Lavender Plum Jelly

The first time I laid eyes on these plums, the trees were groaning with them. It was  August,  the day we took possession of our Vancouver Island  home in 2016. While David, his brother Norm and sister-in-law Cheryl stood in the courtyard surveying the exterior of the house,  I trotted down the driveway to find out what was green and growing on our 2.5 acres.

Huge rhododendron bushes and plum trees lined the driveway. Shiny red plums, no bigger than marbles, glinted in the sun. None were nearby, but all shone like Christmas ornaments far from reach in the tall,  skinny trees. 

A huge black raven flew over, each flap of its massive wings vibrating overhead. My eyes fell on saffron-painted plums poking out from leafy branches nearby. They were tiny little wonders no bigger than the cherry tomatoes growing in my downtown Toronto containers. Each orangey-yellow orb was splashed with traces of red. Warm to touch in the hot August sun, I picked one and popped it in my mouth, smiling wide.  It had a sweet, pulpy juiciness.

A search ensued! In three minutes, my makeshift t-shirt pouch bulged with a colourful, but slightly moist and sticky bounty.  Juice was trickling out from the overripe, split ones that came in every hungry handful I snatched away from the tree.

With no room for more to carry, I snacked heavily, reducing my load by half as I came closer to another variety-in-waiting. Heavy green clusters of plums weighted down the branches bringing them closer to my reach.  Alas, these golf ball-size beauties were sour and hard:  Not ready for prime-time picking.  I spat out my pit and was surprised to watch it join dozens littered in the grass below, all fallen from the mouths of marauding deer.   

On another branch —  Hope. One once green had ripened to a deep yellow, beckoning. I was perched on rocks that lined the stone walkway down to the dry pond nearby. Teetering on one foot, then the next, I managed to shake the ripe branch and gather the sweet morsels that fell to the ground, avoiding those that fell upon a mound of shiny, black pellets.  Deer scat.

I returned to the house and found the others, tracing their voices echoing through the empty halls. None seemed as eager to sample my found fruit as I, but each nodded their head politely after a taste.

This was just the beginning. What food writer in her right mind isn’t obsessed with gathering sweet, ripe FREE fruit hanging from trees? It’s like finding money dangling from the leaves.   

On superhot summer BC days, when the thermometer slips over 30 and it’s crazy to get out of the shade or up from a lounge chair, I drag my husband out on a blackberry pick.  We wear PPE: Long pants, long sleeve shirts, boots and gloves. We dig out the lawn clippers and apple crates from the garage.  Then we cruise through the windy roads of Maple Bay and environs, searching for manna from the heavens. When we spot black swaths of untouched, unblemished, fat, ripe, abundant berries overhead we no longer cry in vain, thinking they’re unreachable. We simply laugh an arrogant chuckle, deeming ourselves seasoned professionals. David clips the clusters and I catch them in a waiting  apple crate beneath his arms. Once we’ve filled the crates, we aim to stop, but never can.  There’s always another ripe berry around the corner and a few empty plastic bags to hold them.   

Pounds upon pounds of ripe, sweet fruit cannot be consumed instantly. Berries are flash frozen on trays in single layers or tucked into a rustic tart or two. But plums, especially the ones in our orchard, are more troublesome. The pulp to pit ratio is about 50:50. I have cooked them in huge pots on the stovetop or roasted them in the oven, but afterwards, there are  still all those pits to contend with. A food mill can help the process but nothing works finer than my Mehu-Liisa 111 made in Finland.

This three-tiered stovetop pot is basically a small distiller or “steam juicer”. The bottom is filled with water heated to a boil on the stovetop, while the middle portion holds the juice which falls into this catchment area from the large steamer above holding quarts of picked fresh fruit on top.  Take off the stopper and hot clear juice empties out from the fitted plastic hose attachment. Last time I used my Mehu-Liisa 111  I packed it full with 14 pounds of fruit, turned on the heat and collected five liters of juice in under an hour. 

