The first plums of the season are rolling into Johannesburg's fruit-and-veg shops now and, by Jupiter, I love a ripe plum. I grew up on a smallholding which had a little orchard, and spent many happy hours in the branches of the plum trees, squishing the fruit into my mouth and and inhaling the heavenly scent of hot, dark plums as they plopped into the long grass.
I love plums gently stewed in spicy sugar syrup, too, but only if they are tart enough to wrinkle your eyelids at first bite.
The early plums I bought today were very sweet, and I didn't have any lemons, so instead I used tamarind to add tartness... and, oh, boy. I can't wait until winter comes and I can crack open these jars.
You can eat these plums as is, or bottle them and stash them; see instructions in my Cook's Notes, below.
Tamarind paste is available at spice shops and in good delis. If you can't find it, use the same amount of lemon juice to make the plums pleasantly tart.
Spiced Plums with Tamarind
1.5 kg firm, ripe red plums, washed
3 T (45 ml) bottled tamarind paste
a little brandy; optional (if you're bottling the plums)
For the sugar syrup:
3 cups (750 ml) water
2 cups (500 ml) sugar
2 star anise
1 large stick cinnamon
1 twist of lemon peel, all white pith removed
a 2-cm-long, thumb-thick knob of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced into slim disks
To make the sugar syrup: put all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring slowly to the boil, stirring now and then to dissolve the sugar crystals. Boil for five minutes, then turn down the heat and allow to bubble very gently for ten more minutes until the mixture is clear and starting to get a little syrupy. You can also make this syrup in a microwave; remember to give it a stir every few minutes.
Add the whole, unpeeled plums to the sugar syrup, bring to a gentle boil, then immediately turn down the heat and simmer very gently for about seven minutes, or until the skin on the plums splits and the fruit is just softened. Remove the plums from the syrup with a slotted spoon and place in a serving dish. Stir the tamarind paste or lemon juice into the syrup and allow to bubble gently for a further five minutes. Strain the syrup over the plums.
Serve hot, cold, or - best of all - warm, over vanilla ice cream, or with a blob of whipped cream.
If you're bottling the plums:
Wash and sterilise some big glass jars, and their lids (see Cook's Notes, below). Using a slotted spoon, pack the plums into the jars (discard the spices). Add a disc of ginger to each jar. Stir the brandy into the hot syrup and strain over the plums, filling each jar right to the brim. Screw on the hot lids tightly, and then tighten them again after ten minutes to form a good vacuum.
You might have some syrup left over, and you can make this into a cordial (it's lovely in cocktails). Boil the syrup for another five minutes, or until syrupy, and then turn off the heat. Stir in a few tablespoons of brandy, to taste. Strain the syrup through a fine sieve into a sterilised bottle, and seal tightly with a cork or lid. Keep the syrup in the fridge.
Jars are easily sterilised in a microwave. Place the jars, mouth upwards, on the turntable of your microwave oven. Using a jug, pour about 1 cm water into each jar. Microwave on High for six minutes. Remove the jars from the microwave using an oven glove. Place open-side down on several layers of newspaper and allow to cool for a few minutes, before adding the plums.
Metal lids should not be microwaved: boil them, in a saucepan, on the stove, for ten minutes.