I love greengages - I could eat buckets of them! Straight from the tree, I like to judge which one is going to be the best - just right, ripe but not too ripe, juicy but with a slight crunch, the flesh breaks open and the stone can be taken out easily leaving the glistening juicy honey-sweet golden-green flesh. I've had years of practise! I was brought up in the Cambridgeshire village of Willingham, the fruit and flower growing industries were already in decline (now almost gone completely) but there were still orchards full of old varieties and apples, pears, plums, damsons and greengages. These were so special - Cambridge Gages - the best flavoured of all English gages, a descendant of a fruit tree brought to England from France by Sir William Gage of Hengrave Hall near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. The labels had been lost so the fruit was called Gage's Green Plum, from these trees various seedlings were cultivated.
We have five Cambridge Gage trees in our garden, two free standing trees and three trained against the red-brick wall, they are all 'suckers' (basal shoots) of trees in my parents' garden which in turn came from my grandparents' orchard - Cambridge Gages grow true from the rootstock. Having my own trees has brought back memories of my grandparents anxiously checking the weather forecasts - would there be a frost when the greengages were in flower? would there be sun to ripen and sweeten the fruit? would there be a heavy rainstorm just before harvest and make the greengage skins split and spoil? The income of the market gardeners, packers and fruit carriers depended on such vagaries of the English weather. This year was good for the blossom (the earliest plum to come into flower) April was warm and sunny, the fruit set - it was looking good! June was mild and damp, there was no 'June drop' the branches stayed laden with fruit - as the fruit ripened one branch snapped under the weight of the fruit - I shouldn't have been so greedy, the fruit should have been thinned!
A couple of warm and occasionally sunny weeks at the end of July and the beginning of August and the greengages were almost ripe, I gently tested the most likely to be ready first - a little too firm - maybe tomorrow. The first were eaten secretly straight from the tree, in the sunny garden - perfection. More ripened, it was looking good, a real greengage summer this year. Greengages for breakfast, as a snack when I walked through the garden, made into a delicious crumble after Sunday dinner. Then it rained - hard torrrential rain, thundering down. The greengage trees quenched on the unseasonal drenching - the fruit swelled, the flavour changed - diluted with the water the flesh became wet and too juicy. More than half the crop was still on the trees, yesterday between rain storms I went into the garden - the greengages had split - the golden flesh bursting from the green skin. How unfair - my beautiful fruits all spoilt - I could only imagine how it would feel if I was my grandmother looking at her orchard and the seasons crop destined for Covent Garden market ruined. I grabbed a stool and reached into the sodden branches salvaging as much as I could of the exploded fruits - they would be good enough for jam. Eight jars! Enough to keep me happy through the winter.
Notes From Epping Forest: July
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