Obituary for the Home Orchard Society

Gravenstein applesToday I’m singing a dirge for the Home Orchard Society, yet another victim of the coronavirus—although, like so many volunteer-run nonprofits, this one was barely staying on its feet when the virus delivered its final blow.

Until recently, HOS appeared to be in glowing good health. Established in 1975 to serve the entire Pacific Northwest, the organization was an invaluable resource for Oregon and Washington fruit growers. In the fall the old hall at the Clackamas County Fairgrounds would fill with crowds of people sampling hundreds of varieties of apples and pears, eating them as fast as HOS volunteers could cut up the fruit. You could choose your favorite cultivars and order grafted trees to pick up in spring, at the Fruit Propagation Fair. Or you could come to the spring fair and join the crowds at the tables again, this time grabbing not for fruit but for free scionwood cuttings. An HOS volunteer would graft each of your scions onto rootstock as you watched, or you could take home the scions to graft yourself. At other tables you could pick up “fruit sox” to protect your apples organically, mason bee supplies to improve pollination, and books about fruit growing to read when the rain kept you indoors. The organization published its own quarterly journal, The Pome News, which was mailed to every member. HOS also maintained a nearly two-acre demonstration orchard at Clackamas Community College and held workshops and cider pressings there. If you lived close by you could join the arboretum’s CSA and pick up a boxload of fruit every week—apples, pears, grapes, figs, persimmons, kiwis, plums, pawpaws, and quinces.

All this was a tremendous amount of work for the board and other lead volunteers, especially when the membership grew to more than seven hundred. The old-timers who had been growing, pruning, and grafting fruit trees all their lives, who knew how to foil the Northwest’s formidable confederacy of microbial and insect pests, were dying off, and younger members lacked time, experience, or both. The membership director resigned, and no one else wanted the job. Joanie Cooper, the organization’s longtime president, was now running the Temperate Orchard Conservancy, a living collection of five thousand apple varieties, and couldn’t take on more responsibilities. So when Covid-19 forced the cancellation of first the spring Fruit Propagation Fair and then the fall All About Fruit Show, as well as all the summer workshops at the arboretum, things fell apart. A few days ago the board sent members a short note asking for their assent in terminating the association.

Those who are dissatisfied with the selection at the local garden center or who, like me, need scions for trees whose grafts have failed, must now figure out where to turn. The Agrarian Sharing Network, a Eugene-area organization with a similar but more limited mission, managed, last spring, to provide grafted fruit trees in dozens of unusual varieties to gardeners in Sweet Home as well as Eugene;  anyone could order trees online and pick them up at curbside. This was far from the vision of the ASG organizers, who for the preceding few years had held a series of small, neighborhood propagation fairs around the area. When the virus lets us resume holding social gatherings, perhaps the ASN can return to its vision, and perhaps that vision will prove sustainable. For now, I’m finding out what fruit varieties my neighbors are growing, because I just might want to ask them for some scions.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, home fruit culture will be harder without the Home Orchard Society. We’ll need to find new ways to cooperate if we want to continue preserving heirloom fruit varieties and furthering the art and science of growing good fruit at home.

The Multiple Lives of a Jack o’Lantern

Lit jack o'lanternBecause yesterday afternoon was warm and sunny, Robert carved the jack o’lanterns on the deck while I cut back the caneberries. “Do you want to use any of this flesh?” he yelled. He likes to scrape the walls of the pumpkins so thin that the candlelight glows through them.

“Taste it!”

“Raw pumpkin?”

Taste it!”

It was sweet, delicious. I’d suspected would be, when I bought it at the produce market up the highway. This pumpkin was a deeper orange than the others, and heavier for its size. The cashier told me it weighed more than the much larger pumpkin I’d brought from the bin a minute earlier. This one might be tastier, too, I told her.

“You eat Halloween pumpkins?”

Usually, I explained, I put them into the compost or bury them in a raised bed. But if they are sweet and dense and not stringy, certainly I eat them. I didn’t mention the seeds, which we would roast and eat regardless, or the high price I’d be paying for compost-to-be if we didn’t eat any part of the pumpkins.

The trick-or-treating started out slow. Families in costume walked slowly by the house, gazing at the lit jack o’lanterns but not coming up the walk. During a pandemic, it’s hard to know if you’re being too presumptuous in knocking on a stranger’s door. So I made a sign—“Trick-or-Treaters Welcome”—and stuck it on a brick porch post. And the kids started coming. Each time they did, I pulled on my plague mask, a black cotton bird’s beak stuffed with tissue paper (herbs would make me sneeze), to which I’d affixed goggles cut from black felt. While Robert pulled open the door, I extended the broomstick to which he had hung a basket, now filled with candy.

Between trick-or-treating groups, we munched roasted pumpkin seeds and I checked the big pot full of pumpkin flesh on the stove. I let the cooking finish with the lid off, so excess water would steam away.

Strained pumpkinThis morning I pressed the cooked pumpkin through the food mill, but that turned out to be an unnecessary step: The flesh was string-free. But now it was a fine purée, ready for a pie—except that it was still pretty watery. I could freeze it as it was and use it for soup, but I had pie on my mind. So I dumped the purée into a fine strainer, and waited a few minutes before packing the purée into freezer containers. I was about to pour the pumpkin water into the compost, but then I tasted it. It wasn’t just water. It was orange and sweet and tasty. It went into the fridge to await its future in a soup or stew.

