by Kaveri Ponnapa
“The plum is one of the hardiest and most easily grown of the stone fruits, and thrives well in Coonoor and Kotagiri,” wrote Francis, I.C.S, in 1908.
The orchard he described belonged to a Mr. Gray, full of “Black Aloocha and Victoria plums,” where the branches were so heavy with fruit that they had to be supported. An orchard in the hills, in tea plantation country, overflowing with fruit, is a beautiful thing. It is also the source of generous quantities of home made jams, jellies and preserves that furnished the dining table through the year.
Early planters imported fruit stock, and budded and grafted until they had excellent fruit for “canning, cooking and dessert”. Dark red Victoria’s, named after the dour woman who was Empress of India were extremely popular and considered the best for cooking.
Contrary to Flora Annie Steele and Grace Gardiner’s grouse that Indian fruit was watery and tasteless, local plums are juicy, rich and sweet, and plantation cooks turned out the most excellent jams and preserves with fruit grown in orchards and gardens. Plums, tomatillos, bilberries and mulberries all went into preserving jars to be served up at luxuriously unhurried breakfasts laid out on finely embroidered tablecloths, with fine bone china, silver toast racks, locally baked bread and fresh butter provided by a nearby cow.
Even if you don’t have your own fruit trees, you can choose the best of the summer plums. The market is still full of deep red fruit, purple-red beauties from Kashmir and Himachal, or smaller, sweeter ones from the Nilgiris, their skins warm and firm, covered with a faint silver haze, heavily ripe and fragrant. The flesh is rich and sweet, and clings hard to the stone, unwilling to be separated. It’s okay to simply squeeze the skin, flesh and juices free of the stone, and collect the golden pulp, streaked with deep gashes of red, into a bowl.
Ripe fruit, macerated with sugar overnight, run through a food mill, and then steadily boiled down yields a beautiful, sweet scented preserve with just enough teasing sharpness from the cooked skin. Best of all is the shade that spreads as you dig your spoon into the jar and drop a scoop onto your plate –the colour of crushed rubies. A deep, rich jam that you have made yourself has to be one of the best ways to begin a day.
Image Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa