Gardening: Plum Season

I didn’t know that fruit grows in cycles until I moved to this house 19 years ago and started a long-term relationship with fruit trees. Some years are stone fruit years (plums, in my case, but elsewhere peaches, nectarines, apricots, cherries) and some are not. Here, it’s an every-other-year pattern, and this year is an on year, plus we got tons of winter rain, so every plant in sight is growing larger and faster than usual. Last year I had about 15 yellow plums on the tree that volunteered in front of the garage. This year there are probably 500!

Volunteer Mirabelle plum tree, lower left

The plums are cherry-tomato sized and yellow-gold. When I consulted Farmer Google, it seemed they might be a fairly unusual variety in the U.S., the Mirabelle plum, originally from France and now banned from import here for secret French proprietary reasons. Since my tree volunteered, which means it was probably brought to the yard in an animal dropping (since they grow from pits and birds don’t eat the pits), I’m wondering where the mother tree is, and if it might be one of Felix Gillet’s fruit trees. Gillet was a French botanist and arborist, a contemporary of Luther Burbank, who had a nursery here in Nevada County in the later 1800s and contributed greatly to the nascent agricultural life of the west.

Same tree, lower right

One of the quirks of growing up in Mill Valley, CA, where I did, was how many plum trees and blackberry bushes were scattered all over town in vacant lots and by roadsides, untended. This meant that we could forage, and my friend Peggy and I did just that, bringing home buckets of fruit to make into jam and pies and — when my mom and her friend Judy were on a Chinese cooking jag — hoisin sauce.

This is about half a basket of plums, filling half my porcelain sink

Those early years bred in me a conviction that you should use up all the fruit you have or can find, and not make jam out of store-bought fruit, which is cheating. Kind of ridiculous, I know. I have several times gotten a flat of peaches at the farmer’s market or passing through the Sacramento Valley at a fruit stand, because I live too high up to grow decent peaches in my own yard. But that’s really the only exception. I jam up what I can harvest or what people bring me.

Squashed plum flesh, put in jars and refrigerated just because it’s too hot to make jam in the middle of the day right now

One basket of plums that I picked this week at dusk when it was cool enough to be outside has yielded three quarts of cooked plum flesh. This is just the base for things: a huge pot of plums cooked down with a little water, and then the pits and skins taken out by running it all through a colander and stirring half the afternoon with a wooden spoon. To this I will add some chardonnay (we are very fancy around here), in a ratio of 1 c. to 4 c. cooked plums, and then with sugar and heat and hot jars and all that stuff, make jam.

A friend helped pick today, and got two baskets so full we had to carry them from underneath

The only problem is that there are probably at least five and possibly eight more basketsful of plums on that tree. Luckily, some are too high for me to reach, even on a ladder, so those will go to the birds. And I’ve hired a young and nimble, long-armed friend to help pick. But I am going to get very done with jamming before the plums run out. This is when I, sober for almost 30 years, will run to the store and buy a lot of brandy. If you put washed plums into sterile jars, really stuff them in, and then cover them with brandy, they will be preserved for a very long time… years, apparently. Put them in a dark place for at least a month, and then they’re delicious (if you like alcohol). You can chop them up and eat them on vanilla ice cream, warm them up and eat them with a dollop of creme fraiche, just eat them with your fingers and then drink the brandy, whatever you wish. Good presents, no cooking required. Here’s a recipe for all kinds of boozy fruit someone sent me after I mentioned this on social media.

Mirabelle plums in brandy (decent but not priceless brandy)

Now that I’ve been straightforward and scientific about these plums, let us move to the more important side of my nature. The real true reason to pick Mirabelle plums and make jam is the color. Everything else is justification, rationalization, perhaps frugality, a love of not wasting things, maybe a cock-eyed belief that home-made Christmas presents are better than store-bought, you name it. Poppycock, in a word. I make this jam because I love the color. Period, end of story. Everything else, though convenient, is entirely irrelevant.

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