"the mahogany, aniseed-scented stuff you smear over soft pancakes just before you wrap your shredded duck and matchsticks of ice-cold cucumber in a Chinese restaurant." Nigel Slater
Having made my first batch of plum jam, and an attempt at a plum leather from my yellow plums, (it has yet to be dried overnight) I decided to pick the next lot - from another tree - and my favourite. The plums are larger and a tiny bit sweeter, and when I started to pick them it rapidly became apparent that I could only pick half of them today as this filled my colander, and besides there were some that were not quite as ripe. So I will pick the rest tomorrow. Then there is a whole other tree as well, not to mention the street trees I talked about yesterday.
Am I really going to make just jam? Well probably mostly, but I thought I would experiment a bit. Hence the attempt at the leather. If you are making jam it's very easy to make some on the side as it were. As I said yesterday, nobody seems to use chutneys, but then I remembered Chinese plum sauce, and decided to look into that. Not that I'm planning to make Peking Duck, but as Stephanie Alexander, a true Australian cook, points out:
"it is an outstanding all-purpose barbecue sauce and a splash in the roasting tin after cooking a leg of lamb, before a quick bubble-up with a glass of wine, creates an instant sauce." Stephanie Alexander
And it can also be used as a glaze, in marinades, as a dip and so on - so very versatile. Besides I made the five spice powder just the other day, so it will be very pleasing to find an immediate use for it, even though the recipes I found only had a small amount in the sauce. It will depend of course, on how many plums I do actually end up with, but really I still have dozens of jars of jam in the pantry, and even my children can only eat so much. Indeed my older son doesn't eat jam at all.
So I thought I would check it out to see if it was complicated, and found that, no it is not, but I also found a few surprises along the way.
A tiny bit of history first. It is most famous with that Peking Duck which is one of those performance dishes that gets served at your table in a Chinese restaurant. You get a bit of the crispy skin from the duck - the duck being carved at your table, plus some shreds of meat, which are placed on top of the pancake smeared with the aforesaid plum sauce. On top of that go spring onions and cucumber, roll up and eat. Or maybe you dip it in the sauce. Anyway it is very ancient and dates back to at least the Ming Dynasty. Plums are believed to be native to China where they are considered to be lucky. But that's all I really found about origins.
What did surprise me was that I found it very hard to find recipes from real Chinese or at least Asian cooks, either in my recipe books or online. Now to be honest I don't have many Chinese cooking books. I just have one small Kylie Kwong book - nothing in there, Luke Nguyen in France - nothing there either, though to be honest he is Vietnamese not Chinese, and there was a recipe for duck with a sweet and sour blackcurrant sauce - which may well have been an East meets West version of Peking Duck. But no I looked it up and it's actually a French chef's dish. My only other Chinese 'authority', admittedly not Chinese herself is Charmaine Solomon and I have her massive tome on Asian food, her Encyclopedia of Asian Food and her Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking. None of these has anything. The Encyclopaedia does not even mention plums.
The Brits on the other hand have a few different versions, and the Australians too. Most surprisingly of all, but then again, maybe not Jane Grigson had a recipe in her Fruit Book. Mind you it doesn't sound terribly Chinese to me in spite of her calling it Chinese Plum Sauce. There are no spices at all - just plums, apples and apricots, sugar, white wine vinegar and chilli. Now the mix of fruit may seem strange but apparently the Chinese do frequently add other fruit - particularly apricots and peaches, but sometimes pineapple for example. So maybe this is the only authentic recipe I found! Maybe there are no spices in true Chinese Plum Sauce. In fact I did see one or two that didn't have much in the way of flavourings other than plums and vinegar and sugar.
Nigel Slater has one which he describes in his usual inimitable style saying that:
"It simmers for long enough to scent your home, briefly, with that of a Chinese grocer’s shop – that ancient-aniseed-meets-pickle-meets mustiness that tantalises the shopper."
His version includes star anise, ginger and Sichuan peppercorns so yes spicy, and yet he muses that:
"It has long puzzled me that however much I enjoyed the dark, spicy-sour sauce, it was strange that it lacked the fruity note you expect." Nigel Slater
He and almost everybody else also had you removing the stones from the plums before you start, which really does not appeal. My plums are a little under-ripe and also are small. So a very tedious job. So I was pleased to see that in her recipe for Chinese style roast duck, which includes plum sauce, Thomasina Miers says:
"push the sauce through a sieve to get rid of the stones (much easier than destoning the plums first)" Thomasina Miers
Mind you pushing it all through a sieve is not appealing either. So maybe I'll just fish out the stones when the plums are mushy, like I do for the jam.
Then I turned to the Aussies, and found two - well several - but two of note.
The first was from Stephanie Alexander but it was really a bit complicated and that's not a very inspiring photograph is it, so in the end I have decided on Chinese five spice plum sauce from Taste of all places, which possibly means that it's a Coles Magazine recipe. Anyway it seemed to me to be, simultaneously, the simplest, and the most interesting plus iIt had the best photograph. So that's what I'm going to make.
And I can't remember now which of the cooks I have mentioned said that the thickness of the sauce was entirely up to you. Make it as thick or as thin as you like. I think it was Stephanie. Which is very refreshing when you have been making jam when you have to get it just right.
But maybe the really simple thing to do is to make some liqueur. That's just putting the plums - pierced or slashed perhaps, with some sugar in a bottle of something - gin, brandy, vodka, leaving it for a month or so and then straining it off. Yes might try that.