We had been painting the white picket fence for hours in the afternoon shade. Big, black crows screeched incessantly, punctuated by the soft, nasal bleats of nuthatches echoing through the forest trees. David wore a black shirt and shorts that were splattered with white splashes of our 1-2-3 primer. We had been working for hours in the hot, BC summer sun. With only two sections of finished fence behind us, it was time to stop.
David took the paint brushes inside the house to wash up.
I wrapped my hands around the bars of our trusty wheelbarrow and started to amble towards the driveway. Full of dried-up blackberry bush, the wheelbarrow’s contents slid and scratched against the metal sides, the wheel rumbling against the dry, clay earth.
No crows, no nuthatches, but a sudden loud crashing of branches broke out.
I looked towards the orchard and watched a massive, black bear come falling out of our plum tree, some 100 feet away.
When I say massive, I mean the size of a Smart car. Black and furry. Yet ominously silent.
My jaw slack in awe, I watched him land on all four paws and hurry off. Bears don’t gallop, or race. They truck mysteriously fast like an ambling thunder cloud, a sheet of dark light that thankfully went away, not towards me.
“David!” I yelped at the top of my voice.
Worried the bear would hear me, I toned it down to a whisper-shout with, “There’s, there’s a bear!”
“Whaaaaaat?” David emerged, hands still wet from washing the brushes. “Where?”
“He ran that way,” I said, pointing towards the orchard. “Don’t follow him.”
But of course, David did, thrilled and happy, calling back gaily, “It’s the wild west, baby.”
Minutes later, we stood beside our bear-mangled plum tree. A large, deep gash from his claws streaked down the trunk. A large heap of black, seed-studded scat lay nearby. Up above, broken branches hung in disarray. Half-eaten plums littered the ground.
I reached up and pulled down a plum and popped it in my mouth.
Soft, and deliriously sweet and sour, this orange-yellow plum was perfectly ripe. Time for harvest. Thank you hungry bear for finding the ripest plums in the orchard. This was a wild, but timely alert.
David walked back to the garage and carried out the ten-foot ladder. He propped it beneath the tree and I climbed up into the branches. Balancing a bucket on the top rung, I started to pluck plum after tiny plum from the tree.
Novice fruit farmers, we thought the ladder, the bucket and all these plums would just come together effortlessly but it’s an awkward balance: Reach too far, and the ladder topples; grab too many, and some fall. There are always more to be harvested that are too high, too far, too out of reach.
Still, in no time, our bucket is full and we carry our cache back to the farm house.
Star Anise Plum Jam
With so many plums, my jam creativity has blossomed. I’d rather spice up a jam than leave it plain. This jam can go on toast, pair beside pork or chicken or make a dramatic debut on your next cheese plate. The licorice notes of star anise are strong in this jam, so feel free to cut in half if you want just a whisper. But don’t mess with any of the other ingredients.
6 cups plum puree (use yellow, orange and red plums) about 6 lbs whole fruit
5 cups sugar
2 inches ginger, finely grated
4 star anise
1 stick cinnamon
1 dried red hot pepper, cut in half
To pit plums, put in a large pot and fill with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook just a minute or until skins start to peel off the plums. Carefully drain out and discard all the hot water. Transfer plums to a large bowl and leave at room temperature to cool enough to handle or refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap, for up to 3 days. Using a sieve, remove pits, taking care to reserve as much plum puree and skins as possible. Wrap the pits in cheesecloth, knotted with kitchen string.
Put sugar in a microwave-safe glass bowl and heat for 3 min on high.
In a large pot, combine plum puree, heated sugar, pits (tied in cheesecloth), grated ginger, star anise, cinnamon and hot dried red pepper. Bring to a strong, rolling boil, and cook for 10 minutes stirring constantly or until jelling point is reached. (Jelling point can be determined by placing a spoon into the mixture and watching how the jam falls off. When the drops start to drip in long strands or sheet together, jelling has been reached.)
Using sterilized jars (boiled for 5 minutes), fill jam mixture into jars ½ inch from the top, run a thin spatula around the inside of the jar to remove air bubbles, wipe off tops of jars with a clean cloth, top with softened lid (placed in a bowl of boiling hot water for 5 minutes) and closed with ring, finger-tight.
Process for 5 minutes (covered with at least 3 inches of boiling water).
Yields 8 1/2 250 mL jars