When is a plum a greengage?

I’ve just ordered a book I’ve long lusted after: The Plums of England by Harold V Taylor, published in 1949.

I’ve bought my copy online, from the wonderful Hard to Find Books NZ, the largest secondhand and antiquarian book dealers in New Zealand and the largest online secondhand bookstore in Australasia.

As they say on their website, as well as offering an online service, they are also a real, bricks-and-mortar bookshop—two in fact, one in Auckland and one in Dunedin. A few years ago I spent a happy late August afternoon browsing in the Dunedin store on Dowling Street. I can’t remember exactly what I bought there, but I know I came away with several purchases. Books I’d been looking for—and books I didn’t know I ‘needed’ until I plucked them from the shelves.

By Alois Lunzer, Brown Brothers Continental Nurseries Catalogue, 1909

There’s a brilliant passage—an interior monologue—in A S Byatt’s 1985 novel Still Life about how to describe the colour and bloom of plums:

Do we have enough words, synonyms, near synonyms for purple? What is the greyish, or maybe white, or whitish, or silvery, or dusty mist or haze or smokiness over the purple shine? How do you describe the dark cleft from stalk pit to oval end, its inky shadow?

It’s the end of June, winter in Australia; fresh plums are out of season, and won’t be back in supermarkets and for sale at farmers’ markets until summer. Black plums, red plums, mirabelles, cherry plums, plums with yellow flesh, maybe even greengages—a group of cultivars popular in Britain and other parts of Europe.

What makes a plum a greengage? It’s not the colour. As well as the usual yellowish-green fruit, there are purple greengages and greengages the colour of amber. The greengage (Prunus domestica subsp. italica) was originally a sixteenth century French varietal named Reine Claude after the wife of King François I. A couple of centuries later an English baronet by the name of Gage, imported them into England. 

Louis Glowinski (The Complete Book of Fruit Growing in Australia) writes that gages ‘are the elite of the plum world’. ‘Ripeness is all,’ says Edgar in King Lear. And a ripe greenage is a sublime thing—sweet and fragrant with a slightly tart subtext. They’re also delicious cooked or candied. Jams, cakes, crumbles, or simply stewed and served with Greek yoghurt or labneh. And plums of all varieties play well with ground almonds and frangipane.

I like cooking with plums—every kind from small, midnight-dark damsons to big red-skinned Victorias—but I also like their common names and the mico-stories behind those names. Here are a few of my favourites from The Plums of England:

Rivers’ Early Prolific

Kirke’s Blue

Warwickshire Drooper

Laxton’s Goldfinch

Denniston’s Superb

Prosperity

Late Transparent

Dittisham Ploughman

Goliath

Coe’s Crimson Drop

Angelina Burdett

Purple Pershore