Blooming exactly in accordance with European folk tradition is this Angelica archangelica, whose flowers burst forth in my garden on May 8, the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel. When you see flowering angelica you may have missed your chance to cut stems for preserving—unless you also find some first-year plants, which will wait until next year to blossom. Happily, I have a bed crowded with both first- and second-year angelica.
Upon seeing the blooms I hurried to cut a few young, all-green stems (the flowering ones turn red), because I remembered that I’d wanted to make a traditional northern European preserve that combines stalks of both angelica and rhubarb. I thank Laura Content, of Portland, for telling me about—
2/3 cup water 2 cups sugar 1 pound rhubarb stalks ½ pound angelica stalks
In a preserving pan, slowly dissolve the sugar in the water, and bring the syrup to a boil.
As the syrup heats, cut the rhubarb into 1-inch pieces. Peel the angelica stalks, and cut them it into slender rings. Add the angelica and rhubarb to the hot syrup, stir, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer it very gently for an hour or longer, stirring very little if at all, until the rhubarb is quite tender and the syrup is somewhat thickened. Keep in mind that the preserves will thicken more as they cool.
Ladle the preserves into four half-pint sterilized jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Add lids and rings, and process the jars for 5 minutes.
The recipe to which Laura referred me was actually one for rhubarb-angelica jam. If you want a jammy texture, you can simply stir the preserves during or after cooking. But I think that preserves are prettier, especially if your rhubarb is the red-skinned kind.
Angelica has a strong, medicinal aroma that mystifies and even scares people unfamiliar with it. If you’d prefer to tone down the angelica, at least the first time that you try this recipe, simply increase the weight of rhubarb in relation to the angelica. Try, say, 1¼ pounds rhubarb to ¼ pound angelica.
If you really love angelica, you might use proportionally more than called for here. One reader of this blog wrote that Icelanders use equal parts rhubarb and angelica in their preserves. That might take some getting used to, but I already like angelica in this more modest role.
While browsing in Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed yesterday, I came upon a description of two angelica species, Angelica archangelica and A. sylvestris: “Both these angelicas grow wild near abandoned ruins and damp places. In February the Salentines [the people of the Salerno, the heel of the Italian boot] go feverishly in search of them. This is the moment when the incipient flower-heads are still enclosed in their sheaths right up against the greenish-purple stem. You cut these sheaths with a knife.”
Ah, I though, here is my reward for letting angelica—the garden variety, A. archangelica—take over an entire flower bed. I headed straight to the garden to cut some of the little sheaths. According to Patience, I could boil or grill them and serve them with olive oil and a little wine vinegar, or I could boil, flour, and fry them. The sheaths would taste strong and bitter, I knew, although Patience described them as “aromatic and faintly sweet.” British by birth, she had adopted Italian tastes; she seemed to truly like bitter weeds. I might prefer the bitterness softened with grease and starch. So I decided to fry my sheaths.
The sheaths came in various sizes. I tore into some of the large ones because I could feel bits of hard stalk inside. Within each large sheath I found a smaller one, or, usually, two. Sometimes the larger of the two contained two more little sheaths. The soft green pouches within pouches reminded me of Matryoshka dolls, or of the Cat in the Hat, with all the little and littler cats hidden beneath his topper.
A tender green flower-head peeked out from one slightly open sheath, looking like a strangely delicate broccoli floret. Perhaps this sheath was past its prime? I decided to use it anyway.
To make zavirne fritte, you boil the sheaths “for a few minutes,” instructed Patience. I hurried to put a pot of salted water on to boil, because the cut edges of the angelica had begun browning immediately after harvest. I boiled the sheaths vigorously for five minutes. This was perhaps a bit too long; one or two began to fall apart, though the open sheath turned out fine. Next time I’ll give them just three to four minutes.
I drained off the now vivid-green water, covered the sheaths with cold water, and let them sit in the water for an hour, as Patience instructed. The soaking, I supposed, would moderate their bitterness.
After an hour had passed, I drained the sheaths and dried them on a towel. I rolled them first in beaten egg and then in salted and peppered flour before frying them in hot oil until the coating turned golden.
We ate the fried sheaths immediately, while I finished cooking dinner. This was the right thing to do, because zavirne fritte are best hot; the warm, crisp coating counteracts the bitterness.
Angelica sheaths are bitter, more bitter than radicchio, I’d say, though less so than dandelions. The incipient flower-heads inside are tender and sweetly perfumed in the odd, medicinal way of angelica—rather like licorice, rather like anise, but at the same time wholly different from both. To know this flavor you must try angelica candy or liqueur, if not zavirne fritte.
Robert dislikes the flavor of angelica; it reminds him of soap. (Soapmakers take note: The scent of angelica would be appealing in your products.) Maybe the flavor will grow on him, if he lets it. But eating angelica is lovely thing to try even if you do it just once. You will no doubt marvel at the taste, and, if you believe the old-time herbalists, you will leave the table fortified against witches, evil spirits, and the plague.
A couple of weeks ago I gazed out my back door at a Washington hawthorn, its fruit beginning to drop following a cold snap, and considered the comment that Jan Grover made in this blog in October: “A friend who teaches told me about an abandoned orchard behind her school building, and I went there, intent on foraging the apples she described—and I discovered haws! There were two small, gnarled hawthorns smothered in bright-red haws, and I picked several pounds, brought them home, and turned them into what proved to be a Kool-Aid-red/pink jelly. . . . The taste is slightly, ummmm, feral, and goes beautifully with autumn braises. Sugar, lemon juice, water—that was all it took: Haws are evidently crammed with pectin.”
