Tag Archives: jam

Rhubarb and elderflower jam, and a surprise

Rhubarb is the one perennial vegetable that needs no introduction. Everyone must have a patch in the corner of their garden, even if it was planted by their granny and hasn’t been used since. It is long-lived and practically bomb-proof and it just goes on and on.

Most years my rhubarb patch doesn’t see a lot of use. One year I actually managed to set up a barter system with my local shop, swapping rhubarb and courgettes for bread, but then the ownership of the shop changed. More recently our community centre cafe has been using some of it, but I must confess to a bit of a history of neglect.

Fortunately, neglect is exactly what rhubarb thrives on and it points up a general advantage of perennial veg: if you don’t use them then they can store up the resources and become stronger plants. The yield is not totally lost as it is with annual veg.

This year, since so many of the fruits have done badly in the cold spring, I’m taking a little more interest in my rhubarb, so I called my mother, who is, in her own words, a ‘heavy user’ of the stuff. I remember most of her recipes from childhood: rhubarb crumble, rhubarb pies, rhubarb jams, rhubarb chutney and, best of all, a big stick of fresh rhubarb dipped in a bowl of sugar and eaten straight. There was even a surprisingly nice rhubarb wine.

To this day I don’t like crumble, but the rhubarb pies were wonderful, especially when left for a couple of days and served cold, with the rhubarb juices soaked a way into the pastry. However, it was the jam I wanted to try, particularly one of my mum’s specialities, rhubarb and elderflower. Here’s the recipe (adapted a little to cater for my preference for less-sweet jams).

rhubarb jam

3 kg rhubarb
1.5 kg sugar
10 elder flowers
Juice of 2 lemons
Makes 10 jars

Wash the rhubarb stems and cut off the leaves and the stem bases. Cut them into chunks about 2 cm long (use a sharp knife or you’ll find you don’t get all the way through the skin). Put the chunks into a bowl in layers, adding a little sugar over each layer and putting in the elder flowers head-down before doing the last layer. Pour the rest of the sugar over the top and leave overnight.

The next day you will find that the sugar has drawn the juice out of the rhubarb and the chunks are floating in syrup. Try not to let your children steal too many of these. Take the flowers out and steep them in water to make an instant cordial. Then boil up the jam in the usual way. Between the rhubarb and the lemon, this jam will set well so there is no need to overdo the cooking.

As this is a low-sugar jam, it is best kept in the fridge once opened, but it will store quite happily for years unopened. For better storage once opened, use equal amounts of rhubarb and sugar.

Elder is a tree with so many uses that I’ll have to give it a post of its own some day. It is so abundant that I prefer to forage it rather than have it take up space in my forest garden. I went down to our local park and selected ten choice blossoms; elder flowers have a rather nasty taste if you don’t get them at the right point, so each bloom got a sniff test to make sure it had that heady scent of summer. It’s the ones that look like they are almost over that are usually the best, not the pristine white new ones.

I also found a pleasant bonus while I was investigating the elders: they were full of jelly ear fungi (Auricularia auricula-judae, also known as Jews’ ears in a bit of traditional European prejudice). Jelly ears never found much favour in European cookery (one online description says that eating them is ‘like chewing on a piece of inner tube’) but Chinese cuisine has got a use for them: they are sliced thinly into stir fries to provide a mild flavour and a bit of a crunch. They can even be dried and rehydrated for the purpose.

Rhubarb in the forest garden

The scientific naming of rhubarb is a bit of a mess: you can choose between Rheum rhabarbarum, Rheum x hybridum or Rheum x cultorum. Rheum rhaponticum may refer to cultivated rhubarb or to another, closely related species. There are at least 2 other species of Rheum worth trying: Himalayan rhubarb (R. australe) is said to taste like apple and Chinese rhubarb or da huang (R. palmatum), like gooseberry. I’ve got both on order so I can let you know whether I agree.

Technically, it isn’t the stem of rhubarb that we eat but the petiole, the leaf-stem. The true stem only comes later, when the rhubarb flowers. A persistent myth about rhubarb is that it is poisonous after flowering: perhaps this came about from people trying to eat the flowering stem rather than the petioles. The part that definitely is poisonous is the leaf and there is another myth which says that you shouldn’t put them on the compost heap as they will poison it. In fact the poisonous compound is an acid which quickly breaks down in compost and is then completely harmless. A little-known fact is that you can also eat the flowers of rhubarb.

Rhubarb grows well in a forest garden. It doesn’t like full shade and shouldn’t be grown under another plant, but it is quite happy to be surrounded by taller plants which shade it for parts of the day.

