It took a trip to an Italian supermarket to fully appreciate the merit of greengages. To wit, a house full of sixteen hungry (and often hungover) souls presented with an array of nectarines, white peaches and melons first thing in the morning and guess which fruit disappeared fastest? Yes - it was the good old fashioned gages. The reason being there was never that disappointment factor, every small and perfect fruit was liquid sweet and perfect popping in the mouth size. They are wonderful eaten raw but cook to a splendid compote (watch the stones!) far superior to any that a well known French brand can offer, make a marvellous crumble and work well in pork dishes instead of prunes or plums. Which brings us to the question of the difference between gages and plums? Technically very little, but the gages hail from France and were brought to this country by Sir Thomas Gage of Hengrave Hall in Suffolk. In France they had been known as Reines Claudes after the consort of the King Francois 1. Afficionados will demur and say that plums are different and have less yielding flesh with an oval shape while a gage is invariably round. Probably the best advice is that if it is called a gage, then it is one! The fruits are best picked when fully ripe at which point the flesh starts to pucker around the stalk. They will keep for a few days on the tree, a few days in the kitchen a further few if kept in the fridge but these are definitely a seasonal fruit to be gorged on at the time. Hugely attractive to wasps ( less good) and to Red Admirals (brilliant), it is worth hanging some wasp traps in July to preserve your crop from wasp attack. A home made affair of a jam jar with some sugar water and a cling film top with a hole in it will suffice.
The thing a gage definitely requires to crop well is sun and shelter. A gage must be allocated the sunniest part of the garden; a south facing wall would be perfect to espalier a maiden or a corner tucked away out of the wind would be a good site for a tree. Gages are not demanding in terms of space or maintenance but they are at best only partially self fertile and so it is worth ensuring that you have a pollination partner for them. The other essential thing to do is to remove all fruit for the first year, or even two, (desperate as that may feel as you destroy the baby gagelets). Thereafter thin any fruit that you get - guide here if you need it. Doing this will help the tree to put all of its energy into establishing a robust root system to support the upper part of the tree in future. It also means that you will prevent your tree from exhausting itself by producing too much fruit in one year. Most importantly, it improves the flavour of any fruit that you do allow to develop. Gages, although wonderful, are not for the impatient as you can see, and this is also true because they fruit on old wood which takes time to form its fruiting framework.
We offer the early Oullins Golden gage which crops in mid August and is relatively large and sweet. Later on in the month Cambridge and Jefferson's gages come into their own; both have an RHS AGM and excellent flavour. Cambridge is more green in colour, while Jefferson is yellowy with reddish speckles and hales from America. The old Greengage is similar to the Cambridge but is more choosy about its site and should not be grown north of Liverpool. And for those who are always away in August, the later fruiting Reine Claude de Bavay may be the answer to those who do not want to miss out on this superlative fruit because she is the latest to fruit in early to mid-September.