The Plums and the Fairies
Preparing Elvas Plums in the sweltering heat. The entire process is done by hand, in the peak of summer, when temperatures often exceed 40C.

The Plums and the Fairies

The town of Elvas, a jewel in the glorious region of the Alentejo, is a gorgeous garrison town, forever within sight of Spain, boasting some spectacular fortifications and sweeping views over the plains. Which was kind of convenient when Spain tried to invade.

Summers are on the torrid side of hot, which helps explain why this very fertile region produces some exquisite, juicy, rich fruit. And so much of it. However, there aren’t a lot of people around, which creates a conundrum: should more people be imported, or should the fruit be exported?

Several Portuguese kings tried (and failed) to populate the interior of the country, so exporting the fruit seemed easier. There was a little but, though: Elvas is not only hot and pretty, but also pretty remote.

In the early 16th century a solution arrived, in the form of sugar. The clever people of Elvas discovered that sugar had preserving properties, started experimenting with the preservation of fruit, and hit on the perfect method. The recipe works for plums, figs, apricots and peaches (and probably others) and is as follows:
1. grow the best fruit in the world. Easy!
2. pick it about two weeks before it is ripe, when the flavour is already developed, but the consistency is still hard. Pick it too late and the fruit disintegrates. Too early and it tastes bitter;
3. boil it in a sugar syrup once in large copper vats, let it cool down for 24 hours, then repeat. Never mind that it might be 41C (like it was when The Gold Rush last visited) and that this is an extraordinarily laborious process. The heat emanating from those gas stoves is like the boiling cauldron of hell, but the window for doing this is narrow, and coincides with the peak of summer, so there’s not much one can do about it;
4. Store it in the syrup forever, if needed, but for at least two months.
 
The result is quite something. Fruit that is loaded with flavour, preserved for years or decades, and perfect for that special occasion.
 
Thus were born the now famous Sugar Plums, aka Elvas Plums. British Christmases were never the same again (thank Agatha Christie), and the first Sugar Plums appeared in America in 1875. We don’t know when they made their way to Russia, but some say that the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker is Tchaikovsky’s tribute to the wonderful Elvas Plums. Whether that is apocryphal or not, we don’t care; it’s a beautiful tale.
 
When The Gold Rush started looking for the most exquisite Portuguese treats around, Elvas Plums were top of the list. Then we learned of the other fruits, and now carry four types. We are partial to a peach after dinner, and the Gold Rush’s partner has to be kept well away from the apricots, but each fruit is special in its own way.
 
The Gold Rush also has a more personal connection to Elvas. His great-grandfather was (wrongly) accused of stealing wine from army supplies during military service and was serving a prison term in the Fort of Graça in Elvas when his regiment was sent to the front in 1917. They were all slaughtered, and he never came to terms with the loss of his friends and a tarnished reputation. But he survived and went on to start the clan, and over 100 years later Elvas is again part of our history.

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  1. What a delicious story. Thank you for the insight.

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