Robert brought in the little jack o’lantern and took over at the butcher block. He is cutting away the peel, slicing the flesh into chunks, and filling the big pot again. We will have plenty of pumpkin for pie—not butternut or kabocha but genuine jack o’lantern pumpkin, pumpkin that did its duty on an old-fashioned Halloween night.

 

A Taste of Winter Watermelon

Winter King and Queen watermelonMy friend Betty surprised me when she arrived on my porch holding what appeared to be a large white, gently ribbed pumpkin. “It’s your watermelon!” she told me, smiling broadly. And the thin stem, twisted like a pig’s tail, proved that it was indeed a watermelon.

I hadn’t seen Betty since before the coronavirus outbreak. But she had agreed that I might leave my start of ‘Winter King and Queen’ watermelon on her doorstep and that she would plant it in her garden. I’d gotten the seed from Andrew Still, who knew that I was interested in fermented whole watermelons and that ‘Winter King and Queen’ was a variety favored for the purpose by Germans from Russia.

In case you’ve never heard of Germans from Russia (GFR), they are probably the U.S. ethnic group most devoted to preserving their history, even though they have long and thoroughly blended into the general white population. Their ancestors left Germany for Russia in the late eighteenth century, after Catherine the Great invited foreigners to immigrate without having to give up their language or religious traditions, pay taxes, or serve in the military. A century later, the ethnic Germans lost their special privileges, and whole villages picked themselves up and moved to rural parts of North and South America.

Most GFRs have either stopped preparing their old family recipes or transformed them. In the Midwest, for example, many GFRs pickle cut watermelon flesh in a vinegar solution. But some, such as the Hutterites of South Dakota, still brine whole melons. And the variety they most like to brine is ‘Winter King and Queen.’

I tried two years in a row to grow ‘Winter King and Queen’ in my little city garden, but it produced no fruit. When nurseries say a plant requires full sun, they generally mean it needs six hours of sun per day. But some plants truly need all-day sun, which is hard to get in a little garden surrounded by buildings and trees. I suspected that ‘Winter King and Queen’ was greedy for sunlight. It wanted to grow in an open field.

So this year I started a few seeds in a pot in the greenhouse and left the pot for Betty, who has a small farm a few miles from town. Betty set out the start as promised, and eventually the plant produced several good-sized melons. Mine weighed more than seventeen pounds.

My main GFR contact, Gwen Schock Cowherd, maintains that GFRs never eat ‘Winter King and Queen’ fresh—they grow other melons for fresh eating—but only brine it or pickle it in vinegar. Some old seed catalogs say that the melon is delicious fresh but should be stored for a while to mellow. I had no intention of brining such a big melon, and I lacked the patience to wait for weeks before eating it. So after only a few days I cut it open. And the very cutting produced another surprise: The skin was quite hard. It wasn’t rubbery-tough, like the skin of a citron melon; it was hard like the skin of a pumpkin.

Most of the Germans in Russia lived along the Volga River, around Sarotov, where watermelons thrive. Because transportation was poor, the melons served largely for the community’s own subsistence. They were boiled down for molasses, they were brined to eat in late winter and spring, and they were stored until Christmas, or longer. At least some local watermelons were bred for these purposes. A hard skin would have made a melon keep longer and perhaps stay firmer when brined. But were these melons somehow unpleasant when fresh?

My watermelon, once cut, showed a rather thin white rind (this cultivar certainly wasn’t intended for making sweet watermelon-rind pickles!) The fruit released a fragrance that my husband compared to cucumbers and flowers. The flesh was the usual pinkish red with the plentiful black seeds of an old-fashioned watermelon.

The sliced melon tasted as good as it looked. The flesh was rather firm and not the sweetest, but it was definitely sweeter than that of any seedless watermelon, the only kind I can find in stores these days. My husband and I were both a bit put off by the coarse, whitish flesh that surrounded the seeds in a few places, but we still judged ‘Winter King and Queen’ to be a very good eating melon.

I set out to learn more about the variety. To my surprise, the venerable food historian William Woys Weaver described ‘King and Queen’ as a ten-pound melon with “white-green” skin striped with dark green. That didn’t sound like my melon. But Amy Goldman, author of Melons for the Passionate Grower, described an unstriped, greenish white, twelve-pound round ‘Wintermelon’ or ‘King and Queen Winter Melon’; this one sounded more like mine. I checked the catalogs of the few companies that sell ‘Winter King and Queen’ seed today. Some showed photos of a uniformly greenish white melon; others showed a pale melon with green stripes. Who was right and who was wrong here? Were the melons different strains of the same cultivar? The many alternative names—“Winter Melon,” “Winter Watermelon,” “Winter Queen,” “Winter King,” and more—only added to my confusion.

I attempted to trace the melon’s history. The USDA Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1394, from 1934, got me off to a start, in a discussion of “a small round melon grown in Colorado and California and sold under the names Winter Queen, Winter King, Alaska, Klondike, and others. Varieties of this type were introduced from the Volga River section of Russian probably by Russians who settled in the Rocky Ford district of Colorado. . . . The Russian growers in Colorado follow the practice of placing these melons in salt brine and keeping them in a cold place until midwinter for their own use.”

The little town of Rocky Ford, about sixty miles east of Pueblo, Colorado, was established in 1870 by George Washington Swink, who led the construction of a communal irrigation system and soon began planting cantaloupes and watermelons. By the late 1800s the town was calling itself the Melon Capital of the World. Even today the local melon business thrives, and the Watermelon Day festival that Swink founded in 1878 is still an annual tradition.

