Somehow foreign names for ingredients always sound exotic. Wouldn’t you rather make aubergine Parmesan, than just plain old eggplant? Or creep away after leaving baskets of excess courgettes on your neighbor’s doorstep in the middle of the night instead of secretly gifting them with zucchini?
One mysterious ingredient I always wondered about in British cookbooks was the greengage. Despite sounding like a sort of lab equipment for measuring chlorophyll, it turns out to be a particular varietal of plum very popular in the UK and not at all well known on this side of the pond. After reading of their preternatural sweetness which is coveted in Britain for desserts and jams, I really wanted to try some. Alas, through the fruit was grown in America when we were but colonies of mother England, it is rarely found here now. Greengages can be difficult to grow and even harder to get to market as they do not ship well, so American farmers switched to less persnickety types of plum.
The greengage (Prunus domestica italica) is originally a French varietal where it is called Reine Claude after Queen Claude (d. 1524), wife of King Francis I of France. Around 1725 Sir William Gage, 7th Baronet of the name, introduced these succulent sweeties into England. An unsubstantiated story tells us that during shipping the labels came off the plum trees. Since they were green and owned by Gage, they became known as greengages.
You can imagine my excitement when I ran across greengages for sale at the Grand Army Plaza Farmers’ Market in Brooklyn last Saturday. When I got them home and started to do a little research into where they came from and how they got their name, I found that in the US other types of green plums are often labeled “greengage” even if they are not. I tasted them and honestly, they didn’t strike me as any sweeter than other plums I’ve had, so I’m wondering, are they real greengages? Or perhaps they were picked a little too soon? I read that they don’t really ripen well after picking. British readers, please have a look at the photo above and weigh in about their authenticity in the comments. For reference they are about the size of a golf ball and the flesh inside is golden.
Whether or not they are actual greengages I decided to make a dessert with them anyway. I chose a Greengage and Pistachio Crumble from a British book called Healthy Fruit Desserts by Christine McFadden which is full of not-too-sweet dishes containing unusual ingredient combinations. I loved the idea of putting green pistachios together with their plum cousins. The crumble was pleasantly tart and I really enjoyed the crunchy topping which the oats made quite substantial. This is one of those desserts that also makes a great breakfast, containing far less sugar than most of what you find in the cereal aisle.
Greengage and Pistachio Crumble
adapted from Christine McFadden
¾ lb. ripe greengages
2 oz. sugar (about 4 tablespoons)
2 oz. unsalted butter (about ½ tablespoon)
1 oz. shelled pistachios
2 oz. all purpose flour
2 oz. rolled oats
Demerara sugar for garnish
Preheat your oven to 375F.
Pour boiling water over the pistachios and let them stand for about 5 minutes. Drain the pistachios, squeeze them out of their papery skins and chop the nuts finely.
Cut the greengages in half and remove the pits. Place them in a saucepan with ¼ ounce of the butter and 4 teaspoons of the sugar. Cook them over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally and very gently, until the butter and sugar melt and the greengages start producing juice. Pour the cooked greengages into a 9 inch pie plate.
Stir the flour and rolled oats together. Cut the remaining butter into small pieces and use your fingers to rub it into the flour and oat mixture until the result looks like breadcrumbs or peas. Add the chopped pistachios and the remaining sugar and stir. Next, add water 1 teaspoon at a time until the dough comes together into a crumbly mixture.
Scatter the dough over the greengages in clumps and sprinkle with Demerara sugar.
Bake the crumble in the center of the oven for 25-35 minutes or until the top is golden brown.