Visions of Sugar Ameixas: When Is a Plum Not a Plum?

Ameixas d'Elvas plumsWhen is a plum not a plum? When it is a sugarplum or a plum pudding! Judging by the names of these traditional British Christmas treats, one would think that both include some quantity of plum. Not true! For centuries, the term ‘sugarplum’ has referred to any type of dried fruit, made into a small, vaguely plum-shaped sweet. During Victorian times, these sugary candies sometimes contained raisins or currants which were called plums.

Similarly, traditional plum puddings, including the famous Mrs. Beeton’s Christmas Plum Pudding, Excellent Plum Pudding, and Unrivalled Plum Pudding (Beeton’s Book of Household Management, London, 1861) contain not a trace of plum. Instead, these noble desserts are packed with plump raisins (in the case of the Unrivalled Plum Pudding, specifically muscatel and sultana raisins). Mrs. Beeton does, however, make mention in her book of boxed candied plums, stating that they are best served in a pretty glass dish in the wintertime when fresh fruit is not available.

Packages of Elvas Plums from Estemoz Portugal
Which brings us to our recently-arrived, candied plums from Elvas Portugal. Elvas plums, also known as Greengage plums, have been grown and candied for preservation for centuries in the Upper Alentejo region of Portugal. Greenish in color, these plums are prized in many countries for their rich, sweet flavor. Indeed, they have been popular in England since their introduction by Port merchants in the 1800s. In the Alentejo, they are a DOP or origin-protected fruit, officially titled Ameixas d’Elvas – a ‘sugarplum’ in the truest sense of the name.

On our trip to southern Portugal in February, Tim and I visited Confibor, a small Ameixas d’Elvas producer in Estremoz. The harvest had long since passed (the plums are harvested between June and August) and all of the beautiful, green plums were soaking in vats of sugar cane syrup. As with all candied fruits, sugar was initially used as a natural preservative, allowing ripe summer fruits to be enjoyed year round in the days before trains and trucks. The process of blanching and candying the fruit takes several weeks, after which they are stored in their sweet syrup until they are needed. Before they’re shipped to us by boat, they are simply drained, dried and packed in wooden boxes.

Finished Elvas plums in a box
While these plums could be eaten on their own for dessert, we began importing them primarily for their presence on a cheese board. They act in the same way as a fruity jam, a sweet honey, or a tangy membrillo when paired with cheese. I prefer my plums paired with firm, salty cheeses, like Calcagno and Manchego, or with rich, farmy cheeses like Laguiole and Avonlea Cheddar. Try a few slivers of candied plum atop a fluffy pile of Hillman Farm’s fresh goat cheese or MitiCrema fresh sheep’s milk cheese. Consider also a single plum alongside a slice of Stilton and a glass of Ruby Port.

At our South End store, we’re presenting our plums in a glass jar on the cheese counter, so you can buy them by the piece. In Cambridge, they are available in the chocolate case in the bakery. Just one or two will be the perfect amount to perk up a cheese platter for a small group. If you’re tempted to pop one of these plums in your mouth to experience their sweetly rich flavors – just be warned… they contain pits!

Julie Cappellano is the General Manager and wine buyer at Formaggio Kitchen South End, Boston.