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
  • Print

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

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Got juice

Three years ago, David and I became the proud owners of an apple orchard on Vancouver Island. It was August and ten, old trees stood before us in three, neat rows above a carpet of burnt, golden grass.  The hot, Cowichan Valley sun beat down on our Torontonian brows as we gazed up, knowing nothing, surveying our orchard’s branches.  

I pulled the closest apple off a tree and opened my mouth.

“What are you doing?” David asked, incredulous.

I bit off a big chunk and chewed, holding his gaze. I continued to chew, hoping that somehow the taste and texture would improve. 

But it didn’t.  

I spat it out and recognized the first unripe flavour of my new occupation.  Apple Orchard Aug 2016

Beside the orchard was a long, gravel driveway up to the house, guest house and barn. It was lined with plum trees, all of them heavy with yellow, orange and red plums each no bigger than a cherry tomato.  They hung like grape clusters and beckoned sampling. I started with a demure, meek sampling that turned into rapid gobbling followed by voracious hoarding. 

David’s watching eyes bugged. 

Each plum was sweet, juicy and too plentiful for the pouch I’d fashioned in my t-shirt, now fully stained and attracting a buzz of nearby wasps.   

David picking High RussetsDavid, my apple farming husband, is still incredulous three years later as he lugs 15 boxes full of apples into the back of the SUV. It’s our third annual harvest and the first to go to McBarley’s juice and fermentation facility in Duncan. It’s not even the fall and we have harvested and boxed all of Number Two and Three trees. (These round, red and green apples the size of a fist resemble McIntosh apples – but doesn’t every Ontarian call apples that?)   Classic Red No 2

Never before have we nabbed the apples from Two and Three before the ravens execute their robbery. But here on the West Coast, David and I often wait for the wildlife to inform us. Their radar goes off like a living, breathing Brix meter. This year, all it took was a murder in the orchard for me to get out there and taste our wares. 

“It’s really good,” I say to David, mouth full of apple. “Try it.”

“Sweet!” is his reply.

We’re both incredulous. 

The brown, dry grass below the trees is littered with scat. We argue over their provenance. Is it bear, deer, rabbit or the neighbor’s lab? We know elk don’t venture in these parts, but then again, we never know what can happen here.  Just a few months ago, six gargantuan black steer (set loose from a neighbouring field) sauntered past our windows at dawn, way before our caffeine had kicked in and we had the wherewithal to run outside and follow them.

But I digress.  The apple harvest.  With tall, old trees like ours, it has to happen with ladders, a tool David was thrilled to purchase at Adam’s Tool and Tarp in Duncan and load into his brother’s pickup.  He bought an eight and 10-foot pair, neither which is easy to lug across the orchard let alone manoeuvre around our tall, leafy apples trees with their outstretched, unruly boughs.  

“It must be stable,” said our arborist Gordon McKay in his thick Scottish brogue, as I climbed up the rungs one wet, bone-chilling March morning several years ago. It was the only piece of instruction he’d given me in the past half hour that had made total sense. 

Number 7 beauty shotMcKay had started with the buds, pointing out their difference, which I could not discern. 

Then he spoke about cutting angles, which I quickly confused.  

Finally, he spoke about “last year, this year and next year’s growth”, at which point I was terminally lost, yet climbing up an eight-foot ladder. 

Just clip and hope for the best, I told my shivering self, dressed in two layers of long underwear and holding Japanese cutting shears in my right hand. My tree mentor’s instructions had floated right over my baseball cap into that gleeful empty field I call my memory. Luckily, the arborist was nearby on the other ladder, up another tree, clipping away expertly at breakneck speed. I faked a good hour of pruning until I snuck away, sighting urgent bathroom needs. Both McKay and I knew – there and then – that I didn’t have what it took to prune, but I might have some talent in the harvesting department.

