Coffee is always the first thing to pass my lips in the morning. And, today, a dish of sour, old-fashioned yogurt and teasingly sweet preserved plums, straight after. Red-skinned plums, bottled yesterday in a shockingly sweet syrup, served ice cold and pale pink in their thin glass dish. A breakfast of delightful contrasts to dazzle the senses and wake the spirits.
I am not a preserving kind of guy - the odd jar of damson jam, an occasional batch of coriander-speckled chutney, a bottle of damson gin. Make that four bottles. But no, I possess no copper jam pan or muslin jelly bag and this week is the first time I have ever bought a sugar thermometer. Yet the idea of preserving late-summer plums in sweet suspension, wrapping them in a translucent ruby syrup, appeals.
These are not the sugar plums of fairy stories, the Carlsbad or the Portuguese Elvas plums, the fruits picked now, left in syrup for a month or more, then allowed to dry a little. No, the fruits I preserved this week are somewhere between jam and farmhouse-style bottled plums. The sort that come with custard in a blue-and-white striped dish.
I made plum sauce, too, the mahogany, aniseed-scented stuff you smear over soft pancakes just before you wrap your shredded duck and matchsticks of ice-cold cucumber in a Chinese restaurant. It has long puzzled me that however much I enjoyed the dark, spicy-sour sauce, it was strange that it lacked the fruity note you expect.
So, with the ginger peeled and anise stars, red chilli flakes and a cute cotton bag of Sichuan pepper at the ready, I made a real plum sauce. It simmers for long enough to scent your home, briefly, with that of a Chinese grocer's shop - that ancient-aniseed-meets-pickle-meets mustiness that tantalises the shopper.
Soft, sweet plums in sugar syrup. Serve with ice cream, crème fraîche or thick yogurt. You only need one or two of these little sweetmeats per person. Keep them in the fridge for an occasional treat. Makes enough to fill a large preserving jar.
granulated sugar 350g
plums 900g, just ripe
Put the sugar into a large, deep saucepan, pour in the water and let it come to the boil. Remove three strips of lemon peel with a small knife or vegetable peeler and drop into the syrup, letting it simmer for 10 minutes. It should be clear and quite thick, and should smell sweetly of lemon.
Wash the plums, halve them and remove the stones, setting four or five of them aside. Lower the fruit into the simmering syrup, then add the reserved stones and leave at a gentle bubble for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover with a lid and leave overnight, unstirred and in a cool place.
Using a slotted spoon, gently lift the fruits from the syrup, placing them tenderly in a bowl so they don't fall apart. You will be left with a pale-pink syrup. Return the pan of syrup to the stove, add the juice of the lemon, bringing to the boil and letting it bubble furiously for as long as it takes for it to come to 108C on a sugar thermometer. If you don't have one, then stop boiling when the syrup will set almost instantly on a fridge-cold saucer.
Pack the plums carefully into a sterilised Kilner or other preserving jar (a few minutes in boiling water will do the trick.) Once the flurry of bubbles has subsided, scrape off any froth then pour the syrup over the fruit and seal tightly. It's worth taking care not to drip any syrup around the rim of the jar, otherwise you'll never be able to open the thing.
The fruit will keep in a cool place, but it's much better to keep them in the fridge where they can remain chilled and ready to serve.
Chinese plum sauce
Bottled and refrigerated, this sweet-sharp sauce is one for duck pancakes, but also for spreading on a roast chicken sandwich or serving as an accompaniment for roast pork. Makes enough to fill two medium-sized bottles.
red-wine vinegar 400ml
dried chilli flakes 1 tsp
star anise flowers 4
Sichuan peppercorns 1 tsp
ginger a thumb-sized knob
garlic 4 large cloves
salt 1 tsp
dark soy sauce 80ml
soft brown sugar 125g
Wipe, halve and stone the plums, then put them in a wide, deep saucepan. Pour in the red-wine vinegar, add the dried chilli flakes, the star anise flowers and the Sichuan peppercorns.
Peel and slice the garlic and add to the plums. Peel the ginger, then slice into thick coins and add it to the pan, together with the salt, then place over a moderate flame and bring to the boil. Lower the heat so the mixture simmers gently and leave for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally until the plums are soft.
Place a large sieve over a bowl or clean saucepan, pour the plums and their liquid into it then push as much as you can through the sieve. Return the mixture to the stove, add the soy sauce and the sugar and simmer, with the occasional stir, until the sugar has dissolved. Simmer for five minutes, taking care the mixture doesn't burn. It should be dark and glossy.
Taste the sauce, it should be sour, sweet and salty and more fruity than the commercial variety. Pour into a bottle and store in the fridge.
Well preserved: Nigel Slater's sugared plum recipe. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer