EDIBLE TRADITIONS: Wild Beach Plums
A Part of Our Heritage
by Irene Costello
Image Coutesy of Massachusetts Horticulture Society.
Last summer during an outing to Crane Beach in Ipswich something interesting caught my eye. Near the bathhouse a bulletin board posted the many recreation and educational programs offered at the beach. I noticed a workshop for beach plum canning scheduled for the last week in August.
The class intrigued me, but more than that, the words “beach plum” immediately took me back to a childhood memory of my great-aunt Evelyn Dasey, who picked the wild fruit and made her own jelly.
Towards the end of each summer Aunt Evelyn would convert her kitchen into a canning operation making preserves from the fruits and vegetables that she either grew or foraged. From green tomato relish to watermelon rind, she spent days stocking her pantry with Mason jars full of preserves that she labeled by hand.
A descendent of the Mayflower, as she proudly reminded us, Aunt Evelyn was ingrained with Yankee food culture. Time may have modernized the equipment and utensils, but securing food remained an essential household ritual for her. In this way Aunt Evelyn continued a tradition passed down to her for generations.
Of all Evelyn’s relishes and pickles, her wild beach plum jelly was my favorite probably because I associated it with happy memories of summers at the shore. Early settlers like my aunt’s ancestors quickly recognized the wild plum and its culinary value. At some point it was named officially Prunus maritima. the plants grow along the East Coast from Canada to Virginia. They thrive in sandy soil and appear as weathered, gnarled bushes.
They often get confused with the big-blossomed and cherry-red fruits of Rosa rugosa or beach roses that like the same impoverished soil. however, the two are entirely different plants. Beach plums bloom in June, showing off delicate, lacy, cotton-white flowers. By the end of August their tiny green fruits darken to a purple-blue that resemble very large blueberries or small grapes.
Back at Crane Beach I read about the workshop, registered for it and eagerly awaited the date. The beach plum canning workshop provided two-part instruction: first on gathering beach plums and then making jelly and jam in the kitchen of the nearby Crane Estate.
On a late August afternoon we met in front of the bathhouse, where we were greeted by one of the instructors, Gary Dow. He gave us each a white bucket and led us to an area near the parking lot where we found scrubby bushes laden with purplish fruits. They were perfectly ripened. Spending about 45 minutes quietly picking plums, I sampled some fruit right off a bush. It was juicy but extremely tart, like cranberries. I didn’t recall the tartness in my aunt’s jelly, just a sweet mellow flavor.
Late summer is my favorite time at the beach. The shortened days seem to change the light and soften the landscape with a whitish hue. high overhead a flock of birds suddenly appear in a familiar v formation, signaling the start of their southern migration. Change is in the air. Gary and I have a chance to talk, and he explains why he loves to harvest and can beach plums.
“It is a great excuse to explore the coastal landscape, to really get out there with it, to mess around in it, and to breathe deeply of the ocean air.” I agree totally.
We reconvened in the parking lot with pails full of fruit. Then we headed up to the great house of the Crane Estate. I looked out on the sweeping lawn that reaches back to the sea. It was a gorgeous evening. After a brief history about the house we proceeded to the kitchen. There we met Becky Fahey, a canning expert from Appleton Farms, to teach us how to turn our harvested plums into jam and jelly.
Becky had organized the kitchen for canning production and gotten a jump start on the jelly by extracting the juice from some prepicked plums. After washing and sorting the fruit we divided our class of 12 people into small groups. Several of us worked on removing the pits, which is a messy job. Another group worked on sterilizing dozens of Mason jars and lids in a specific-purpose pot called a canner. At an enormous stove a third group oversaw making the jam and jelly bases. to several large saucepans of either juice or pitted and chopped fruit we added sugar and pectin and brought each pot to a rapid boil. It takes a lot of sugar to soften the tartness of the plums. We all took turns filling the sterilized jars in batches and returning them to the canner to be processed. Many hands made light work, as they say, and within two hours we each had our own jars of jam and jelly to take home.
Foraging for and eating wild edibles reminds Gary Dow of the deeply mysterious and satisfying connection between human beings and the natural world. “It is also a very tangible and vital link to our heritage as a coastal people,” he says. “Locals have been gathering beach plums for a very long time now, and I love that I can play a small role in the continuation of that tradition.” Several times that evening I thought of my Aunt Evelyn with a new appreciation for that same heritage she passed down to her family.
For more information about this year’s Beach Plum Canning Workshop at Crane Beach, contact Gary Dow at email@example.com or 978-356-4351 ext. 4062, or visit www.thetrustees.org, click on Places to visit and locate Crane Beach in Ipswich, MA.
- Beach plums hang on the underside of the branches, so look underneath.
- Try to pick just the fruit, as it will make sorting easier. Discard the leaves, stems, bruised and over-ripened fruit.
- Birds feeding in thickets are telltale signs. They’re probably eating plums.
- Avoid picking in areas that are closed to the public.
- Observe trail signs at wildlife refuges (such as on Plum Island and Crane’s Beach).
- Beware of poison ivy, as it grows in the same areas as plums.
- Ticks are prevalent at the beaches, so wear light-colored clothing and long sleeves and check your skin when you have finished picking.
- Use insect repellent, especially one that deters ticks.
- Wear a hat and sunscreen.
- Beach plums freeze well, so there is no pressure to use them right away. Rinse with cold water and pat dry. Place in an airtight bag and store in the freezer for later use.
BEACH PLUM RECIPES—NOT JUST FOR JELLY
These recipes use beach plum preserves as their key ingredient. Note that this is not the procedure from the canning workshop for making shelf-stable jelly and jam. You should keep these preserves in the refrigerator until ready to use. Whatever is leftover makes a nice fruit spread or topping. Making preserves starts with pitted plums. It might sound tedious, but it’s part of the experience and easy enough to do by hand. A gentle squeeze removes the pit—leaving the skin, a little pulp and a lot of juice. Use a deep bowl and watch for squirting juices.
Irene Costello is co-owner of Effie’s Homemade. After 20 years in the corporate world, Irene broke out to develop her passion for cooking. She earned her a Master’s of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy and a certificate in Culinary Arts from Boston University and a certificate in Wine Studies from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. Irene joined forces with Joan MacIsaac in 2007 to start Effie’s Homemade, a wholesale baking company. She brings a unique combination of culinary and business experience. Irene earned her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.