Saturday, September 3, 2016

Sweet Pickled Plums: A Condiment for Duck and Game

Sweet Pickled Plums

To Pickle Damsons
To 5 lbs. ripe Damsons 2 ½ lbs. sugar 1 quart vinegar 2 oz. cloves—1 oz. cinnamon, ½ oz. mace—boil the sugar and all the spices in the vinegar, Pour it boiling hot on the fruit when cold, pour it off 6 times weigh your plum before you stone it—to be served with Ducks.

Recipe Provenance
This recipe comes from a collection of recipes found in a manuscript journal located in the H. Furlong Baldwin Library at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. The manuscript is attributed to Ann Maria Morris and the date of 1824 is written on the inside cover. The recipe below is one of many from the manuscript that will be included in a book I am writing. The book will contain biographical information about Mrs. Morris, an annotated transcript of the entire manuscript as it was written, and a section of modern recipe adaptations (including this one!).

About Plums
Though until the early 20th century, most plums cultivated in North America by settlers were European species, there are native American varieties that were harvested by Native Americans. Popular native American plum species are:
  • Beach Plum (Prunus maritima), native to the coastal northeast.
  • Sierra Plum (P. subcordata), native to northern California and Oregon
  • P. Americana, native to the central states
These plums are generally small, tart, and have astringent skins. Therefore, they are not good for eating raw but are much more suited for making into preserves, sauces, and wines.

Up until the late 19th century, these popular European species of plums were cultivated in America:
  • Prunes
  • Greengages
  • Egg Plums
  • P. institia (this species includes damsons and bullaces)
Though these species were popular, they were never well-suited to American soil and conditions. Therefore, starting in 1885, Luther Burbank, a California-based planter, introduced many varieties of Asian plums from Japan into America and cross-bred them with Eurasian and native American varieties. He yielded hundreds of new varieties of juicy, flavorful, and plump plums. Nowadays, most commercially produced plums have much less flavor than their antecedents but are nice and firm, have a deep purple color, and look great on the shelves of supermarkets. 

About Damsons
Mrs. Morris's recipe calls specifically for damsons (Prunus institia) which are small oval plums. The species is native to Eastern Europe and West Asia. This earliest varieties were sour and therefore only good for making jam. 

Later cultivated varieties were suited for other uses. In Morris's time, it is possible that she would have had access to Farleigh and/or Bradley's King varieties. However, even these later varieties were known for their astringency and were still  best cooked with lots of sugar.  

Morris recommends serving her pickled damsons with duck, and I found another 19th century recipe for a Damson Sauce for Meats in Miss Corson's Practical American Cookery (New York, 1886), which is almost exactly like Morris's recipe. Likewise, this recipe states that it is meant to be served with game, birds, and venison. The combination of sweet and sour, with the addition of the sweet spices, really does make this a perfect condiment for these types of meats. 

In addition, I found many recipes in 19th century American cookbooks for damsons to be made into jam/preserves, pies, puddings, and even water ice.

Damson Plums
source: wikimediacommons

A Substitute for Damsons: The Italian Prune Plum
Unfortunately, I do not have access to any variety of damson plums, so I am using an alternative variety, the Italian Prune Plum, available in late summer and early fall. Prune plums are generally designed to be dried; however, these plums are also really good for making jam or for preserving in vinegar. They are also really very cute little egg-shaped gems. While these prune plums do not taste exactly like damsons, they do look like them and are versatile enough to be used in the same ways as damsons. It's not a perfect substitute but it works.

Italian Prune Plums
source: wikimediacommons

Pickled Plums: Modern Recipe Adaptation
Yield: 4 Quarts 

  • 5 Pounds Plums (damson or prune varieties)
  • 1 Quart (4 cups) Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 5 1/2 Cups Sugar
  • 3/4 cup Whole Cloves (or to taste as this is a lot of cloves!)
  • 1/3 Cup Ground Cinnamon
  • 2 Tablespoons Ground Mace
  1. You will need to can these plums using the hot water bath method. Start by sterilizing in boiling water canning jars of the size of  your choice equaling 4 quarts.
  2. While the canning jars are sterilizing, wash the plums, remove the pits, and cut them up into large chunks. Set aside.
  3. In a large pot, place the vinegar, sugar, and spices. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to the lowest setting possible and simmer for 5 minutes. Note: this mixture will bubble up a lot so make sure to use a very large pot.
  4. Place the chunks of plums into the hot, sterilized jars. Pour the pickling liquid (including the whole cloves) into the jars, leaving about 1/2 inch of head space.
  5. Process the jars in the hot water canner for the number of minutes appropriate to your jar size and altitude. 
  6. Mrs. Morris recommends pouring off the pickling liquid "6 times" before eating. Presumably, she meant to rinse the plums six times. I would recommend pouring off the pickle and then giving the pickled plums a good wash  before serving, if you want to follow her directions. You can always serve the plums with the liquid, if you prefer. 

  • Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford University Press, 2014)
  • Smith, Andrew F. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, Second Edition (Oxford University Press, 2013)

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