I’ve recently discovered that the fruit tree opposite the gardeners’ bothy at Wimpole is not just an oddly prolific, especially late-season plum, but is actually a Bullace. I’d never heard of them before!
Both physically and in taste, bullaces lie somewhere between sloes and cherry plums. Certainly they are a lot sharper than most plums and greengages, at least, until they are perfectly ripe. That sharpness is something I definitely like about them in any case. They are, in fact, quite similar to (and easily mistaken for) damsons, especially black bullaces. Indeed, bullaces are regarded as another variant of the insititia subspecies of Prunus domestica, but unlike damsons, they come in both ‘white’ (green or yellow) and black skinned varieties. They are a little bit smaller in diameter and ripen about 6 weeks after most damsons are ready, in October/beginning of November. With that ripeness the fruits become considerably sweeter.
Happily, the tree at Wimpole caught my eye at exactly the right (ripe) time and so (with permission) I’ve had an opportunity to harvest and experiment with a few.
The tree that I am familiar with is probably a white bullace (also locally called ‘cricksies’ or ‘crickses’) and is loaded with fruit which has turned an encouraging blush colour on their sunward-facing side. Other green/white varieties include the Royal Bullace (ripe in early October) and the Essex Bullace (whose flesh become yellow as it ripens). I am informed that these are both larger (> 1 1/4 inch in diameter).
Although bullace trees are often considered native to the UK, they are suspected of having been introduced by the Romans. The fruit gradually fell out of favour as larger, sweeter plums became available. Nowadays, you might still find them growing in hedgerows near older farmhouses, in mature orchards or wild in woodland.
You can also buy your own*. Bullace trees grow to heights of ~ 8m, either with a single trunk or in bush form. They are self-fertile and hardy.
The fruit is supposed to make delicious jams, jellies, cheeses and also can be used to make fruit gin or fruit vodka. I think that it is lovely to find a fruit that ripens this late in the year and lends itself to warm, baked desserts: pies, crumbles and tarts.
So what did I make in the end?
So far, I’ve made Bullace Jelly, which turns out to be truly scrumptious. I had planned on making jam originally, but as the pips did not separate from the flesh on cooking I strained the whole lot to extract the juice and then used the 1 pint to 1 lb sugar rule for jelly.
I also had some gin left over from last year’s sloes bonanza, which means that by Christmas we will have some bullace gin to try as well.
* Suppliers of Bullace trees (as of 2019) in the UK include: