31 August 2001

JUST PLUM FULL OF FLAVOURS

From Prolifics and Purple Pershores to

Damsines and Warwickshire Droopers,

the Bearman family pick a season of

succulent plums. Jacqueline Sarsby

gives a taste of the crop

IT IS more than 80 years since Mrs Ena Bearman first watched the plums ripening at Lea Court Farm down by the River Severn. She and her husband grew plums in the orchards where her father, John Daniel Pockett, grandfather, Daniel John Pockett, and great-grandfather, Daniel Pockett, grew them before.

Fruit abounds on the lush, flat land, south of the city of Gloucester, and the villages are famous for their plums. Now, Enas son, John Bearman, looks after their 6ha (15 acres) of plum, pear and apple trees, and raises cattle on the rest of their permanent pasture.

John takes most of the fruit to the wholesale market in Bristol, but always picks enough plums for Ena to sell at the farm gate, or rather, in the tractor shed in the little courtyard behind the farmhouse.

The different varieties of plum come in sequence, which provides a long season for picking, from late July until well into September. It also allows for the fickleness of the weather, as in any year, some kinds of plum may fail – caught by the frost, or by wet, blustery weather when the bees should be working – while other plums may prosper.

&#42 Lovely names

Ena lists their lovely names, some of them so local that few customers would know them. The season starts with Rivers Early Prolifics, an old, dual purpose plum, good to eat and "a real, plummy colour," says Ena. At the beginning of August, the Smiths Pruens ripen. This is a small, round, very dark purple plum, almost black, which is said to grow only around the neighbouring villages of Framilode, Epney and Longney.

"If you get some suckers from this tree," Ena says, "theyll come true to the variety."

At roughly the same time, John picks Czars and Rowles. The Rowle is another local plum, similar to the Prolific, very round, but drier in texture and excellent for freezing. In August, the orchards are laden with the lovely, purple, Belle-de-Louvaines, the Blaisdons (which are called Blaisdon Reds across the River), Purple Pershores, Greengages, Victorias, and Ponds Seedlings.

Jam and wine-makers come for the damsons and damsines (which are like damsons but larger). Damsons have brittle branches, growing on the old wood and not the new like other plums, but they make excellent jam.

&#42 Victorias

The most popular plums are the Victorias. If the less well-known Blaisdons ripen at the same time, they cannot sell them, although at one time, the whole crop was bought, green on the tree, by a canning factory, now closed.

"Home freezers have changed all that," John says.

As the Victorias go over, or succumb to the wasps, the Marjories Seedlings come into their own, and Kentish Bush, Presidents and Warwick-shire Droopers are the last to fruit.

Some of the trees in the old orchard are 70 years old, and still productive. "If theres an old one thats died out," Ena says, "we clear it away and try and fill in the space."

&#42 Maiden trees

On the bank of the River Severn, John has planted a new plum orchard full of luscious fruit. He buys maiden trees, a year after grafting, cutting off the lower branches as they grow, so that the trees will be tall enough for cattle to graze under when the trees are not in fruit. It takes six to eight years for a tree to be in its prime.

In the summer holidays, the whole family, John, his wife, Lesley, and their children, Hannah and James, are out picking in the orchard – the children eating more than picking – with the River Severn gliding past as still and clear as a mirror. But fruit-growing is not the idyll it seems if plums do not make good market prices, and the value of fresh local produce goes unrecognised. John would like to be put in touch with more of the jam-makers, maybe the pie and crumble people, who need a supply of fresh, local plums.

Every morning, he goes out with his ladder and picking bucket, and picks several trays of different varieties for his mother to sell, as all day long, customers come to the door. They know there is nothing so nice to eat as a plum, juicy and sweet, just picked from the tree.

Inquiries: Tel 01452-740304.