath as a student to write “Ode to a Bitten Plum”. Plums appear in a few of Christina Rossetti’s poems, including a nonsense poem called A City Plum and the line " "Have done with sorrow; / I'll bring you plums to-morrow / Fresh on their mother twigs" from the wonderfully fruity poem, The Goblin Market.

Although not many plum poems abound, I have found interesting uses of Plum in literature. Janet Evanovich has a detective called Stephanie Plum in her murder mysteries. PG Wodehouse was called Plum by family and friends. Herta Mueller, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote a novel (that I once saw her read from at the Irish Writer’s Festival) called the Land of Green Plums. I even found some children’s books with plum in the title: Stories to eat with a blood plum by Australian Jackie French, Janet and Allan Ahlberg wrote Each Peach Pear Plum (one of Sylvia’s favourites) and Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote On the Banks of Plum Creek.

Plums in Music

The most famous plums in music would have to be the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” in the Nutcracker Ballet by Tchaikovsky. Contemporary plum songs include “My favourite plum” by Suzanne Vega, “Peach, plum, pear” by Joanna Newsome and “Gelatin, ice cream, plum” by Guided by Voices. Even the children’s entertainers, the Wiggles, have a song called “Brown girl in the ring” with a line ‘She looks like a sugar in a plum/ Plum plum”

Plum Kuchen

It was my plum chutney last year that renewed my plum enthusiasm. This year I was really pleased to finally make the cake that I hadn’t managed to make last year. I was out of milk and wanted to use up flours so I had to adapt the recipe I’d seen on Tofu for Two. I made it one night in late January, listening to Herman’s Hermits singing “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am”, playing on the radio, while E was getting our new set top box set up (so we can watch digital tv) and Sylvia slept.

The cake was a little dry on the edges but the was moist in the middle and the plums on top were still slightly tart but soft and jammy. The cake was significant because not only was it the first plum cake I have made but also Sylvia’s first taste of cake.

Unfortunately, this is not a history lesson on plum kuchen. I can't even get the name right. If you want to read more about them, you could check out Seitan is My Motor's discussion about the related linguistics on her Pflaumenkuchen post and Cooking the Books investigation of her family recipe for
pflaumekuchen. But if you want real food for thought, check out this Plum Cake essay by John Weir about Nazi Germany circular logic which which compares Hitler's order for the extermination of the Jews to Alice in Wonderland's plum cake that Alice had to distribute before she could cut it.

Previous plum recipes on Green Gourmet Giraffe:

Other plum recipes on the blogosphere:

With all this information, it is just right for Weekend Herb Blogging (#235), a weekly event where bloggers showcase ways to use different herbs, spices, fruit and vegetables. I am sending this cake to Haalo of Cook Almost Anything who is hosting this week, as well as the WHB Guru and Coordinator. She took over from Kalyn who founded the event.

Plum Kuchen

Adapted from Vegalicious via Tofu for Two

  • 1 tsp dry yeast
  • 1 tbsp warm water
  • 1½ plain white flour
  • ½ cup plain wholemeal flour
  • ½ cup soy flour
  • ½ cup buckwheat flour
  • 1½ tbsp baking powder
  • ½ cup raw sugar
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ cup milk
  • ½ cup cranberry juice
  • ¼ cup orange juice (juice of half an orange)
  • 5 tbsp melted vegan margarine
  • 8 plums, cut into sixths – mine were very soft
  • ½ cup walnuts, crushed with a fork
  • 1 tbsp plain flour
  • 1 tbsp margarine
  • 2 tsp sugar
Dissolve yeast in warm water. Set aside. Combine flours, cinnamon, sugar, baking powder and salt. Stir in soy milk, juices, margarine, and yeast mixture. Spoon batter into a small slice tray - my batter was very stiff - maybe could have done with slightly more liquid as it was on the dry side when it came out of the oven. Arrange plums over the batter.

To make the topping, rub margarine into the remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Sprinkle over the plums. Bake at 190 C for 30-70 minutes (Vegelicious says 30-40 minutes, Tofu for Two did 30-40 minutes at 200 C, I did 70 minutes at 190 C. Take your pick!) It is ready when a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean, the topping is crisp and the plums are soft. Serve warm or room temperature. It keeps for a few days.

On the stereo:

0898 Beautiful South: The Beautiful South


  1. You wrote: "Plum blossoms represent courage and hope in Chinese new year. They burst forth at the end of winter on a seemingly lifeless branch. In Chinese art, plum blossoms are associated with the entire season of winter and not just the New Year."

    Last week I had a chance to listen to a young man from China talk about his homeland. He said that the New Year celebration is a week-long holiday & is called "Spring Festival" & everyone used to celebrate being a year older. So what you wrote isn't quite correct.

