Nigel Slater’s plum pie. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin
I always knew that if ever I found a space in which to grow a few knobbly vegetables of my own, some of it would be set aside for fruit: fraises des bois with flowers like tiny, brilliant stars; amber and bronze apples with russet skins; dusky blueberries in old terracotta pots; maybe a blackcurrant bush or two for jam. What I had not expected was to find myself with a virtually blank canvas, an opportunity to plant not only fruit bushes but some space for trees too, a row of raspberry canes and even a vine.
Ten years on, permanently teetering on the edge of chaos, this garden creaks under the weight of my over-enthusiastic planting. There is barely an inch of ground to spare. From white currants and golden raspberries to purple figs and red gooseberries, my urban space is bursting at the seams. Give me a couple of feet more and I’ll show you space for a crab apple with blossom the colour of a loganberry fool.
There is a moment, some time around the middle of September, when this garden that I’ve made in an 1820s London terrace, truly becomes the garden of my dreams. The leaves are turning from green to gold, amber and rust, the last of the fruits hang crimson and smoky blue on the trees, the pumpkin-coloured dahlias and Michaelmas daisies have collapsed like drunks across the gravel path. The garden darkens to the colour of ginger cake, here and there a shot of saffron, brilliant ochre or deepest crimson. The colours, I would guess, of the Vatican at prayer.
The last berries, apples and plums, wet and almost rotting from the late sun and autumn rain, lend a mellow, alcoholic scent to the space, like the dregs of an abandoned glass of wine. The garden is falling asleep with an air of damp tobacco and wood smoke, but it is still abundant too, with late blackberries, damsons and a grapevine at breaking point. Each year I race to get to those blackberries before the feast of Michaelmas, when the devil is said to piss on them.
Although I produce far less of my own fruit than I do vegetables, curiously they give me even more joy. Walking round the garden late on an autumn morning, pushing past the spiders’ webs that festoon the pathways and plucking those last, wine-coloured berries from their blackened canes is as good as life gets. A moment of intense wellbeing, and even more so when time has been stolen from a busy schedule.
This space at the back of my house could so easily have been a lawn. Instead, I have ended up with a back garden laden with sensual pleasures. A bough of yellow plums the size of a blackbird’s egg; an apple tree whose fruit is snow white flushed with rose pink; loganberries as dark and sultry as a glass of Pinot Noir; and grapes that hang outside the kitchen wall like bunches of jet beads. There are sherbet-sharp gooseberries and piercingly tart sticks of rhubarb; fat black figs and raspberries the colour of a glass of Sauternes. Their pleasures are brief, and yes, there is always a struggle to get there before the birds and the squirrels, but it is hard to find a mulberry more exquisite than the one you have grown for yourself, a strawberry more sweet or a fig more seductive.
A single-crust pie for particularly juicy plums
Asked to define the “bliss point” in a culinary sense, I would venture to suggest the underside of a pastry crust where it meets the fruit. Still crisp and sugary on top, it is moist, almost sodden underneath with sweet-sharp, scarlet juice. But some fruits can produce so much juice that the bottom crust collapses. Plums are particular culprits. The answer, a single crust on top of the pie. Fine in dispensing with a soggy bottom, but as a pastry lover I feel robbed.
My version uses a top crust of shortcake thickness. Intensely crumbly, this solves the riddle of how to get enough crust when using a particularly juice-producing fruit. The pastry crust here is thick but very tender, and will crumble as you serve it. Occasionally cream is called for with a pie, and this is just one of those occasions.
Enough for 4.
For the pastry:
golden caster sugar, 100g
an egg, lightly beaten
plain flour, 175g
baking powder, ½ tsp
a little milk for brushing
For the filling:
ripe plums or greengages, 800g-1kg
golden caster sugar, 2-3 tbsp
ground cinnamon, a knifepoint
Cream the butter and caster sugar in a food mixer till light and fluffy.
Mix in the lightly beaten egg, then gently add the flour and baking powder. Remove dough from the mixing bowl and roll into a ball on a heavily floured work surface. Knead the dough for a minute or two until smooth and soft. Wrap in greaseproof or waxed paper and refrigerate for about 20 minutes.
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Cut the ripe plums or greengages in half and remove their stones.
Cut the fruit into large pieces, toss with the caster sugar and cinnamon and put into a lightly buttered 20–22cm baking dish.
Roll out the pastry on a floured board, then lift carefully on to the pie. There will be a little left over. The crust is very short and it really doesn’t matter if it tears as you lower it over the fruit. Some of the juice will probably erupt through it as it cooks anyway. At least I hope so.
Brush the pastry lightly with milk and bake for 40 minutes. The pastry should be pale-biscuit coloured. Dust with caster sugar and serve warm with cream.
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