Did the GFRs have something to do with the Rocky Ford melon business? Plenty of them settled in Colorado, mostly in the northern counties of Larimer and Weld, where they worked in the sugar-beet fields. But Rocky Ford also had its GFR contingent; thirty-nine GFR families arrived there in 1910 to work for the American Crystal Sugar Company—again, in sugar-beet fields. Whether the GFRs grew watermelons in their own fields I don’t know, but their tastes may have influenced the local watermelon trade. The Ebbert Seed Company of Rocky Ford began selling ‘Winter Watermelon’ seed in 1912 and ‘King and Queen’ in 1915.

The two varieties seem to have gotten confused early on. In 1911, the Grand Junction Seed Company advertised ‘King and Queen’ as having an an “ivory shell.” In 1912 Ebbert described ‘Winter Watermelon’ similarly:

Very prolific bearer. Flesh red of extreme firmness, almost hard as a citron—very brittle and deliciously sweet. Color very light green, almost white. Placed in a cool place will keep long into the winter and still retain its delicious sweetness and flavor.

In 1920, Ebbert left ‘Winter Watermelon’ out of the catalog and applied its former ‘Winter Watermelon’ description to ‘King and Queen.’ Perhaps this was an error?

In 1929 ‘King and Queen’ was still in Ebbert’s catalog, but this time with a different description:

Very light in color with a slightly dark stripe, size about 10 inches in diameter, average about 20 pounds, seed small, shiny black. The flavor, sweet and surprisingly delicious, is entirely distinct from a watermelon. . . . It should not be eaten right off the vine but should be allowed time to become mellow; can be kept in perfect condition until holiday time.

Presumably, Ebbert replaced ‘Winter Watermelon’ in its catalog with ‘King and Queen.’ But it isn’t clear whether ‘King and Queen’ arrived uniformly pale at Rocky Ford, and acquired its stripes through crossing or selection, or whether it had always been striped. Other seed companies, meanwhile, continued to sell a whitish-skinned, unstriped melon called ‘Winter Watermelon.’ The typical description of ‘King and Queen’ as the best winter watermelon–or simply the winter watermelon—may have contributed to the confusion of two different cultivars.

The name ‘King and Queen’ apparently originated with John F. Brown, who farmed winter melons in Elgin, Utah, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Elgin is now a ghost town, but the little settlement on the Green River was then the home of Brown’s ‘Eden’ cantaloupe, which seldom matured on the vine but months later would grow sweet and delicious. In 1898, Brown secured seeds of more winter melon varieties from Niels Hansen, a plant explorer and breeder employed by the USDA in South Dakota. Hansen had recently journeyed through various regions of Russia in search of fruits that might thrive on the northern U.S. plains. He sent Brown and other farmers an assortment of Russian seeds. Some of them came with names.

But none was called ‘King and Queen.’ Brown, then, must have named the melon himself. After growing it for four or five seasons, he described it this way:

The King and Queen watermelon is yet king and queen of the melon world; my offer of $100 for a pound of seed that will grow as handsome, as lucious [sic] and as valuable a melon has never been taken up. Its weight is about 25 pounds. The Salt Lake hotels and restaurants have been using this melon for about three years. They are also shipped to all parts of the East, and the demand has always exceeded the supply. Its keeping qualities are wonderful, and we have them on hand up to Christmas and they are as fine as when gathered from the vines on September first.

To my frustration, Brown failed to describe the melon’s shape, flesh color, or skin color or pattern. He probably would have mentioned the color if it was nearly white, but not necessarily; melons varied more in those days than they do now. Hansen had brought back seeds of watermelons with white, yellow, and green flesh; spots instead of stripes; bright yellow skin; and, in one case, “skin adorned with pretty designs.”

But only one of Hansen’s cultivars came close to matching William Woys Weaver’s description of ‘King and Queen.’ Originally from Chimkent, Turkestan, this melon was “round, quite large, light green with dark stripes, flesh red; late and of good keeping quality.” Although the fruit didn’t ripen in the South Dakota trials, the plant may have produced well in Elgin, Utah. If it did, Brown would have had to give it a name, because Hansen had not. And what would he call “the king and queen of the melon world” but ‘King and Queen’?

In the fall of 1889 Brown shipped to the USDA “187 pounds of seeds and a carload of melons from a planting of 3 ½ pounds of seeds given me.” The seeds were distributed to melon-growing regions around the country, and Brown began talking up the ‘King and Queen.’

I like to imagine GFRs on their long journeys by ship, rail, and wagon with seeds sown into the hems of their skirts or tucked into corners of their valises. And maybe the white-skinned ‘Winter Watermelon’ did come to America in such a way. Hansen, after all, tested seeds of six watermelon varieties that he gathered from a Mennonite GFR community in Windom, Minnesota, and another “American” watermelon variety that went by the name ‘Volga.’ Those seeds, too, may have been distributed around the country. And seeds of other winter varieties may have spread from GFR communities anywhere from the Pacific Coast to New York.

If I can get Betty to grow Andrew Still’s ‘Winter King and Queen’ again, and to give me two fruits instead on one, I will try keeping one until Christmas and brining the other. And I will also try to order seeds of a striped ‘King and Queen.’ I am eager to learn if the two are strains of the same cultivar or if the differences are more than skin-deep.