Sadly, plum juice is not a favourite beverage, but it makes beautiful jelly that I can slip into my suitcase and gift friends and family each time I fly back home to Toronto. That way, I can bring a taste of our BC orchard across the country and share the wealth because money found on trees is simply delish.

Herd Road Lavender Plum Jelly

  • Servings: 14 250 ml jars
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The golden hue of this yellow plum jelly is painted purple with the addition of lavender and whole blackberries. After canning, check all the jars for a tight seal. Makes 14 ½ 250 ml jars of jelly.

12 cups plum juice *
4 tbsp lemon juice
6 tsp Pomona’s Universal calcium water
2 tsp unsalted butter
4 cups refined sugar
9 tsp Pomona’s Universal pectin
½ cup dried lavender or lemon thyme
1 cup frozen blackberries

Sterilize jars.

In a large wide pot heat plum juice, lemon juice, calcium water and butter and bring to a rapid boil.

Combine sugar and pectin in a bowl, then add to juice once it is rapidly boiling. Stir mixture until it comes back to a full boil then take off the heat. Carefully remove foam.

Remove hot sterilized jars and arrange on counter. Put 2-3 frozen blackberries and ½ tsp lavender in each jar before filling with plum mixture leaving ¼ inch headspace and lidding fingertip tight. Process 10 minutes in boiling water.

Remove from canner and listen for a satisfying pop as each lid seals. All the lavender and blackberries will have floated to the top. Wait a few hours for your jelly to gel and cool, then turn a jar upside down to test if the jelly has thickened enough to suspend solids in the middle of the jar. If so, leave upside down for 8 hrs or overnight.

*Substitute with apple or white grape juice

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An ode to damson plums

Many, many, moons ago, my friend Nora suggested damson plum jam.  I’d never heard of damson and didn’t know where I’d find them.  I was a novice canner, having put up my first batch of Seville marmalade sometime after all those Millennials were born.

There was a crew of us cooking ladies, back then, crowded in my steamy kitchen with my blue enamel canning pot frothing on the back burner. As dozens of Bernardin jars jiggled and clanked through sterilization, we peeled off Seville skins, arguing over the presence of white pith or not, before piling the peels on top of each other, slicing them into teensy strips no wider than a toothpick. Someone measured cup after cup of granulated white sugar, while the bossiest among us stirred circles of hot, sputtering, bubbling orange fruitiness.

We were kitchen warriors and we all agreed on everything except something:  The Gelling Point. The conversation grew even more heated when damson came into play.

But first, I had to find the little gems and naturally, I called Tony at The Harvest Wagon on Yonge Street, deep in the heart of fine food shopping La La Land.

IMG_6115Tony and I were on a first name basis ever since I interviewed him for a newspaper column and he revealed that his Rosedale customers didn’t really care about price (!)  All they wanted, he claimed, were tidy piles of the best looking bounty from every corner of the globe.

“Check in weekly,” he said cheerily before we hung up.

It was early September and all the other plums — yellow, green gage, Italian prune — had come and gone.  I was doubtful that this alien called damson would be found.

“Not many people request it,” he’d said earlier in our call. “But I’ve got a supplier in Quebec.”

Tony never let me down. A week later, I walked out of his store with a million dollars’ worth of the sour little gems in their dark purple suits. Nora and I set to work. After two hours of hard labour, we were at that crucial juncture that stops any jam purist from hyperventilating and pulling out a box of commercial pectin.

It’s called the gelling point but should be called pointless, since all the indicators leading to it – heat, natural pectin content, flavour and consistency – meld into one big messy, sugary fruit concoction stirred by a bossy broad who makes the call, erroneously, again and again.

That, my dear readers, is little old me.

I have this thing with jams and jellies. I always want to make them but get burnt out at the eleventh hour and make a totally impatient miscall on the gelling point.

Nora knows not to listen to my pectin theories anymore.  Like any sensible cooking partner, she calmly looks the other way when I hold up a jam-dripping wooden spoon, perilously close to her snout, and screech out “It’s sheeting!”. She just laughs when I open my freezer and yank out a little frozen plate. She snorts when I plonk a test blob of cooking jam on the frozen surface and claim that it’s “rippling just like the cookbook says” before our very eyes.

