Beach plum bliss is, perhaps, a kind of madness peculiar to natives of Long Island, Cape Cod, Cape May and a few unsullied beaches as far south as Maryland.
If you’re fortunate enough to access the elusive, bittersweet, stubbornly hardy fruit, as my friend and fellow cook, Martine, would say: “Quelle chance! Quelle opportunité!” But beach plums can be a real challenge to seeker, grower and cook.
With luck and opportunity, you can experience the cherished nostalgia of the days when the dunes of eastern Long Island bore a plethora of riches for beach plum enthusiasts. If, that is, you’re dedicated to preserving (pun intended) Long Island’s flagship fruit, willing to joust with its habitat and attempt its laborious preparation.
Beach plums, first noticed by Giovanni da Varrazano in 1524, were mistakenly recorded as “damson trees.” (Damsons, larger than beach plums, are similar in their astringency, but, unlike beach plums, damsons are easily propagated and grown commercially.) It wasn’t until 1785 that, despite its dichotomies in habitat, hues and dimensions (or as F.A. Waugh in Plums and Plum Culture (1901) says, “Plums grow pretty much as they please and the botanist has to take them as he finds them”), Prunus maritima was categorized as a species. It’s easy to identify historically where beach plums thrived on Long Island. Just picture Plum Beach (Brooklyn) east to Plum Island (off Orient Point).
Make no mistake: with their piquant zest, their edgy bitterness, like authentic British marmalades, beach plum jellies, jams, syrup, et al may be an acquired taste. For true aficionados, the ravishing products of the prepared native fruit are addictive. You don’t mess with those who zealously scout out and gleefully guard their patch of wild bushes. Beach plum devotees regard predators—anything two-legged with beak or bucketas the enemy! They say there just aren’t enough beach plums to go around. And they may be right.
Condos and McMansions have buried many vistas where the native stone fruit (beach plums contain a single center pit, or “stone”) used to help prevent the dunes from shifting, the sands from eroding. The wild beach plum bush is a low-profile, weather-twisted, salt-resistant woody plant that resists transplanting, hugging its sandy turf like the tough coastal grasses—and, as often as not, poison ivy—with which it commonly cohabits, binding with tenacious roots to its terrain. The bushes produce their glorious white flowers every year, but the floral display may not be propitious: beach plums are notoriously unreliable as a crop, bearing fruit at whim.
Domesticated beach plums, cultivated in attempts to save the species Prunus maritima, are as rugged as their ancestors, but equally erratic. Agricultural advocates like Richard H. Uva at Cornell University and William Clark of the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, and the Coonamessett community farm in Falmouth, Massachusetts, have struggled to develop a variety from wild-collected seed that will bear consistently, since commercial farmers are reluctant to plant a fruit without reasonable assurance of an abundant profitable annual crop. Beach plums are a force unto themselves: they are biennial, even triennial, depending on the weather; they bear over a period of about a month in late summer, their fruit ripening at graduated intervals on each individual shrub, so they must be harvested by hand in small batches; the plums are relatively unknown except to a coterie of followers; and they can be the very devil to prepare and cook, depending upon the choice of culinary goals.
Beach plums are easy to grow, once they are established. According to one grower who has propagated bushes by sowing wild seed in a controlled greenhouse environment, transplanted seedlings need only water to become quickly established. Fertilization does stimulate growth, but mulching has “insignificant effect.” This farmer, who grows about 500 plants on two acres, says his bushes, some of which are over 25 years old, probably flourish on benign neglect. Like their wild relatives, they thrive best in their natural element, preferably in full sun on a south-facing slope. Younger bushes produce abundantly, if irregularly. One venerable tree on this farm, where beach plums grew wild before the family decided to domesticate them, bears witness to the survival ability of Prunus maritima, though the ancient specimen produces frugally, at best. One season bushes can be flush with ¼- ½ -inch purple, red and yellow globes of the tough-skinned, “berries,” like clusters of Christmas tree baubles. Fortunately, they freeze well, because the following year’s crop may be so sparse as to be negligible.
