In proper beach plum picking attire (at least where there's no poison ivy), Laura Wainwright collects fruit from this year's bumper crop. Photos by Lyla Griswold
Beach plum bonanza
This is a banner year for beach plums. Their blooms were abundant last spring and some magical combination of pollination, moisture, and heat has produced a bumper crop. The bushes along the paths to the beach near me are covered with plums large and small in a range of color from pale red to dark purple, and even some still green. If you've ever wanted to search out and pick beach plums, now is the time and this is the year.
Throughout this summer I watched the beach plums mature, and right on schedule at the tail end of August, there were plenty of ripe ones ready to pick. I called a friend, grabbed two buckets and we headed out. We sat in the sand on a lovely afternoon chatting, while immersed in picking the gorgeous fruits. The sounds of the waves over the dune mingled with children's voices at play on the beach. We marveled at being able to gather something so beautiful and delicious in such an extraordinary setting. Our only worry was to keep an eye out for the poison ivy that likes to mingle with the beach plum bushes.
Experienced hands transfer beach plums from bush to pail.
In my recipe file I have a yellowed handwritten recipe for beach plum jelly. Every year for the past 20 I've almost thrown it away because the picking has been meager. Every year I hold onto it because my mother gave it to me. It was her friend Diana Walker's special recipe and Mrs. Walker made the best beach plum jelly I'd ever eaten.
Whenever I look at Mrs. Walker's handwriting, so like my mother's, I remember my mother and me at the Brickyards on an early September afternoon in the early 1980s. We wore coffee cans around our necks attached with a rawhide string. I can picture our two hands busy picking as we chatted and admired the water. The plunk of plums hitting the can punctuated our conversation.
Finally I would make Mrs. Walker's recipe. The alchemy of capturing a summer's day in a small Ball jar began. We came back from the beach and rinsed the sand off the plums. We removed any small leaves and twigs but we didn't pick off each and every stem.
The plums went into a large stainless steel pot with water covering them. In later batches I amended this part of the recipe and put in just enough water to keep the plums from sticking to the bottom. The first batch took an hour to gel and I think this was because I had added too much water.
Soon the kitchen was drenched in the hot dense smell of boiling beach plums. It didn't take long for the batch to turn a rich burgundy as the pits and the fruit separated. I used a potato masher to squish the fruit and when it looked done I poured the mash into an applesauce strainer lined with cheesecloth.
I am practiced at making jam but this was my first time making a jelly. To double-check the recipe I looked in "The Joy of Cooking" for basic advice, and, as always, there it was. Only use four cups of juice per batch, add equal parts of sugar, and boil until the jelly forms a single drop sheeting of a spoon.
It worked. Now a shelf in my pantry and another in my friend's pantry are full of tiny jars of beach plum jelly ready to give away or just enjoy ourselves. Our freezer is also full of juice ready to be made into jelly on a winter's evening when I have the time.
There is such a bonanza of beach plums this year the danger is, funny enough, burn out. My husband has caught the bug and we go down to the beach together in the morning to pick. I think I made my last batch of juice yesterday. Today when we pick I'll give the plums to a pal. But it's hard to stop, knowing it may be another 20 years before we can have another picking orgy.
It turns out that Mrs. Walker's recipe is a basic recipe for Beach Plum Jelly. Still, it's the one I always use those years I'm lucky enough to make it. The recipe is also good for Wild Grape Jelly - my next project. Happy picking.
Laura Wainwright is a contributing writer to The Times.