Nora doesn’t take any of my gel guff anymore. She makes the call. But when she’s not by my side to slap me into gel sanity, things go wonky.

It’s why my sister and I have made a tradition of basting Easter lamb with my secret Seville sauce that annually never quite gels into marmalade.  It’s why David found himself penning Blum Sauce on a recent Herd Road batch in my desperation to distract BC gel-sniffers.

I know few will believe me, but my most recent foray into the damson plum realm rewarded my tenaciousness with two crowning glories: a damson jam that neatly gelled without added pectin and a cake that is simply Plum Easy.

Plus, I didn’t have to call Tony, my uh, supplier.

I simply turned on Google Map and made my way to Sheila’s house in Mill Bay where a box of fresh-picked damson plums sat near her back door. Sheila had recently helped her friend denude a backyard tree of these little wonders and asked me after a Pilates class if I knew what to do with damson.

IMG_6113Did I know?

Memories of Nora’s knowing, raised eyebrows filled this cook’s heart with glee as David and I poured the purple mountain of Sheila’s picked damsons into a bag. We hurried them back to my new fancy kitchen where I started to measure and conjure up culinary fun times.  I had 9 lbs 3 oz of the little orbs to hand pit and was ready to go into a coma after the first dozen when I  developed a brilliant sleight of hand.  I dug my fingernails into each plum’s belly, eviscerated it,  separated pit from parent, netting 8 lbs 6 oz.  of readied product in just under an hour.

I was about to wrap up all those pits in a cheesecloth bag and add them to my jam session until my wiser-self asked Dr. Google a thing or two. I learned those plum pits weren’t going to improve my gelling odds, were devoid of natural pectin and might come in handy as pie weights. I washed, dried and bottled up 2 cups of the almond-like babies.

Then I made My Best Ever Damson Jam spiked with homegrown hot peppers which I present to you now, knowing that you’re unlikely to make it, but might not resist the second very easy recipe offered below.

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My Best Ever Damson Jam Spiked with Chillies

  • Servings: 7-8 250 mL jars
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Okay, you’ve read my story but ask Nora how good damson jam is. We may not agree on gelling point but we are both bedazzled by damson plums’ puckering, rich flesh and sweet skins that shrivel into dark magical ribbons when served on a toasted slice of home baked levain.

3 1/2 lbs pitted damson

5 cups granulated white sugar

3 tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 1/2 tbsp lemon zest

1 1/2 tsp coarsely ground dried red hot peppers

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Bake damson plums in a large baking pan, covered with aluminum foil for 30 min.

Transfer cooked damson into a large, wide-rimmed pot, add sugar, lemon juice, zest and ground chillies bring to a rapid bowl, stirring for 10 minutes until the magical gelling point occurs.

Ladle jam into sterilized jars leaving ¼ inch headspace and process for 10 min. 

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Plum Easy Cake

Sheila alerted me to this famous find, originally published by the New York Times and authored by Marion Burrows as “Original Plum Torte”.  Phooey.  This isn’t a torte, it’s a dead easy cake that you can pile upon its spooned batter a ton of ripe cut fruit, sugar and spice.  Here’s my over-the-top version with Damson.

¾ cup granulated sugar

½ cup unsalted butter, softened

2 eggs

1/2 cup unbleached white flour

½ cup spelt, kamut or whole wheat

1 tsp baking powder

Pinch of salt

2 cups pitted and halved Damson plums

¼ granulated sugar

2 tbsp lemon juice

1 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 9-inch springform pan, line the bottom with parchment paper.

Whisk together sugar and butter in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs.

In a small bowl, combine flours, baking powder and salt.  Fold dry ingredients into wet to create a stiff batter.

In a medium bowl, combine plums, sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon.

Spoon batter into pan, level with a spatula and top with fruit.

Bake 1 hour or until the top is golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean.  Remove from oven, allow to cool for 10 minutes, trace a butter knife around the edges of the pan and de-pan.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Bear plum jam

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