There is a cluster of small trees along our wild boundary with the field, which in spring are covered in white foaming blossom, while through the summer small green fruits grow and slowly turn purple.
When we first took on this garden, we debated whether they were gage, damson or plum trees. The truth, I suspect, lies somewhere between the three, as small wild plums and damsons populate hedgerows throughout parts of Wales. Last year I was intrigued when Kate wrote about wild plums, or eirin bach, in her part of North Wales, and I have also found references to eirin duon, or damsons, growing wild through our countryside.
Regardless of their name, for the first couple of years we hauled out the long brambles that roamed through the canopy, then pruned these overgrown trees hard back a couple of years ago. They responded well, throwing out billows of white blossom in the spring, before forming ample clusters of swelling fruit.
One dry day two years ago, we picked what fruit we could reach, and my mum boiled them up ready to make jam. The stewed fruits were left in the fridge to be dealt with the following day, but overnight they grew rings of mould and had to be discarded. When I started to read around on wild plums, I found lots of confirmation on the speed with which they deteriorate – not to be trifled with, then, but picked and preserved immediately.
Last year, I closely watched the fruit ripen on the trees, before a busy weekend and a few days of rain late in August put paid to any attempts to harvest them. This year, I was more determined than ever. When King of the Hill mentioned this weekend that the fruits were starting to drop, I hopped across and gathered a few of the windfalls. Gentle bloom on the dark skin and soft yellow flesh (still slighly sharp when eaten raw) suggested that it was time to act.
Closer inspection of the tree almost dissuaded me, as many of the fruit were still firmer and greener than I’d hoped, but my jam book assured me that under-ripe fruit was preferable to over-ripe fruit, so as King of the Hill scaled a ladder stood against the trees, I dodged the onslaught from above, and we collected a trug full of small plums.
With my jam-making experience so far limited to two seasons of blackberry jelly, I consulted a recipe and began to halve and stone the plums as directed. With almost 2kg of fruit to process, I quickly (lazily) decided that I could dodge this thankless task, and remove the stones with a slotted spoon after cooking instead, though I still removed the stalks and cut into each fruit. This turned out to be quite necessary, as many of the fruits, regardless of whether they outwardly appeared blemished or not, showed definite ‘enemy activity’ within; I cut out the smaller areas and discarded fruits that were not so easily recoverable.
After weighing and measuring (our haul was now down to about a kilo and a half), I steeped the fruit in sugar for half an hour, then began to boil it. I was surprised that the recipe I was half-following didn’t mention adding any water, but indeed the fruits soon released plenty of their own juice as they softened, and soon I had a pan full of pleasingly pink jam boiling away.
It was, not surprisingly, a slight challenge to remove the stones from the setting jam before pouring it into sterilised jars: next time I shall not do half a job, but will stone the fruit properly in advance! However, soon enough we had four and a half jars of deep red jam cooling in the kitchen, and a lot of washing up to do.
The next morning, the cooled jars showed a perfect set, and I enjoyed a spoonful of jam from the half-filled jar on a slice of toast. Delicious.
There is something immensely pleasing about preserving the wild fruits of the garden; a little store of summer to see us through the winter. Distant winter. Making jam does not mean that summer is coming to an end, no no no.