I’ve become a bit of a recluse recently. Book number 2 is taking up all my attention at the moment with a final push before my deadline and I’m digging deep to keep the motivation going. I only really realised how little time I have spent in the garden over the last few weeks after a whole day of gardening on Saturday. The garden had started to look a little rough around the edges but it was the stiffness which followed the gardening that took me by surprise. I felt like I normally do at the start of spring, at this time of year I would expect to be ‘garden fit’. I sat down on Saturday night for an hour or so and then got up to get a cup of tea and Wellyman had to give me a helping push to get me upright. Too much time sat in front of my computer, I think. And, you know you need to get out more when you get a tad too excited about a punnet of greengages at the supermarket.
The greengage is a fruit I’ve heard about but until relatively recently had never actually come across. It had almost started to take on mythical properties – a fruit that had once, many moons ago, filled late summer and early autumn kitchens where cooks wearing mop caps and proper aprons, surrounded by copper pans, would turn them into jams and compotes. Of course, I couldn’t turn down the chance to taste them, so a punnet was purchased. On the way home I wondered why they were such a rarity – they are deemed as a ‘speciality’ fruit by the supermarket. This thought only grew stronger once I had tried them, they were delicious.
Greengages are cultivars of the plum family. If you think greengages are a fruit of the past it turns out there are also yellowgages, such as the amber-coloured ‘Coe’s Golden Drop’, and the strangely titled ‘transparent gages’ like ‘Early Transparent Gage’, not much time was lost on thinking up that name! Greengages tend to be slightly smaller and a bit more round than a normal plum but the most obvious visual difference is the green-coloured fruit. There is something a little odd about biting into a green fruit. Your brain is saying ‘don’t do it, it’ll not be ripe and it’ll taste bitter’ but in the case of greengages your brain couldn’t be more wrong. That first bite is very much of a delightful honeyed sweetness and it is this that distinguishes gages, in all their various hues, from a typical plum. I love plums with their slight tartness but greengages are something else, so why are the shelves of supermarkets groaning under plums, and greengages are sidelined to the ‘unusual fruits’ section?
Greengages have been cultivated from a wild green plum and are popular in Europe, particularly France, Germany and into Eastern Europe. It’s believed that they came to Britain from France in the 18th century, but the story is a little confused. Accounts vary as to whether they were imported by Sir William Gage to plant in his garden at Hengrave Hall in Suffolk or whether it was another branch of the family and Sir Thomas Gage (1781-1820) of Firle Place in Sussex which introduced the greengage. Whichever Gage, the story is that the labels were lost in transit and that when the plums turned out to be green they became known as green Gage’s plums. An avenue of greengages form the structure to the current kitchen garden at Firle.
In France greengages are known as ‘Reine Claudes’ after a 16th century queen. Perhaps she gorged herself on them, which would be perfectly understandable, or maybe the royal gardener discovered these honey-flavoured fruits and named them after her.
‘Cambridge Favourite’, an old heritage variety is the greengage I bought but as it turns out there are quite a few to choose from if you’re thinking of growing your own. Some are more suitable to growing in the UK than others. And this is where we get to the crux of the matter – why they aren’t more widely available as a cultivated fruit? Well it seems like they might be a bit difficult to grow in a typical British climate. Gages need a lot of moisture which isn’t normally a problem for most British growers but they also dislike sitting in waterlogged soil. They also flower early in spring and, whilst the plants are hardy, the blossom is prone to being damaged by early frosts. Siting gages in a sheltered spot with plenty of sunshine to help that sweet, honey flavour to develop is essential. If you live in a frost-prone area there are varieties which flower later such as ‘Late Transparent’ – wow fruit- naming people you really pushed the boat out with those transparent gages. Some gages are self-fertile, others will require another fruit in order to produce a crop. For this reason it’s worth consulting a specialist fruit nursery if you fancy trying to grow your own.
As for how to eat them. Well their natural sweetness makes them perfect for just as they are but they are an incredibly versatile fruit. Try them in crumbles, pies, jams and chutneys.
I often daydream about having my own orchard. The planting plans always included plums but never greengages. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the orchard but hopefully one day I’ll have the space to squeeze in a gage or two.