    My childhood home had a bountiful plum tree in the backyard & my mother bottled the plums for the winter months.
    They are also one fruit that contains a high level of pectin, which means that jam made from plums thickens naturally.

  2. Oh lovely Johnanna.

    My mother has the most fantastic Victoria plum tree which alternates between no fruit and a freezer and preserve shelf filling glut.

    The plums for sale in the supermarkets here are not worth eating, sadly they are choosen for looks and shelf life not taste.

  3. Wow, thank you for pulling all of that together, Johanna! I adore plums - the contrast of sweet juicy insides and tart skin gets me every time :) Nice to know I can whip out that info about the Romans at some point in the future and sound super clever :D

  4. So much good information about plums, and the Plum Kuchen sounds so delicious and comforting.

  5. You've reminded me that we have a family pflaumkuchen recipe too, and I've never tried it! Aren't plum duff, and sugar plum wonderful phrases?! I hope Sylvia enjoyed her first taste of cake :)

  6. Wow, what a mammoth post, I love it - thank you. I love plums straight off the tree, if you can get them, which I rarely do these days. One of my best fruit memories was picking greengages and scoffing them immediately - all warm from the sun, sweet and juicy. When I used to live in Switzerland, I often bought plum tart and it was fantastic - I've never found anything else quite like it.

  7. What a wonderful post--I love your background posts like this one as there's so much to take in, I can go back again and again. :) I used to love that Wm Carlos Williams poem, too. And I had no idea the pits were unique to the variety that way, though it does make sense now that I think of it! Glad Sylvia enjoyed her first slice of cake--plum cake is a great type to start her on! (for some reason I thought she'd tasted cake on her 1st birthday--?)

  8. What a gorgeous cake! Plum cake always reminds me of Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass, where the lion and the unicorn had a plum cake sitting near them. Thanks for the wonderful plum facts too - I enjoyed this post a lot.

  9. What an amazing post! I loved seeing some old favorites, like the WCW poem, and learning all kinds of new facts and info about plums!

    The neighborhood where I grew up is full of plum trees, but no one really picked them, so my strongest plum memories are of stepping carefully through sidewalks coated with sticky, rotting fruit. There is a movement now in my hometown to gather unused fruit from residential trees, so maybe future generations will get to eat plum goodies rather than just avoid them on the street.

  10. What wonderful nuggets of plum history, Johanna. Not only is this post superb, that Plum Kuchen looks so darn decadent I can hardly control myself.

    Boy oh boy, I sure do hope there's a National Plum Day floating around somewhere. I get to enjoy the goodies while you did all this fabulous research.

    Thank you so much for sharing...I had no idea there was so much more to plums than just memories...

  11. Plums are coming INTO season for me - perfect timing! Thanks for all of the information and for this delicious recipe!

  12. Thanks Pene - end of winter and start of spring seem to merge in my world - but I am willing to acknowledge that my 'research' is not the most thorough and so I am happy to hear any other information such as yours - and that pectin info explains why I have had such good luck with my plum jam

    Thanks Helen - a plum tree of any sort sounds wonderful even if it is a fickle friend

    Thanks Hannah - glad to be of assistance - you never know when you need to throw in a random but brilliant remark about the Romans :-)

    Thanks Kalyn - it was indeed good comfort food

    Thanks Lysy - I hope to see you family recipe on your blog some time - it will be a good excuse to talk about plum duff - as if we need an excuse!

    Thanks Choclette - I have fond memories of plums off the tree as a child but not sure I know of anyone with plum trees now - wish I could find a good plum tart too

    Thanks Ricki - I actually made this cake in January but it has taken me quite a bit of time to get this post together - so yes Sylvia did have cake on her birthday but this one was her first one - and she didn't have the walnut crumble on the top

    Thanks Cakelaw - I don't remember the bit about plum cake in alice in wonderland (despite an undergrad essay on the book) but it is a wonderful scene

    Thanks Scrumptious - that sounds promising that people in your home town are starting to make sure fruit is used - as a few of these comments attest, fresh fruit off the tree is so wonderful compared to off the supermarket shelves

    Thanks Louise - you have inspired me to do a quick search for a plum day and found that there is one in UK on 8 Sept - link to article here

  13. Thanks Joanne - I wish plums were still in season now - hope you enjoy an abundance of plums

  14. I looooove plums! I always try out the different varieties they offer every year. Last year I think my favourite was the "dinosaur" plum. The kuchen looks so perfect with it's crumbly topping and fruit juices oozing down the sides. I've made a plum kuchen before but it seems different than yours:


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