Prunus maritima was named in 1785, promoted through the early- and mid-20th century, particularly by the establishment of the James R. Jewett prize, funding Richard Uva’s research beginning in 1997, but beach plum prospects have waxed and waned. Uva sees beach plums as “a unique product—a heritage crop that comes from a special place by the shore,” and believes that “beach plums can develop into a specialty product suitable for diversified farming operations” (Taming the Wild Beach Plum). He has been instrumental in developing reliable cultivars, plot trials on private farms from Massachusetts to Maryland, encouraging cloning techniques of the most successful varieties. Continuing Uva’s work at Cornell, also via the Jewett Fund, are Keith Vanderhye and Kenneth Mudge, who as of August 2003 were working on “vegetative propagation and grafting.” According to Uva, “the Cape May Plant Materials Center (Natural Resources Conservation Service) has released a cultivar of beach plum known as “Ocean View” that was selected for coastal dune stabilization and is being distributed as open-pollinated seed to nurserymen.” Perhaps a reliable variety is in the future.
A viable crop, however, needs consumers: customers who recognize the value of a unique niche-market fruit enticingly high in antioxidants, and who are willing to pay well for its yield. Kara Lynn Dunn writes in a Cornell newsletter that in 1935 “strawberries sold for two cents a quart, beach plums sold for 25 cents a quart.” Today, if you can find fresh beach plums, you’ll pay $6.00 a pint or more. Processed beach plums, like juice, wine, syrups, jam, jellies, preserves, dried plum products, and, lately, beach plum–flavored beer and vodka, are all priced considerably higher than others of similar ilk. The berries have to be “stoned” individually. Products made from the juice alone still require large amounts of raw fruit to provide ample extract. Beer and vodka makers use the fruit only to infuse color and flavor into the main liquid. In Delaware, John Chirtea is working with a distiller in Prime Hook Bay (near Rehobeth, where the Cape May, New Jersey, ferry docks) to make beach plum–flavored vodka. The berries are infused into the vodka, then strained out. John says the potation is a “magnificent, bright-purple-plum color.” Planning to use the extraordinary beach plum crop that normally crowds the yards of local beach houses or on small plots committed by nearby farmers, he was thrilled with last year’s munificence. Not this year. Calling growers from Massachusetts to Maryland, he can’t find enough to supply his distiller. Beach plum vodka will be a limited commodity when John ultimately reaches his goal: like other products generated from the shifty fruit, it will have be priced accordingly.
To avoid paying the high-end price of beach plum products, make some yourself. First, you need to find a patch of bushes, or a viable source, like Briermere Farm. In a good year, the owners sell what they have available—after they make their own beach plum jam. (Briermere is on the Cornell Web site.) I contacted Cornell six years ago, when they were “placing” young “whips”—reedy woody stems propagated from wild seed, ready for transplanting. They sent 10 bare-root 18-inch “liners,” their tender roots wrapped in burlap. I was grateful to get them. My nurseryman’s daughter, Donna Marotta, planted and tended them until they “took.” Our sandy farm soil is ideally suited to the finicky fruit, providing the bushes with superb drainage: it mimics their native habitat. Five whips were dug into a circular bedding area in full sun; the other five were spaced further back, in a row facing the circle. Marking all the baby shrubs carefully, so they wouldn’t be inadvertently damaged, we then assiduously ignored them, as directed.
About three years later, the disappointing “twigs” had grown into healthy little bushes, sprouting the lanceolate leaves that I recognized as kin to seaside bushes I’d previously raided. (My bushes, however, weren’t scourged with poison ivy!) The next year they even had a couple of berries here and there. Last year the largest bushes—about five feet tall—actually bore clumps of fruit. This year: not even enough for the birds.