Cherry plums

Cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera) is described by Andrew Lear (a.k.a. Appletreeman) as ‘Scotland’s most undervalued fruit’ and I completely agree. It is just a little too big to have in my allotment, but I would definitely have one in a larger forest garden. Fortunately, in Aberdeen I don’t have to grow it myself as they are all over the place in my neighbourhood. It’s one of the first plums to flower, so it’s often planted as an ornamental, and it makes a good hedge (although don’t expect any fruit from it growing it this way), and abandoned hedges sometimes grow into dense rows of fruiting trees. Whatever the reason, there are long lines of cherry plums in my local park and behind the nearby botanic gardens.

cherry plum

Cherry plum fruit is very variable. With some you can clearly see the reason for the common name as they are no larger than cherries, others are more plum-sized. The colour ranges from yellow to a speckled red through to a dark, plummy purple. Taste and texture vary too, but in general they are nice, but not strongly flavoured for plums. They are generally poor keepers and have a habit of falling off the tree the second they are ripe (although again, this varies). This means that they are not the best eaters, although they are juicy and somewhat moreish when munched directly off the tree.

Where they really come into their own is when they are cooked. This seems to enrich the flavour and they make lovely jam. I usually make dozens of jars every year and it is easily my favourite jam. They often fruit very heavily, so it doesn’t take long to gather bucketloads. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you how to make jam, so I’ll just pass on a couple of tips. Ripe cherry plums are soft and fleshy, so it’s easy to get the stones out of them before you cook up the jam. Either use a cherry-pitter or just use a sharp knife cutting down on top of the stone and forcing it out. This saves all that mucking about skimming stones off the top of the boiling jam. The other tip is not to add water to the recipe. Just put the sugar (I use about half the weight of the fruit) on top of the fruit (cut in half) in a bowl and leave it overnight: the sugar draws the water out of the plums and in the morning they will be floating in their own juice.
The cherry plums in our park have become very popular and these days I have to fight for a share. Here’s a recipe for cherry plum chutney from the park’s Facebook page.

  • 900g plums
  • 2 medium onions – roughly chopped
  • 700g mixed sultana and raisins
  • 600ml spiced malt vinegar (or malt vinegar with a pinch of allspice)
  • 500g brown sugar
  • 15g ground ginger
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper
  • 45g salt

Chuck everything in a big pan. Let it simmer for 40 mins until thick and jammy. Remove the plum stones as they rise to the top of the mixture. Spoon into hot jars and seal with lids. Makes approx. 5x 450g jars of delicious tasty chutney!

There seems to be a lot of confusion between cherry plums and another kind of plum called the mirabelle. This isn’t helped by the similarity of the alternative name for the cherry plum – myrobalan plum – to mirabelle. It is hard to be sure whether the similarity reflects the two words coming from a common source, representing long-standing confusion, or whether they just happen to be similar-sounding names from different sources (etymologies are given for myrobalan from Ancient Greek μυροβάλανος (murobálanos), meaning something like ‘juicy date’, and for mirabelle from Latin ‘mirabilis’). The two kinds do indeed look very similar, but the true mirabelle, Prunus domestica ssp. syriaca, is a much more southerly plant, flourishing mostly in the south of England on this island. Unfortunately the confusion spreads into the nursery trade, so it can be difficult to be sure whether what you are being offered is a cherry plum or a mirabelle. There are a few named varieties of cherry plum, such as ‘Gypsy’, ‘Countess’ and ‘Golden Sphere’. ‘Countess’ is a freestone variety, meaning that the seed is not stuck to the flesh of the fruit but separates easily.

Cherry plums grow easily from seed and I have been planting seedlings around the housing estate where I live to provide for the next generation of foragers. If you grow seed from a tree that you like, you have a good chance of getting a good tree, although unfortunately there is also a good chance of getting a cross with an ornamental variety such as ‘Atropurpurea’, which rarely make good fruit. They also seem to cross readily with my Japanese plum (P. salicina) tree, which has the same chromosome number (2n=16). Alternatively, if you have found a tree with good qualities, you can produce an exact clone by grafting cuttings. Cherry plum seedlings are widely available as hedging plants and could be used as rootstock, or you can use a standard plum rootstock like St Julien. Plums can also be cloned by detaching suckers (shoots thrown up from the roots), but in my experience cherry plums are less keen to produce these than other plums.

Finally, it used to be thought that domestic plums (P. domestica) were a cross between cherry plums and the blackthorn or sloe (P. spinosa), but apparently there is now evidence that P. cerasifera is the sole ancestor of all our domestic plums.