I love wild food, there is nothing more sustainable than food that you pick yourself.
Whenever there is an abundance of fruit we naturally think about preserving. Chutneys, jams and pickles all spring to mind. So with the local hedgerows groaning under the weight of a bumper wild plum crop, I came up with this chutney recipe combining the best of wild English ingredients with some Indian spice to see me through the long winter months ahead.
About this wild-plum chutney:
There’s more than one way to make a plum chutney. If you’re looking for a tart, mildly spicy and less sweet chutney, then this recipe is for you. I find the skin of bullaces (the wild plums found in my local countryside) a little tart and bitter so in this recipe I have discarded the skins as well as the seeds. This chutney has a lovely aroma of roasted whole spices and their healthy goodness. Add a splodge to your cheese ploughman’s or serve as an accompaniment for cheese and crackers. You won’t be disappointed.
This plum chutney:
- Is made from foraged wild-plums; so it’s local, seasonal and sustainable.
- Tastes tangy and spicy with a hint of sweetness.
- Has the goodness of Indian whole spices that help build immunity and warm the body during cooler months.
- Contains no vinegar or preservatives.
- Keeps well in the fridge for at least 4-6 weeks.
- Has a smooth, viscous texture ideal for spreading on bread etc.
- Takes less than 30 minutes to make.
Should you wish to preserve it for longer, you may decide to freeze it. Manage portions by freezing this chutney in ice trays for an hour. Then transfer the now solid chutney cubes from the ice-trays into a reusable ziplock bag and pop them back into the freezer until needed. Thaw just what you need for 10-20 minutes at room temperature before serving.
The wild plum varieties I find in my local English countryside
The first kind I came across were sloes, often referred to as berries, they are a tiny variety of plum just 10mm in diameter, famously used to flavour gin but far too astringent to eat raw. Very dark in colour and found on the aptly named blackthorn bush a prickly small-leafed shrub.
You may also be lucky enough to find damsons, similar in colour to the sloe (dark purple) but larger, up to 30mm. Damsons are more palatable than sloes. Some are sweet enough to eat straight from the tree but more often the tartness in the fruit’s flesh and skin makes them more suitable for jam and wine making, where that acidity is needed.
Easily confused with both damsons and sloes are bullaces. They are smaller than damsons but larger than sloes, up to 20mm in diameter. They grow on small thorny trees and when ripe are lovely to eat raw with sweet flesh, tart skin and a delicate flavour. I found them perfect for this plum chutney.
Though these wild plum varieties are easily confused, happily, all three of these fruits are edible. However, please don’t eat the foliage; the leaves are poisonous.
Where to look for wild plums
Wild plums (sloes, damsons, bullaces and others) can be found in parks and among the hedgerows of rural England. The shrubs and small trees that they grow on are not the most eye-catching unless they are blossoming or fruiting so you may be surprised to find them in places that you thought you knew but had never passed at the right time of year.
The best time to spot them is in spring when they blossom and become covered in small white flowers.
When is the best time to pick wild plums?
Bullaces and damsons ripen from September to October, though much will depend on your local weather. We picked ours in mid-October during a very mild autumn. Sloes ripen from September and are traditionally picked after the first frosts, sometimes well into November.
I used hand-picked bullaces to make this chutney. The fruit gives a little when ripe with a gentle squeeze. That’s when it’s ready to pick. But if you’re in doubt, you can always taste the fruit to see if it’s sweet enough.
You should wash and rinse your foraged bullaces in a bowlful of water to get rid of any debris and dirt.
- First wash and rinse the foraged wild plums in a bowl of water. Pat them dry with a paper towel or tea-towel. Spread them out on a paper towel and leave to dry for 30 minutes to ensure they’re moisture-free. Macerate them with salt and caster sugar along with a few chopped dates and crushed ginger for 30 minutes. The amount of sugar needed depends on the tartness of your plums. For the bullaces I had, 1½ tbsp sugar was enough to lend a bit of sweetness. Also macerating helps, particularly if the plums are firm and not fully ripe. They soften up and develop cracks or scores which helps in making the most of their juicy flesh in chutney. Macerating, however, is not needed if the plums are over-ripe and oozing their fleshy juiciness. It just helps to make the plums and dates soft.
- Next toast the whole spices – cumin, coriander, fennel, fenugreek, black peppercorns, cloves and nigella seeds. The purpose of toasting is to get rid of any residual moisture. So don’t overdo it; it shouldn’t take more than a minute. Cool and grind all toasted spices except nigella seeds. Leave aside.
