The plum tree was loaded, even a few branches broken under the weight of the ripe fruit. Santa Rosa plums littered the ground, plundered by ants. It’s been a very good year for fruit.
The bountiful tree was in my friend Linda’s yard, and she usually fills a dozen pint Mason jars with homemade jam. Which she shares. Sometimes she even makes plum brandy. This year she was off visiting family in Australia, so we picked her backyard fruit.
It goes without saying that backyard fruit is the best tasting, period. You can get pretty good plums and apricots at the farmers market, but yard fruit is divine. Slow tree ripening sets the sugar, zings flavor to the maximum peak.
Standing beneath a tree, reaching through the leaves to pick those luscious red globes, makes you feel connected to the earth in some essential and wholly natural way. Under the tree, breathing in the perfume of ripe fruit, you can forget the mess unfolding on TV, the screeching headlines and rising incivility.
You step carefully, avoiding the fallen plums (far too many), but stoop to gather a few unblemished ones. A ripe plum lets go easily, slipping into your palm like the gift it is. You rub a few against your jeans to remove the dusky coating, called bloom, and eat the plums right under the tree, juice spurting to run down your chin. Fruit eaten directly under the tree is an epicurean delight.
So much bounty makes you greedy. You can’t eat all you pick. You bring home a heavy box, share with neighbors. Too much to refrigerate. Fruit flies come flocking. You sort plums, pull out the damaged ones. You look at the last nearly empty jar of Linda’s homemade jam. This time it’s on you.
You haul out the half pint Kerr jars you were saving from the time you made wild blueberry jam up on the north coast. Appropriately, they’re called crystal jelly jars. You wash, then boil them to sterilize. Jam making isn’t hard, but you consult a recipe for a reminder and buy the package of pectin that makes the jam jell.
Wash all the plums, deep purple under the blush. Enroll your husband in the task of halving them, cutting out the seeds. Do this over a bowl to save the juice. Dump the plums into a big pot, bring them to a boil and add the sugar. Lots. Don’t stint on the sugar, all the recipes say.
You stand over the pot, stirring. Fruit and sugar meld together, a glorious ruby red. And you breathe in the perfume, which is like nothing else on earth. Sweet and piquant, it fills your senses, evoking all your summer childhoods when your mom made berry or plum jam in the hot kitchen.
Only as you stir the jam on your own stove do you remember that when the last jam jar was filled in that long-ago kitchen, your mother made little pie crust shells for the left-over jam and you got to eat the tarts still hot from the oven.
My mom never bought fruit to makes preserves or pies. (And her pies always got blue ribbons at the county fair.) It always came freely, as gift fruit. Or we picked from relatives’ trees or gathered wild blackberries from the thickets near where we lived. So, I wonder what part freedom plays in making fruit taste better. The freedom to pick it yourself, the freedom you feel while picking, the freedom the fruit enjoys doing its slow ripening. Maybe all of the above.
One good thing: Summer fruit at the farmers market—plums, apricots, peaches and nectarines, cherries, grapes, four different kinds of berries, not mention cute little locally-grown melons.