Fast forward to August 2019.  My baseball cap and pony tail are stuck in a branch and I can’t move my head. An inch. I’m up on the top rung of an eight-foot ladder.  All I can see is apple leaves, spider webs, branches and one fat, out-of-reach 2-pound honker of an apple. But if I move too far to the right or left, it will be suicide, by hanging. A professional (i.e. Lee Valley) apple harvester’s bag is slung across my chest. It probably weighs 15 lbs and despite weight-lifting at my Mill Bay Pilates classes, I know I’m a goner. So I do something unusual for me: I wait. I breath. I listen to the jungle call of a nearby Pileated Woodpecker and thank my lucky stars that I get to be an apple farmer stuck in a tree overlooking Herd Road lake.  

Harvest box 2&3David and I are killing this year’s harvest.  Four or five full apple boxes are at the base of Number 8, the only tree we sort of know the varietal name for, due to its rusty, russet skin. Because we’re professionals, we don’t pretend to know the true varietal names of any of our ten trees but we are carefully recording their appearance, taste and botanical behaviour like the untrained scientists that we are.   

One summer, we took samples from each of our ten trees to the BC Tree Testers at the Cobble Hill Fair. Despite the combined  wisdom of three experts riffling through onsite reference books, slicing, tasting and considering… they came up empty, sighting the more than 10,000 different apple varieties and their unfamiliarity with our mysterious ten. Thus, we can only be certain all ten trees are different varieties, likely planted around the time David and I were born. We fondly refer to our apple family as Tree One through Ten, a habit that seems scientific but at the same time, really appeals to my Chinese sensibilities.  

A perennial Food Mama, I cannot let the offspring of my offspring go to waste. Thus the harvest, the ladders, the collapsible boxes, the shears and bags all spring into action once the ravens descend on the orchard. They huddle like dark shadows at the base of our trees and diffuse in a tactical squad when we walk or drive by. Once I’ve pulled all the easy to reach apples from the low hanging branches and dump that first bag of hard red orbs into a box, the ravens have returned to the perimeters, invisible in the high branches of our pines and firs emitting an intermittent  “scaaaw”, a staccato, almost digital “blonk” or my favourite, a continuous stream of gurgling water. 

Timing is tricky. Really tricky.  Mother nature doesn’t give a hoot about any of the dates I’ve put into GoogleCal but booking an apple squeeze is imperative. We know our trees don’t all ripen at the same time. Rather, they ripen up the line from Number One (ready in mid-August) to Ten (done in early October). 

But it took us three years to learn to stagger one year’s harvest into three drop-offs at McBarley’s. 

Our newbie harvest of  ‘16 was crushed in Courtney, a 3-hour drive away. Pressing Matters have a $300,000 German-made mobile apple juice maker that travels across the island and even ferries to many of the Gulf Island apple farms during the season. Yet this year, it was grounded. 

“Why?” I asked, making my first apple farmer business call.

“Cause nobody has apples this year,” laughed the gruff farmer on the other end of the line. “You bring ‘em here and wait for us to juice them.”  

David and I were the fourth truck full of apples to pass through Pressing Matters farm gate early one October morning.  We unloaded, adding our harvest to a ramshackle sea of cardboard boxes filled with pockmarked apples of every size and variety. Apple Juice Boxes in SubaruMany hours later, we left with 5L boxes full of hot pasteurized juice packaged into vacuumed plastic bags. Just like boxed wine, this juice comes out of a tap and is shelf-stable for 6 months without refrigeration.   

Next year, Pressing Matters went mobile and we found them at a small farm in Cedar, an easier 45-minute drive away. The truck in the lineup ahead of us had three times as many apples as we did. 

A mobile pressing machine like this requires four or five to operate and at McBarley’s they run the unit outside in their parking lot. Customers like us just drop off our apples, watch them get weighed and sign up for pasteurized juice, hard cider, or both. 

It sounds simple but the rub is in the timing. Ask any farmer and she’ll tell you to check that almanac, or your horoscope or better still, the waxing moon to know best harvest times. Yet to run a facility like McBarley’s, it’s all about scheduled dropoffs and pickups  for hundreds of folks like us avec les pommes. We opted for a three-stage harvest this year hoping 2019 will translate into the sweetest juice and  best bubbly vintage, ever. 

I know Number One through Ten will drink to that. 

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