- Chuck the macerated wild-plums into a dry and deep pan over a medium flame, stirring and mashing occasionally to separate the flesh from the seeds. Cover and cook for a minute but keep stirring to ensure the fleshy juices don’t stick to the pan and burn.
- Once all the flesh has separated from the seeds and the mixture becomes slightly runny, switch off the flame. Immediately pass it through a colander or a coarse meshed sieve and collect the smooth plum puree in a jar below by forcing it through with the back of a spoon or ladle. You should end up with a jar of soft plum puree with just the skin and seeds remaining in the colander. If you wish to add a bit of texture to your chutney, now is the time to pick that skin from the colander and add some to the jar.
- Transfer the plum puree back to the same cooking pan and heat over a low to medium flame, add the toasted nigella seeds, red chilli powder (to taste), a pinch of turmeric powder, ground cinnamon and the ground toasted whole spice. Adjust the seasoning if needed and stir continuously as it simmers for a minute to prevent the puree from sticking to the pan. Take it off the heat. Allow to cool.
- Spoon into a sterilised air-tight jar and keep in the fridge. The chutney will keep well for 4-6 weeks.
Wild-plum chutneyCourse: Breakfast, Starter, Main, DessertCuisine: Indian, Pan EuropeanDifficulty: Easy
A spreadable savoury plum chutney with a hint of ginger and whole Indian spices. Tastes tangy, spicy and subtly sweet. A lovely addition to any cheese sandwich.
325g (2 cups) wild plums (bullaces in this case)
2 dates (finely chopped)
¼ inch crushed ginger
1½ tbsp unrefined sugar
2 tsp salt or to taste
Juice of half a lime (optional)
- Whole spices
½ tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp coriander seeds
½ tsp nigella seeds
¼ tsp fenugreek seeds
¼ tsp fennel seeds
¼ tsp black peppercorns
- Powdered spices
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp red chilli powder (optional)
½ tsp crushed dried red chilli
A pinch of turmeric powder
- First wash and rinse the plums in a bowl of water. Pat them dry and leave on a clean and dry tea towel or kitchen paper to dry thoroughly.
- Macerate the plums along with the dates and the ginger in salt and sugar for 30 minutes. This step can be skipped if the plums are fully ripe
- Next, toast the following whole spices – cumin, coriander, fennel, fenugreek, black peppercorns and cloves over a low to medium flame for a minute. Cool then grind into a powder. Set aside.
- Chuck the plums, dates and crushed ginger into a dry, deep pan over a low to medium flame, stirring and mashing occasionally to separate the flesh from the seeds. Cover and cook for a minute, stirring frequently.
- Once all the plum flesh is separated and the mixture becomes slightly runny, switch off the flame. Immediately pass it through a colander or a coarse meshed sieve and collect the smooth plum puree in a jar below by scraping the mixture in the colander with the back of a spoon.
- Transfer the smooth plum puree back to the same cooking pan used earlier and add the nigella seeds, chilli, turmeric and cinnamon powder along with a teaspoon of the ground toasted whole spice mix prepared in step 3. Also, add the crushed dried red chilli. Adjust the seasoning if needed. Bring it to a gentle simmer a couple of times whilst stirring regularly to stop the puree from burning. Take it off the heat and cool.
- Spoon into a sterilised, air-tight jar and refrigerate. The chutney will keep well for 4-6 weeks.
- If you don’t have wild plums growing near you or it’s the wrong time of year you can, of course, try this recipe with commercially grown plums. Let me know how it works out.
- Use ripe plums if available. If your plums are a little under ripe then consider macerating in salt and sugar. Follow step 2 in the recipe.
- The shelf life of this preserve can be increased by not letting any moisture in whilst cooking. So pat the plums dry thoroughly.
- Adding all the whole spices is not mandatory. Adjust based on their availability and your personal preference. The chutney still tastes delicious if you skip a few spices.
- Adjust the sourness of this chutney to your preference. If the plums are too sweet, consider adding the lime juice at the end. If they’re too tart, skip the lime juice.
- You can always add a few plum peels from the sieve or colander to the puree if you fancy a bit of texture in your chutney.
- Always store in a sterilised and airtight jar. Sterilise by first washing and rinsing the jar with hot water. Wipe dry with kitchen paper before transferring to a preheated oven at 100 C (212 F) for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave the jar to cool at room temperature.
- Enjoy with a cheese ploughman’s or in a cheese sandwich. Simply slather over wraps, burgers, toast, scones or jazz up some cream cheese and crackers. This chutney also makes a perfect dip for snacking crisps, bread sticks, nachos or even papads. I love it as an accompaniment to simple dal and rice.