 

Eating the Enemy: The European Brown Snail

Throughout last spring and early summer I murdered a hundred, sometimes two hundred, every day. Some were smaller than a pea, others were as big as a walnut. I would pluck them off leaves until both my hands were full, pile them on a stone or board, stamp once, hard, with my right foot in its rubber clog, and give a sideways shove to land all the sticky, slimy mess in a garden bed, where before the day was done their live cousins would turn them back to soil.

The European Brown Snail

 My husband was appalled at the waste. We could eat them, he would quietly remind me. But I couldn’t get up an appetite for creatures that reminded me of carnage and gore. I couldn’t even look at the sole of my shoe. I knew only that unless I kept up with the killing we’d have no vegetables, no melons—nothing appetizing to eat at all.

My enemy is the European brown snail, Cornu aspersum, formerly known as Helix aspersa and Cryptomphalus aspersus. In the Mediterranean region, people have been eating these snails for ten thousand years. They came to the West Coast of this country soon after the Gold Rush, when a Frenchman introduced them to his San Jose vineyard “with an eye to the pot.” The snails were especially adaptable, and predators were lacking. By 1900 the snails had been found in Oakland and Pacific Grove (near Monterey), and they were common in Los Angeles.* Today they are so ubiquitous in California that they are sometimes called the California brown snail. Here in Oregon they are rare in the country but abundant in the cities. They are said to live happily in forests and deserts, so perhaps they slid all the way to the Willamette Valley on their own slime. But I suspect they came on nursery pots.

One rainy day Robert and I returned from a drive to find a whole convention of big ones at the edge of the driveway and all over the artichoke plants beside it. I hadn’t been snail hunting in the artichoke bed, because snails don’t eat artichoke buds; they just like hanging out in the shade of the plants. Left alone through a wet early summer, these mollusks had grown big—almost gros gris size, as the French say, as opposed to petit gris. Robert smiled as if he’d stumbled on a morel in the forest or a well-marbled steak in a supermarket. I told him I’d collect some if he wanted to prepare them. He did.

In five minutes I’d bagged 60. Robert put them in a bucket in the basement with some cornmeal and covered the bucket with half an old T-shirt, held tight with string. One time the snails got loose, through a little armpit hole, and I had to gather them up as they were escaping in all directions across the pool table that serves as our all-purpose worktable. But otherwise their last days were uneventful. Their poop turned from black to white. Each day for six days, Robert cleaned the bucket of poop and slime. Twice a day we misted the T-shirt with water.

Europeans, we read, often kill their snails by salting them, to thoroughly purge them of slime. My French son-in-law says the salting is actually just torture, not murder; that comes later. In either case, even I couldn’t be so cruel.

So Robert followed a different method. He rinsed the snails in several changes of tepid water, and then boiled them for 15 minutes in 2 gallons of water. He lifted out the snails with a basket ladle and dropped them into a bowl of water with ½ cup vinegar. He rinsed them, drained them, rinsed them again in vinegar-water, and then drained them again. He picked out the meat with a small paring knife, poking the point into the center of the whorl and unwinding the body with a twist of the wrist. And then he rinsed the meats a final time in the vinegar-water.

The 60 snails were now reduced to a collection of pretty shells and 6.5 ounces of snail meat. In the classic escargot preparation, you stuff the snails back into their shells along with butter, parsley, garlic, and the like, cook the snails, and then pull the meats out again to eat them. Robert chose a simpler way. He melted ½ cup butter, and in it he sautéed a minced celery stalk, a sliced lion’s mane mushroom, and three large garlic cloves, minced. He added the snails, 1/3 cup pinot grigio, and 2 tablespoons minced sage (unconventional, but Robert loves sage). He simmered the sauce down a bit while boiling 8 ounces of linguine. Then he added a handful of chopped parsley to the sauce and poured the sauce over the hot, drained pasta.

shelled snails

Sixty snails are a lot for two people, especially when one of them is feeling a little queasy. I would suggest increasing the quantities of pasta and sauce ingredients, inviting another couple to dinner, and serving plenty of wine. But Robert enjoyed his leftover snails for lunch. They taste fine when you stop thinking of them as war victims.

empty snail shells

I was so thorough in my slaughter in spring and early summer that now I’m killing only a dozen or two snails a day. But I have no doubt that when the rains start the snails will be back in force, if not from eggs in my garden then from the neighbors’ yards on both sides. When the creatures get really big again, I’ll ask Robert if he’s ready for another adventure with
escargot.

*Robert E. C. Stearns, “Exotic Mollusca in California.” Science 11:278 (April 27, 1900), pp. 655-59.

Mulberries for Jam

I’ve been curious about mulberries ever since I visited Dave Holderread’s waterfowl farm, about 25 years ago, and saw them planted in his duck pens. Dave explained that the trees would not only provide shade for the birds but would feed them without his intervention.

I wondered at this. Blackberries that grew on trees! Why didn’t more people plant mulberries? Why didn’t I plant a mulberry tree?

But I never identified a good place on the farm for a mulberry tree, and I certainly couldn’t make room for one when we moved to town. So I was delighted when my sister told me that my father’s mulberry tree. only a few years old, was producing heavily. That was in early July. A month later she told me that the tree was still producing loads of ripe fruit.

