Portuguese custard tarts, with their delicate flakey pastry cases and luscious filfling (preferably with a wee sprinkle of cinnamon), are very enticing. So when we spotted Flavour of Portugal, in Brandon High St, we piled in to see if we could find some. Yes, yes, and so much more besides.
A really attractive deli - as is the Thetford Portuguese deli and bakery. There are Portuguese cafes or restaurants in Peterborough, Bedford and King's Lynn. And closer to hand? Well, there are two cafes - both in Soham and both sell cakes and both are very proud of their coffee.
You can see the touch of history in Portuguese pastries, a good few of which derive their recipes and names from the monasteries and nunneries where they were first devised. Recurrent ingredients seem to be eggs and egg yolks, almonds, honey, lemon peel and spices - harking back to the great Portuguese explorations of the world and the importance of the spice trade.
Apart from custard tarts (pastel de nata), other cakes to look for are the bolo de coco - tiny egg and coconut cakes, which are a very popular choice to go with coffee; queijada de Sintra, made with egg yolk, sugar, cheese, chopped almonds, coconut and either cinnamon or vanilla; and Heavenly Bacon (toucinho do ceu) made with eggs, almonds, pumpkin and butter (but only rarely with actual bacon).
Oporto Café, on Red Lion Square in Soham, gets its pastries, bread and traditional sausage rolls from the Portuguese bakery in Peterborough. They carry some groceries, chourizo and other sausages, but there is a fair emphasis on seafood; hardly surprisingly. Amongst their best sellers are the frozen sardines, which, at 8 - 9 inches long, are very popular for barbeques. Their tapas (to eat in), such white clams in beer sauce with garlic and coriander, seem a good way to explore.
Less than an Olympic javelin shot away, there is A Tasca, on the High St, with a big and very pretty choice of cakes and pastries. One of their top lines from the freezer is BBQ chicken in chilli sauce, but my eye was caught by the cuttlefish in ink, the marmots with tail in mouth, and the fish stew.
A magnificent pudding for this time of year is a platter of East Anglian plums - ranging from Yellow Eggs and greengages through red to purple and black plums - deeply satisfying to look at, as well as to guzzle. East Anglia used to be one of the great fruit growing areas, and despite the 80% reduction in orchard acreage since the 1950s, there is still a good range of plums being grown locally. I know of at least 49 different varieties for sale hereabouts, and that takes no account of what is being grown in back gardens. Given how cramped a choice supermarkets offer, this is cheering news.
Sadly, this has not been a good year for plums, though the failures and successes have been patchy rather than uniform. The cold and the early May frosts not only destroyed blossom but also meant a dearth of bees to pollinate later-flowering varieties. Thus the plums which are self-incompatible, and therefore need to be pollinated by different varieties, have not done well, often producing no fruit at all. This group includes Edwards, President, Reeve's, Excalibur and Wyevale. Partly self-compatible plums, such as Monarch, Early Rivers, Sanctus Hubertus and Cambridge Gage have fared a little better, but it is still a dismal, dismal picture. As it is for the self-compatible plums like Marjorie's, Purple Pershores, Czars, Opals, Hermans and Victorias.
Another factor in how factor in how well trees have struggled with a bad year, seems to be the age of the tree. Old trees are thought to be more reliable croppers than younger trees, and many people also argue that their fruits taste better and have a greater depth of flavour. This view will be familiar to anyone interested in wine and old vines. An interesting angle on this is whether the taste can be ascribed just to the maturity of the tree, or whether it is due to the different rootstock (wild plum) that was used for grafting in former days.
Ray Manning (Station Rd, Willingham) has about 33 different varieties of plums and gages, which follow one another on, to give a season from late July into October. The heavily reduced crop will be sold through local outlets and the farm's own shop - the Bushel Box, open Tuesday - Sunday,10.00am-6.00pm. There are also home-made jams, eggs and cakes (including lemon drizzle). In mid-August the apples will start.
Maureen Jacklin's orchard (St Ives Rd, Somersham) is an old one, having been planted by her great grandfather in 1898. She has over 20 different plums, and is a firm believer in the strengths of old trees; her 7 year old Victorias have produced no fruit, but the 100 year old Victorias have. Her farm shop, open 7 days a week,10.00am-5.30pm, carries soft fruit too, vegetables, plants and eggs.
Eric Wallis at Heath Fruit Farm, Bluntisham, has an orchard dating from 1919. Its main glory is apples, but there are at least 14 varieties of plums, including Wallis Wonder, introduced by Eric himself. An example of how subtle shelter and exposure can be, is given by some of the plums this year having a crop on one side of the tree and nothing on the other. He sells trays of plums on Saturday mornings, 9.30am - 12.00 noon.
In Wicken, Norman Rains has been luckier, with an adequate plum harvest with his seven varieties. His Afterways Orchard farm shop (Stretham Rd, Wicken) also carries soft fruit, jams, honey and eggs, and is open 9.00am until dusk, 7 days a week.
Unlike the other growers, Tim Elbourn of CamValley Orchards is having a good crop. He has about 23 varieties of established trees, and has recently planted a further 11. The farm shop carries not only plums, but also varietal plum jams. There are other jams, chutneys and marmalade, their own honey and apple juice.
A final thought: the artisan bakery and deli, Gastrono-me, in St John's St in Bury St Edmunds (of which more another month) makes its own Portuguese custard tarts.