12: Plums are a job, not just a gift
Too much, too perishable, too urgent
Sorry for the newsletter hiatus. I was writing a couple of long articles, then traveling abroad. Never fear: There are several bajillion projects in the works to write about.
It arrived a few weeks late this year, but the Season of Too Much hit hard in August.
At our house, the cucumber vines went haywire, and there were only so many smashed-cucumber salads that either my husband or I could eat. The green beans flared into full production for a few weeks before flaming out. My two tomato plants kept producing, and producing, and producing.
The Season of Too Much has been on display everywhere: The unclimbable fig tree surrounded by sticky splats. Molding pears ground into the sidewalks. Apple trees flush with worm-holed fruit. For weeks now, my walks around North Portland have been accompanied by judginess and regret. I spent all winter and spring telling friends I would invest in a cider press and approach my neighbors to ask for their overabundant fruit. Then I priced out a cider press plus a fruit chopper (which I hadn't realized I would need), and decided maybe 2023 would be the year of foraged North Portland cider.
The season hits Portland and Seattle so hard because so many of us have planted fruit trees. When I lived in Seattle 12 years ago, I volunteered with a group that harvested backyard fruit and drove it to local food banks. Not surprisingly, Portland has its own version—the Backyard Harvest Project—which offers a DIY version for people who want to glean from their own trees. It's a lovely vision of mutual aid, almost impossible to scale up.
The Season of Too Much reminds me of just how unequipped I am to respond to plants on their own terms. Three years ago, we planted a little greengage plum in our front yard, and if we've taken care of the tree properly, it may grant us our wish—in tree-fashion. I personally have fantasies of making clafouti and a few jars of greengage jam. The tree’s mission is to ensure the survival of its species. I look at the tree this fall, and I feel less like a steward of nature and more like a dilettante with a chest freezer.
When my friends Kathy and Josh, who live a few miles north of us, texted us that their golden plum tree had hit peak fruit again, I drove over to their house, brand-new fruit picker in the trunk, to gather enough for a batch of plum-vanilla jam like I made last year. Thousands of translucent yellow fruit were dripping from the tree’s dense canopy.
When the sun is shining through Josh and Kathy’s translucent plums, they glow gold, casting a Midas-like enchantment that forces a man to keep picking. One flat filled up. Then two. I ate a plum, overeager with its sweet juice, and somehow it made sense to keep going. The plums were so fragile, after all: One rough nudge and the fruit would splat onto the ground, a gift carelessly discarded. The rats had been at the fruit, and the molds would soon take over. Josh kept picking more. I kept letting him.
Only after I returned home, with 30 pounds of fruit I now had to preserve, did the spell break. Golden plums, whose flesh shivers into juice with each bite, are made for eating fresh. Apples and pears give you some time to process what you've gathered. Italian prunes are sturdy enough to dehydrate. But a golden plum resists your will. Freeze it, and it melts as it thaws. It rewards gluttony, and punishes tardiness.
Golden plums might, I thought, make decent plum wine.
I bought a 6-gallon fermenter, as well as Pattie Vargas and Rich Gulling's book Making Wild Wines and Meads and a few additives (Champagne yeast, pectin enzyme, tartaric acid) their recipe called for. Christian and I spent two sticky, hornet-attracting evenings in our back yard cleaning and slicing up plums. I added sugar, water, and all the powders to the fermenter, then let the plums bubble away for days.
After a week, 20 pounds of plums had collapsed into three gallons of murky liquid. Now I plan to forget the wine so it can spend another 6-12 months settling, clarifying, and mellowing. I can't tell whether this shrinking act has left me with a sense of victory or guilt over how much pulp went into the trash. Yet I'm also drawn to an even more luxurious solution: distilling the majority of that 3 gallons of plum wine down into a single liter of plum brandy (aka eau de vie, or, honoring my husband’s Serbian heritage, rakija or šljivovice).
I have had my eye on an Airstill at a local brewmaking supply shop—basically the Instant Pot of stills, electricity-powered and easy to use so long as you're willing to distill just 5 liters at a time. The distillery geeks in the online discussion boards, who are not a welcoming crew, think Airstills are pretty much the equivalent of an Easy Bake Oven. At the same time, the alembics that Serbians use in the rakija-distilling videos I've been watching aren't much more sophisticated. I don't drink enough spirits to want a 50-liter pot still with variable temperature controls and a thumper.
Besides, home distilling is illegal in the state of Oregon. If it weren't, I'd take the wine I've made and run it through the Airstill twice, setting aside only the most fragrant liquid that drips out at the heart of the distillation run so that its throat-scouring heat softens over the next six months. I'd probably figure out what I could have done better, and try to remedy these faults with the 10 extra pounds of plums I stashed in the chest freezer. If I bought the still, that is.
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