The other day I paid my father a visit. He, like Dave Holderread, had planted his mulberry tree to feed birds. But my father doesn’t keep ducks, or even chickens; he wanted to feed wild birds. He remembered a mulberry tree in the yard of a childhood home that had attracted all kinds of birds, whole flocks of birds. He had loved watching the birds eat the mulberries, and in his old age he wanted to repeat the experience.

The birds must have already had their fill for the day, because I didn’t notice any as I picked a pound and a half of mulberries for myself. I drove home with fingers stained deep purple.

The stains weren’t only on my fingers. Carrying the bag of mulberries into the house without removing my shoes, I noticed that my shoes were sticking to the floor, which now bore purple stains. The soles, I saw, were covered with mulberry gunk. I tried to rinse them in the kitchen sink, rubbing off the gunk with my fingers, but the water kept running purple. I scrubbed the soles with a sturdy brush to get the gunk out of the crevices. But immediately my shirt became covered with tiny purple-black dots. I felt like the Cat in the Hat with his pink bathtub ring. The water in which I was rinsing my shoes simply would not run clear, so I wrapped the shoes in a rag and set them outdoors to dry. Then I dropped my shirt in the sink and poured three kettlefuls of boiling water through the cloth. Sadly, the dots were much more stubborn than wine or blackberry stains. I gave up on the shirt, defeated by anthocyanins.

Black fruits from the species Morus nigra are considered the tastiest mulberries, but not all mulberries are black. M. rubra, native to the eastern states, is named for its red or purple fruit. M. alba, named not for its fruit but for its pale buds, can produce white or lavender as well as black berries. M. alba is the mulberry of East Asia, the original silkworm food (the caterpillars can also eat the leaves of other mulberry species). Although the West has long given up sericulture in favor of nylon and other synthetics, Europe and North America both had silk industries once, and for this reason the white mulberry is now a weed tree in Europe, much of Canada, and every U.S. state except Nevada (although, strangely, I have never seen one). M. alba is a promiscuous thing, crossing so often with the native M. rubra that some fear the red mulberry will soon no longer exist in its pure form. The heat-loving M. nigra, meanwhile, keeps to itself, not hybridizing with the other two at all. It will bear temperatures no lower than 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

There are other mulberry species, and many interesting cultivars within the species. One Green World Nursery sells a contorted mulberry, a weeping mulberry, a dwarf mulberry, and a mulberry from Pakistan with fruits as long as six inches.  Jim Gilbert, the nursery’s founder, has said he particularly likes ‘Illinois Everbearing,’ which although black-fruited is an alba-rubra cross. I suspect this is the cultivar my father has. It performs well not only in the Willamette Valley but throughout much of the country, to USDA zone 4. And the fruit is intensely tasty. Some compare the taste to blackberry and blueberry combined.

I stored my berries in the fridge overnight and, in the morning, clipped off their stems with kitchen shears. This is the only tedious part of processing mulberries, whose fine but tough stems are hard to pull out, easier to cut. Then I made the berries into jam in the usual way, by mashing the fruit and adding sugar and a little lemon juice. They need no added pectin.

Mulberry Jam

1½ pounds stemmed mulberries, rinsed
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice

First, put on an apron or, better yet, your painting clothes. Then put the mulberries into a preserving pan. Cook them over medium-low heat, crushing them with a potato masher, until they are tender. Remove the pan from the heat.

Add the sugar and lemon juice. Return the pan to the heat, and cook the mixture over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat to medium high, and cook the jam to 218 degrees F, until a drop mounds in a chilled dish. This will take about 5
minutes.

Ladle the jam into sterilized pint or half-pint mason jars. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water or steam canner for 5 minutes.

Makes 1 ½ pints

This jam turns out distinct from blackberry jam, although the color and flavor are similar. The big difference is the seeds. Mulberries have more. Thankfully, mulberry seeds are small—too small to stick between the teeth—and they are pleasantly crunchy, like sesame seeds.

Mulberries are good for more than jam. The fresh ones are a treat. The fruit can be dried and—no surprise—used to make a dye. Both the leaves and the root bark are used medicinally.

Judging from the red and white immature fruits on my father’s tree, it will probably keep producing fruits for another two weeks or more. Who can resist a tree that produces huge quantities of fruit over such a long period, that brings birds to the garden, that grows to maturity quickly, that usually stays fairly small (‘Illinois Everbearing’ grows no taller than 20 feet), and that can take the form of a shrub, an espalier, and a contorted or weeping ornamental as well as an ordinary tree?

One warning, though: You should not plant a black-fruited mulberry near a walkway or in an area where children play, unless they are better trained than I to remove and clean their shoes before coming into the house.

Today I cleaned gobs of mulberry gunk off my car mat. Somehow, even the driver’s seat had acquired a few deep purple stains. They will probably be there forever.

A New, Smooth and Savory Plum Sauce

What exactly is Chinese plum sauce, anyway? I’ve often pondered this while making the stuff according to my own recipe in The Joy of Pickling, which produces a delicious chutney, thick and chewy with mustard seeds. But there is nothing Chinese about my beloved Chinese plum sauce besides the inclusion of rice wine, which I’m sure was one of my own additions to the recipe as it was passed down to me, by whom I don’t remember. My Chinese plum sauce, I’m afraid, is basically English, with a strong, nostalgic whiff of India.

Plum sauce is supposed to be Cantonese. It has long been served in Cantonese-American restaurants, where it accompanies duck or deep-fried foods. It usually takes the form of a gloppy, pink sweet-and-sour sauce that may or may not include plums or any fruit at all. But what exactly was plum sauce in China, if it even had a life in China before appearing in the United States?

