A huge variety of plums come into season in Italy during July. The commercially grown ones are scarcely any better than those available in Britain, indeed are often the same plums from the same cooperatives of growers. The less perfect looking but marvellously flavoursome home-grown plums available from the ‘contadine’ (literally small-holding peasant women) in Orvieto market are another matter altogether.
Cooking plums is difficult, as they often turn incredibly sour or disintegrate, frequently both. This method of baking them with an almost obscene amount of sugar avoids both problems. The plums are sweetened and the juices, comprising water from the fruit and sugar, are soured. This osmotic process achieves an exact balance of sugar, and partially preserves the fruit, so it is best to do quite a quantity. You will need a non-reactive baking dish (pyrex, enamelled metal or pottery), as the extreme acidity of the plums will attack most metals, causing discoloration and a suspect taste.
Slice each plum in half along the seam, being careful to cut to the stone. Wrench gently apart and remove the stone. Put the fruit in a large bowl. When they are all prepared add the sugar and mix thoroughly.
Arrange the plum halves in your selected baking dish, stacking them on their sides, propping each other up. Add any sugar remaining in the bowl. Cut some greaseproof paper to fit inside the baking dish and cover the plums. Your baking dish must be big enough to hold the fruit in one layer. Bake in the oven for 45 minutes. Do not touch, shake or stir. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool. Be careful; the sugary juices are above boiling point and will redefine pain if slopped on to your hand. It is very important that you do not try to do anything to the plums until they are cold or they will break up, indeed they are better left in their baking dish and served from this.
Serve with an almond tart or Pine-nut Cake and whipped cream. If you want, a blob of mascarpone would provide an even richer alternative to cream.
© 1996 Alastair Little. All rights reserved.