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Beach Plum Crazy

If all you’re thinking is jelly, think again.

It’s an ancient rite of late summer, dating back to long before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. In a good year, typically around the first week of September, on coastal plains and dunes on Martha’s Vineyard and throughout New England, dozens of small, tart fruits dangle from the branches of the beach plum plant and are gathered by those who know a good thing when they taste it and are lucky enough to know a good patch for picking. The size of large marbles, the wild plums have a bluish-purple skin like their domesticated cousins, a single pit, and a reddish tart and tangy flesh.

“When they were ripe, there were people all over the dunes,” explained Kristina Leslie-Hook, a Wampanoag tribal member who grew up in Lobsterville recalling the annual tradition of picking beach plums growing in the dunes between Menemsha Pond and Lobsterville. “With my great aunts, your grandmother, your mother – it was like Cranberry Day with everyone out picking.”

Elizabeth Cecil

“Beach plums are a resource that’s been around for thousands of years,” she added. “Historically, with the tribe, it was just part of the mix of food,” along with other wild fruit for the picking: grapes, strawberries, cranberries, blueberries, and blackberries.

Beach plums are a bit like cranberries in terms of eating: not many people eat them straight off the bush. There’s a hint of sweetness and a lot of tartness, though the flavor varies from bush to bush. Because of this, the most popular form of consumption is beach plum jam or jelly, sold everywhere from Morning Glory Farm to the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market, and given as a handcrafted gift. At its best it can be a beautiful translucent magenta with irresistible flavor, reminiscent of cranberry or pomegranate, that livens the palate.

And that’s about all I thought about beach plums and their use until I visited longtime Islander Paul Jackson one year to see his famous vegetable garden. Before giving us the outside tour, we waited in the kitchen while he strained the juice from the pounds and pounds of beach plums he had just picked from “his spot” the day before. Like many Vineyarders, he picks the berries at the peak of ripeness – anywhere from late August until mid-September – and processes and freezes the juice until winter when he has time to make the jam.

For me, a light bulb went off: beach plum juice, like wine, citrus, or cherry juice, could be very useful in the kitchen for sauces, syrups, ice cream, even cocktails. It’s also when I started freezing both the juice and whole beach plums to pluck from the freezer for use during the year. One year, we gave some juice to chef Albert Lattanzi to create something for the Living Local Harvest Festival, held each October at the Agricultural Hall. He came back with homemade vanilla ice cream with beach plum swirl, both gorgeous to look at and delicious.

Look for the showy white blossoms in spring, and return in September to gather the wild fruit.
Elizabeth Cecil

What else could be done with beach plums, free for the picking along our shores? I wanted to find out more. Last year, I picked, washed, and packed eight bags full and dropped them off to five Island chefs. Their instructions were simple: make something besides jam. I’ve already enjoyed the warm popovers served with a luscious beach plum curd, created by Jenna Sprafkin, head chef at the Chilmark Tavern.

Leslie-Hook says she still picks and keeps a couple of gallons of beach plums in her freezer. “I’ll put them in anything,” she says. “I substituted frozen beach plums in a recipe that called for pears and dried cherries. It came out great; it brightens things.”

Leslie-Hook often makes a sauce using either native grapes or beach plums by mixing the plums – she finds it easier to pit them first – with some water and sugar and boiling them for five to ten minutes until the fruit starts to reduce. She then runs the batch through a sieve and sweetens it with a bit of extra honey if needed. “It goes great over ice cream. It can go over pound cake and johnny cakes. And of course,” she adds, beach plums “go great with anything venison.”

 

Beach plums are good for your health, loaded with vitamins A, C, and B, and about five times the mineral content of cranberries. They also have a high pectin content, a substance scientists now believe can reduce levels of cholesterol in the blood.

 

Chef and Restaurant Owner Christian Thornton

Pan-Roasted Chicken with Beach Plum and Thyme Spoon Bread, Island Greens, and Beach Plum Reduction

Christian Thornton and his wife, Greer, have owned and operated Atria in Edgartown for sixteen years. Atria features locally sourced products whenever possible.

 

Wild Food Challenge Organizer Bill Manson

Martha’s Vineyard Beach Plum and Faroe Islands Salmon Gravlax

As founder of the Local Wild Food Challenge, now held annually in nine locations around the world (including Martha’s Vineyard each Columbus Day), Bill Manson hopes to inspire communities to revel in the resources around them. “We believe that the deeper you venture into your environment, the more motivation you have to protect it,” he said. For his dish, Manson, a private chef on the Island, said he “wanted to see beach plums presented in a completely different way. This dish gives the fish a spectacular color and a mild acid note to the top of the flesh. It is also a very easy dish to make, despite a really sophisticated look to it.”

 

Chef Jenna Sprafkin

Brown Butter Popovers with Beach Plum Curd

This is Jenna Sprafkin’s second year as head chef at the Chilmark Tavern. Just prior to coming to the Vineyard, she worked for a number of years at Primo, a top farm/restaurant in Rockland, Maine.

 

Chef and Restaurant Owner Albert Lattanzi

Vanilla Ice Cream with Beach Plum Swirl

For many years Albert was the chef/owner of Lattanzi’s Restaurant in Edgartown.
He now works as a private chef, and is involved in helping to organize Local Wild
Food Challenge events with Billy Manson, most recently in Italy.

The following recipies that were originally published in this article and can be found here: - See more at: http://mvmagazine.com/news/2015/07/15/pickles%E2%80%99-republic#sthash.QvYdYd2W.dpuf