Some plum sauce recipes, including Kikkoman’s, include apricots. That’s a clue: Apricots are closely related to China’s most common plum, Prunus mume, the very tart, golden fruit that’s salted and dried or used to make plum wine. The Chinese call the plant mei, the fruit meizi. The Japanese call the fruit ume, the name I know it by, too. With its high acid content and beautiful golden color, ume would make a fine sauce for meat or fried foods with no added vinegar at all.

Most plum sauce manufacturers are in the United States. At least one is in Malaysia. Kikkoman is Japanese but operates two plants in the United States and sells its products all over the world. I’ve located just one plum-sauce maker in China—in Hong Kong, actually: Lee Kum Kee. Lee Kum Kee’s founding legend goes like this: Lee Kum Sheung, the company’s founder, accidentally invented oyster sauce in 1888, when he simmered some oysters for too long. He liked the result so much that he introduced the sauce to the world. Today Lee Kum Kee makes not only oyster sauce but plum sauce from salted ume, which are spiced only with ginger and chile.

Methley plums

Sadly, I have no ume tree. Not yet, anyway—the grafts from a friend’s tree, with the rare virtue of producing fruit in our climate, have failed to take. But last week my friend Renata brought me two grocery bags full of Methley Japanese plums, and Robert and I couldn’t eat them all fresh. It was time to make plum sauce.

pitted plums

I didn’t want to use my old recipe. I wanted something more like real plum sauce, if I could figure out what that might be. I scanned recipes on the Web. Some contained soy sauce, but that would darken the plum sauce. Some included a slough of muddying spices. Some called for starch—cornstarch or potato starch or yams.

I didn’t want my sauce to be gluey, overspiced, oversweetened, or any darker than it needed to be (Methley plums are purple). But I did want it to be smooth, so I would leave out any vegetables or seeds, and I would put the mixture through the food mill. I would keep the sugar content moderate and the spicing typically Chinese. Here is the recipe I developed.

Methley Plum Sauce

3 whole star anise
2 teaspoons chile flakes
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppers
1½ tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 pounds pitted Methley or other Japanese plums
1 tablespoon pickling salt
1½ cups rice vinegar
1½ cups sugar

Put the star anise, chile flakes, cinnamon stick, and Sichuan peppers into a spice bag. Put the spice bag along with the remaining ingredients into a large nonreactive pot. Bring the mixture slowly to a simmer, and simmer it uncovered for about an hour, until it has thickened substantially but is still thinner than hot jam or chutney.

Press the spice bag with a spoon against the side of the pot, and remove the bag. Press the plum mixture through the medium screen of a food mill. Return the sauce to the pan, heat the sauce just to a boil, and then ladle it into pint or half-pint mason jars. Process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes.

Makes 2 to 2½ pints

With no duck on hand, we tried the sauce on ham. The sauce is tart, mildly tannic, and aromatic, and not too sweet. I like it very much, though I think I would like it even more with lighter-colored plums.

Feel free to vary this recipe according to your tastes. You might leave out the chile flakes, the Sichuan peppers, or both if you dislike them. The ginger and star anise should be the dominant flavors—though you might leave out even the star anise if you prefer; after all, star anise probably isn’t traditional in Cantonese plum sauce.

I look forward to re-inventing plum sauce once more when I have some fresh ume plums to work with. In the meantime, I may try making a small batch in the Lee Kum Kee style, from ume plums that I salted myself last year.

Now, tell me: What is Chinese plum sauce to you? Do you have your own unique way of making it?

Eating Purple Peas

I fell in love with purple peas two years ago at Monticello, where the pea was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite vegetable. He had his slaves plant every variety he could get his hands on.

Capucijner peas at Monticello
Capucijner peas at Monticello

I didn’t taste the purple peas; I only saw them growing in Monticello’s restored garden. With their lovely pink-and-violet blossoms and deep-purple pods, they were the Blue-Podded Capucijner, said to have been grown by Franciscan Capuchin monks as early as the sixteenth century and now for sale in the Monticello gift shop. The Capucijner is recommended for drying for soup, but it is sometimes picked young and eaten as an edible-podded snow pea. I didn’t know that at the time, or care. I just loved the plant for its looks.

In Monticello’s shop I reluctantly bypassed the Capucijner seeds, because in my little garden I can spare only four feet of row for peas, and I usually devote all of that space to Cascadia snap peas. But after Slow Food USA paired seeds from the Ark of Taste with new varieties from the young company Row 7 in Slow Food’s Plant a Seed Campaign last year, a packet of Beauregarde snow pea seeds was passed around the table at a Slow Food Corvallis board meeting. With one look at the watercolor image of purple pods on the packet, I dropped the packet in my bag.

Beauregarde peas on the vine
Beauregarde peas on the vine

Last February I planted some Beauregarde seeds alongside my Cascadias, and soon I was rewarded with pink-and-purple blooms like the ones I’d seen at Monticello. Deep-purple pods followed, bending as the peas inside began to swell. I had to search for the packet to remind me what sort of peas I was growing. At this point, some of the peas—green in their purple pods—were nearly big enough for eating shelled. But Beauregarde was supposed to be a snow pea. So I started picking.