Meanwhile, I’ve been making beach plum jam for eager customers, out-sourcing for the fruit. My first foraging expedition, in 2001, was to a friend’s beach home in Amagansett. A helpful buddy and I crawled in the sand among the scraggly bushes for several sun-prostrating hours, surfacing eventually with about two buckets of berries, looking like we’d been caught up in a catfight. My mom waxed nostalgic when I told her. In the late ‘30s, early ‘40s, as young housewives, she and her sister-in-law, Muriel, boated from Senix Creek across Moriches Bay to “the beach” (Great Gun Beach) to pick beach plums every summer. They’d put up just a few bottles of the jam because pitting them was such a pain.
At home, I reviewed my recipe. First, about six pounds of fruit went into a big colander, which I dunked repeatedly in a sinkful of cold water, then drained. My cherry pitters—a one-at-a-time gadget and a little, hand-operated plunger type proved useless. The gadget missed the pit every time; the machine got about one in three. The flesh clung to the pits: miniscule kernels encapsulated in blueberry-size fruit, or oversize slippery nuggets inside grape-size berries that gripped like Velcro. Out came my handy-dandy little, curved-blade vegetable sculpting knife. One by one, I laboriously emptied the colander. An hour or so later I had a mountain of pits and a molehill of pulp.
Measuring eight cups of fruit into a wide 12-quart straight-sided stainless steel pot, I added water, brought the fruit to a boil, covered the pot and simmered the fruit for 10 minutes, to soften the skin of the plums and extract the juice. Removing the lid, I slowly stirred in 13 and a half cups of granulated sugar, with a long wooden spoon.
(If you see beach plum jam on supermarket shelves, read the ingredients carefully. The chances are overwhelming that the first ingredient—after sugar and/or corn syrup—will be damson plums and/or damson plum juice. That’s cheating! And if making jam seems too tiresome, make jelly, instead. All you have to do is boil the whole fruit, hang it in a bag to extract the juice, and use the juice according to the directions in any package of pectin.)
After the sugar dissolved, I added a half-teaspoon of butter (to form a surface “oil slick,” which reduces foaming and prevents the jam from volcanic eruption all over the stovetop); and the juice of two lemons. Over a hot flame, the plummy mixture soon came to a roistering, aromatic boil, which I inhaled for a couple of minutes, until the largest bubbles subsided, then added six ounces of Certo liquid fruit pectin. Back to a rolling boil for two minutes, and, finally, off the burner to a cool surface. I’d prepared a dozen 12-ounce jars. After the jam rested for five minutes, stirring periodically to clear any foam from the surface, the fruit would be evenly distributed.
And now the shiny beige pits started surfacing. Here a pit, there a pit, everywhere a pit-pit. What? Hadn’t I spent an hour hand-pitting all those berries? Yet there they were, winking in the magenta depths, rising languidly like a flock of lazy minnows. Wielding my slotted spoon vigorously, I fished them all out. Now I could finally fill my hot jars.
Using a plastic, heat-proof pitcher with a lip, I poured half the contents of the pot into the pitcher, stirring away the bubbles. Hold the action! I spy a pit!
Slowly, to avoid air bubbles, I tipped the savory hot jam into jars, leaving an eighth-inch head space. Carefully, capping each jar, I inverted them to seal. (I use commercial jars and caps; processing home canning jars is different, but both Ball and Mason provide specific instructions with their jars.) With a deep sigh of satisfaction, I watched the fruit float in the syrup, the occasional pit tapping gently against the sides. Pits? PITS? Where did those little suckers come from?
I understand the United States Supreme Court has declared that fruit pits are a natural hazard, and since this is common knowledge, the maker of any product containing stone fruit like cherries—and beach plums!—cannot be sued for damages.
I now pay to have my beach plums pitted, avoiding that frustration. But I’m still picking pits out of the pots because nobody, but nobody, can foil beach plums and their individual foibles.
Joan Bernstein lives on her family’s farm in Manorville where she makes beach plum jam and other preserves for Paumanok Preserves.