I would blame nobody for being confused by plums on sale at the moment. There are more than 10 different varieties on sale, mostly from South Africa, at prices that vary from 70p to £3.49 a pack. In terms of season, we are probably past the height of the offer from South Africa, but there is still plenty of choice and plenty to come before the European season begins. So where do you start?
The safest approach is to buy the ‘ready to eat’ option from the supermarket: they are often not quite ready, but this is certainly the way to speed up the ripening process. The trouble is that they can be ridiculously expensive. I have just bought a 6-pack of FlavorKing, No. 1 Perfectly Ripe from Waitrose for an pricey 58p each (the larger 4-pack work out at 68p each). Mind you, the upside is that their supplier will have selected the cream of the crop, and this variety is one of the best for flavour, often known as the bubble-gum plum. Most supermarkets are selling FlavorKing from South Africa in this ripened form, but you also find them in punnets to ripen at home, often smaller in size, but very much more affordable. Keep these in your fruit bowl for some days and they should be equally satisfying. Watch-out, though, for the really small ones (example: a 77p punnet from Lidl) as they are more variable in sweetness.
Aside from FlavorKing, there is a plethora of varieties on sale, some from Chile as well as South Africa (look at the label to find the variety name).
This is where the confusion starts, as there is not much hope for even the experienced consumer to really pick out the best. There are clues though, the first being the supermarket brand being used. This may seem obvious, but Tesco Finest, Sainsbury Taste-The-Difference, Morrisons The Best, Asda Extra Special, Waitrose No. 1, are generally a safe bet for good eating quality and are often used for plums, not always at much of a price difference. Conversely, a cheap bulk-buy, or plums labelled with Tesco Suntrial or Waitrose Essentials are less likely to consistently sweet or full of flavour.
These two supermarkets do a particularly good job in clearly differentiating the quality of the fruit with their branding, so you can choose the quality that suits your needs. Other supermarkets are less clear, so it is more hit and miss: when plums are really cheap, it is generally for a reason.
A further approach is to know a little about the varieties on offer. There are the standard industry varieties available at the moment such as Laetitia, Fortune and Souvenir, and the yellow plum, Sunkiss, which will be sold in punnets to ripen at home. These are generally good plums, but need to be soft to get the best eating quality. Then, there are a whole range of newer varieties: the plumogranates and pluots are worth trying, but with many, it’s a matter of being aware of the variety (on the label), trying them, and remembering for next time.
My rule of thumb with plums is to always let them soften until they are almost wrinkling around the stem, probably past the point that we would instinctively leave them. Assuming they were harvested at the right maturity, softness is our main clue to good eating quality and this is the best way to ensure flavour and sweetness. I normally have a mini production line on the go, with plums in various stages of ripeness, waiting for the correct softness and succulence!
Best for flavour: Flavorking;
Safe bet: supermarket premium branded plums, and ready to eat plums;
Should be tasty: punnet plums, kept at home in room temperature to soften;
Avoid (unless for cooking): Very cheap plums; ‘value’ branded plums.
5th March 2017