Beauregarde was bred by Michael Mazourek, an associate professor at Cornell, where he breeds vegetables to resist insects and diseases on Northeastern farms. Row 7 Seeds is his collaborative venture with Dan Barber, chef and restaurant co-owner at the nonprofit Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, also in New York, and seedsman Matthew Goldfarb. The men’s shared goal is to breed vegetables for taste as well as suitability for organic farming, to produce the seeds organically, and to sell them widely. On the Row 7 website, they list all their collaborators, chefs around the United States who test the vegetables in their kitchens and farmers across the country who produce the seeds.

Michael Mazourek named Beauregarde for Violet Beauregarde, a character in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As you may remember, rude, arrogant Violet chews an experimental gum that makes her swell up and turn blue, like a giant blueberry. The Oompa-Loompa factory workers squeeze the juice out of her, but the indigo color remains. And that’s what most special about the Beauregarde pea pods: However you cook them, the deep-purple color remains.

The purple color comes, of course, from anthocyanins, which may or may not enhance human health by fighting infections, inflammation, cancer, and diabetes, by preventing dementia, and by improving vision. Unfortunately, none of these benefits has been proven. What we know anthocyanins do is improve plants’ defenses–against disease, drought, predation, and other stresses. Perhaps because of anthocyanins, Beauregarde resists fusarium wilt, although the plant is susceptible to powdery mildew late in the season.

After the peas are eaten, purple stains remain.
After the peas are eaten, purple
stains remain.

Humans appreciate anthocyanin pigments for their appearance, in the garden and on the plate, and for the extra, vaguely spicy flavor they lend to, say, Black Krim tomatoes or Purple Haze carrots. But there is one annoying thing about most red and purple vegetables: Their pigments tend to leak out. I’ve written about this effect in pickled Swiss chard stems, and I’ve experienced it also with purple peppers. Michael Mazourek knows the trick of keeping the purple in the peas.

I didn’t research Beauregarde peas before cooking them, so their color retention amazed me. Cooking the peas brought other surprises as well. First, they are not sweet. My snap peas are sweet enough to eat as dessert. Shelled peas are sweet, too, if picked at the right stage. Green snow pea pods develop sweetness as the peas develop, although as they reach maturity the sugar turns to starch. Row 7 advises letting Beauregarde pods swell until the peas are halfway to shelling size. This is what I do when I grow green snow peas, but I must disagree with this recommendation for Beauregardes. Swollen Beauregarde pods look deformed, they are tough, and they need stringing. And their flavor is not improved over the flat pods.

The second big surprise, for me, was the long cooking Beauregarde peas seem to require. I haven’t timed the cooking exactly, but at least ten minutes are needed to render even flat Beauregarde pods tolerably tender.

The third surprise was that Beauregarde peas taste bland. Their anthocyanins don’t seem to give them that extra je ne sais quoi. I can best describe their flavor as neutral vegetable.

Beauregarde pea pods stir-fried with bok choy and served over Thai magenta noodles
Beauregarde pea pods stir-fried with bok choy and served over Thai magenta noodles, which are colored by anthocyanins from the tropical perennial Peristrophe roxburghiana (or P. bivalvis)

But still these pea pods can be delicious. I love them sautéed in olive oil with plenty of garlic and then braised with a little water liquid until they are tender. The tender but chewy texture, the taste of garlic throughout, and the prodigious purpleness combine to make me devour a dishful of Beauregardes, and reach for more.

I would love to hear about your experiences with these and other purple peas, such as Sugar Magnolia, Royal Snow, and Royal Snap II.

Shopping in the Garden for Spring Salad Makings

spring salad

While we are all avoiding trips to the grocery store, it’s good to remember that the garden may offer much more interesting things to eat, anyway. Here I’ve combined the last of the arugula with shaved fennel and johnny jump-ups, which have jumped up everywhere in the gravel between my raised vegetable beds. These flowers are not only edible but truly tasty. Since their aroma is easily overwhelmed by vinaigrette, they are best eaten straight from the plant, but how they prettify a salad! I’ve added handfuls of tart, juicy haskaps, the first fruit of the year, always beating out strawberries by at least a week. And finally I’ve sprinkled over big green seeds of sweet cicely, a ferny plant of the carrot family whose roots, leaves, and seeds all taste sweetly of anise and are said to be helpful to the digestion. Safeway may have some fennel bulbs in stock, but otherwise none of these plants can be found there. Together they taste of springtime.

Naked Barley: Lovely and Local

The food shortages that accompanied the outbreak of the coronavirus and continue to this day have made local food—food produced for the local population rather than for shipping across the country and overseas—a suddenly more urgent cause. I have struggled to understand why supermarkets have been able to stock all-purpose flour but not bread flour or whole-wheat flour. But I have asked myself a more important question, too: Why are we all reliant on grain and flour from Midwestern mega-mills? One hundred and twenty years ago, everyone in this valley ate wheat both grown and ground within ten miles or so from home. If we still did that, we would have some security against crises that upset the national and international food distribution networks.

As I thought about all this last week, my heart swelled for the one pair of local farmers I know who grow wheat, barley, and meal corn, bag it themselves, and spend much of the summer at farmers’ markets selling their goods to the public. And I took a bag of the Harcombes’ naked barley out of the freezer.

Naked barley gets naked by dropping its inedible hulls during harvest, just as modern wheat varieties do. This means the barley doesn’t need “pearling”—the abrasive process that removes the bran as well as the hull of each kernel. Naked barley takes longer to cook than pearl barley, but it has a pleasant, chewier texture, nutty flavor, and more nutrients. And its habit of shedding its own hull means that small commercial farmers and even homesteaders can easily process it to a ready-to-cook stage. You can use naked barley in brewing and for animal feed as well.

Naked barleyPaul and Nonie Harcombe’s naked barley is a variety called ‘Streakers,’ the first release of the Oregon State University Barley Project. Naked barley was nothing new when the OSU researchers started their project, but they aimed to breed something new indeed: a naked barley that would resist the rust disease endemic to the Pacific Northwest. The grain has grown well for Paul and Nonie. Now they just need to get people used to eating barley.

And why not eat barley, especially when it’s hulled but not pearled? The whole grain is full of minerals and fiber. It can help to lower both blood sugar and cholesterol. It is excellent as a breakfast cereal and in grain salads and pilafs. And it makes an interesting substitute in some traditional pearl-barley dishes, such as this soup.

mushroom-barley soup

Mushroom-Barley Soup

I have used here a mix of chanterelles and winter chanterelles (funnel chanterelles, yellowfoot chanterelles) from the freezer. Both are easy to find in the lower Cascades, not far from my home, and easy to identify, too. Before freezing the mushrooms last fall, I cleaned them and cooked them in a dry skillet until they stopped releasing water.

¾ cup naked barley
2 ¼ cups water
6 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 quart beef or chicken stock
1 Mediterranean bay leaf
2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
4 ounces onion, chopped
2 ounces carrot, chopped
2 ounces celery, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
8 ounces frozen cooked chanterelles or other mushrooms, thawed
½ cup chopped parsley
1 tablespoon fresh thyme or savory leaves
Salt and ground black pepper to taste

Put the barley into a bowl with 1½ cups of the water. Cover the bowl, and let it stand overnight or for at least several hours.

Toward the end of this period, put the shiitakes into a bowl with the remaining ¾ cup water. Weight the shiitakes with another bowl set inside the first, and let them soak for an hour.

In a pot, combine the barley, the stock, the shiitake soaking water (reserve the shiitakes), and the bay leaf. Bring the mixture to a boil, cover the pan, and let the barley simmer for an hour or until it is tender.

In a small skillet, heat the oil or butter over medium heat. Sauté the onion until it is tender. Add the carrot, celery, and garlic, and sauté 5 minutes more. Put the vegetables into the pot along with the frozen and thawed mushrooms, the parsley, and the thyme or savory. Slice the shiitakes, and add the tops to the pot. Add the salt and pepper to taste. Return the contents of the pan to a simmer, and simmer them for about 20 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.

Serve the soup at once, or cool it for later reheating. The naked barley won’t swell as much as pearl barley, so your soup won’t turn into porridge. If you’d like it thinner, though, just add some stock or water.

Serves 3 as a main dish

ChouAmi: A New Jar-Top Fermentation Device

parts of a ChouAmi
ChouAmi parts

I am so mechanically inept that I have never been able to figure out the Kraut Source fermentation device—an expensive thing ($30!) made up of several stainless-steel parts that somehow fit together on top of a standard American mason jar. I was just as bemused when I received in the mail a ChouAmi fermentation device, which is nearly exactly like the Kraut Source device except that the ChouAmi version fits on a straight-sided, 1-liter Le Parfait jar. Such a jar was included in the package, but instructions were not.

The jar and all the stainless-steel pieces sat on the kitchen counter for months. Occasionally I would examine them and try fitting them together. Enlightenment alluded me. Then I decided use a big daikon and an Egyptian walking onion, before it went to seed, to make some kakdooki.* I looked at the Le Parfait jar. It appeared to be just about the right size to hold my big daikon. It was time to try out the ChouAmi.

Kakdooki is Korean-style fermented radish cubes, flavored with ground red pepper, green onions, garlic, sometimes ginger, and often fish sauce or tiny brined shrimp or both. This is one fermented pickle that I never bother to weight, because the seasonings seem to prevent any yeast or mold growth. Regardless, I would use my fancy new device. I mixed the radish cubes and seasonings, dropped them into the jar, and pressed down the mixture with my fingers. It fit perfectly, with just an inch or so of headspace.

trough, spring, and plateI picked up the ChouAmi pieces, and suddenly I knew exactly how they fit together. I placed the main piece on top of the jar and screwed the ring over it. Then I turned the loop in the center of the main piece. This released a spring attached to a perforated plate sized to fit perfectly in the jar (this main piece is actually three; they come apart for cleaning). The plate pressed against the vegetables, while liquid rose over it. I set the dome on top.

adding the domeOnly hours later did it occur to me that the dome wasn’t meant to keep out dust. It was sitting in a trough. So I filled the trough with water. Now I had an airlock! Carbon dioxide could escape under the dome, through the water, but oxygen couldn’t get in.

What an elaborately clever device! No wonder the price was so high.

Actually, though, I don’t know the price of a ChouAmi. The company is still getting started, through a Kickstarter campaign. The company website needs work; I couldn’t get the instructional video to play.

fermenting kakdookiSo I’m afraid that if you head to your local kitchenware store today you won’t find the ChouAmi. But the store is probably closed, anyway. So, wait until the danger of the corona virus eases, and then keep your eyes open for the ChouAmi. If you’re happy to make most of your vegetable ferments in a 1-liter jar, this device may prove to be a bon ami indeed.

*Green Egyptian walking onions are sweeter and milder than scallions.