If I wanted to try making haw jelly this year, I had to act fast. So I fetched an orchard ladder and sampled a haw. The tiny, orange-red fruit had only a bit of mealy flesh wrapped around five seeds.* The fruit was neither tart nor bitter but had a sweet, spicy flavor similar to that of rosehips and medlar fruits. This was no surprise, since the hawthorn is cousin to the rose and the medlar both. The haws ought to make good jelly indeed, I figured.
As I picked them, most of the fruits came free of their stems. In fifteen minutes I had enough haws, I figured, to make a small batch of jelly. I rinsed them, shook them in the strainer to separate the remaining stems, and picked out the stems before cooking the haws in enough water to cover them.
The juice turned out a cloudy pink but clarified when I combined it with sugar. I added plenty of lemon juice, since the haws seemed low in acid. The syrup jelled quickly and firmly.
The finished jelly looks much like quince jelly—almost as clear and bright, in fact, as red currant jelly. You must put your nose close to to catch the warm, spicy aroma, but the flavor blooms in the mouth. It reminds Robert of tropical fruit—passion fruit, he thinks, or guava. But I think haw jelly puts guava jelly to shame. In flavor, only rosehip jelly compares.
Here’s my recipe for—
2 ½ pounds stemmed haws 2 cups sugar ½ cup strained lemon juice
Put the haws into a pot, and barely cover them with water (you’ll need about 6 cups). Simmer the haws, uncovered, for about an hour, mashing them with a potato masher or spoon every 20 minutes or so.
Drain off the haw juice through a coarse strainer, and then let it drip through a jelly bag for at least several hours or as long as overnight. Don’t worry if the juice looks cloudy. You should end up with 2¼ cups.
In a preserving pan, combine the haw juice with the sugar and lemon juice. Over medium-high heat, bring the mixture to a boil, stirring. Raise the heat to high, and boil the syrup until it sheets from a spoon or reaches 221 degrees F. Pour the hot syrup into two sterilized half-pint jars, and add lids and rings. Process the jars for 5 minutes in a boiling-water bath.
Makes 2 half-pints
* The fruits of the Washington hawthorn, Crataegus phaenopyrum, have three to five seeds; the haws of other species come in red, yellow, black, or purple and have as few as one seed per fruit. C. phaenopyrum is a native of the Eastern states that’s widely planted elsewhere in landscapes, though I don’t know why; its thorny branches shoot randomly in every direction. But the many other species of hawthorn grow in a similar fashion, and for that reason they are most appreciated as the stuff of impenetrable hedges; the word haw, in fact,means “hedge.” The genus has other virtues besides: The wood is very hard and therefore useful for making tools, and the leaves, flowers, and fruits have been used since ancient times in treating heart disease (recent medical studies are proving their efficacy). The hawthorn species most used in jelly making is C. monogyna, a native of Europe, northwest Africa, and western Asia that has become an invasive weed in Oregon and elsewhere. Native here is the Douglas hawthorn, C.douglasii. Next year I’ll have to try making jelly from the little black Douglas haws.
At the Good Food Awards blind tastings on September 15, my favorite sauerkraut was flecked with bits of green seaweed, whose tangy flavor and as well as strong color complemented the pale, sour cabbage.* So when I made my last batch of kohlrabi kraut this fall, I decided to incorporate sea palm, Postelsia palmaeformis, sent to me by a friend in California. The small, mild-flavored species of kelp, which stands erect in ever-pounding surf with its palm-like fronds exposed to the air, grows on rocky shores from Vancouver Island to south-central California. Its harvest is illegal, however, in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, and even in California some fear the species may be threatened. My friend swore, however, that her sea palm was harvested sustainably, and I was happy for the opportunity to experiment with it.
I used just an ounce of dried sea palm for 10 pounds of kohlrabi, and I cut the long seaweed fronds into short lengths with scissors before mixing them with the kohlrabi. Next time I’ll cut much shorter pieces, because the dried seaweed swells immensely as the kraut ferments. But the moist, mild kraut looks and tastes lovely with the chewy, minerally green bits. Here’s the recipe:
Kohlrabi Kraut with Sea Palm
Peel the kohlrabi with a sturdy knife, and cut any woody parts out of the flesh.
10 pounds peeled and coarsely grated kohlrabi 6 tablespoons pickling salt 1 ounce dried sea palm fronds, cut into short pieces
Thoroughly mix 5 pounds of the kohlrabi with 3 tablespoons of the salt and half of the sea palm pieces, and pack the mixture into a crock or other suitable container with a volume of at least 1.5 gallons. Mix the remaining ingredients in the same way, and pack this batch on top of the first. Weight the mixture, cover the container, and let the kohlrabi ferment at room temperature for two weeks or longer, until the kraut is as sour as you like.
Have you tried seaweed in your sauerkraut? I’d love to know what kinds you have used and how you liked the results.
*This must have been OlyKraut’s Sea Vegetable Gourmet Sauerkraut, which has just been announced as a finalist for the Good Food Awards 2014.
I have a longstanding horror of the all-white meal—the epitome of domestic artistry in the late nineteenth century, when American housewives drowned meat and vegetables in white sauce and favored angel cake and whipped cream for dessert. When I find myself serving up white fish and new potatoes on the same plate, or bowls of parsnip soup with white bread on the side, I bolt, frantic, for the parsley patch. White sauce is so foreign to my food culture that I had to watch studiously as our French houseguest, Raphaël, whipped up some béchamel for mushroom crêpes the other day. I really should know how to do that, I thought. But I was relieved when all the sauce got rolled inside the crêpes, which on the outside remained brilliant yellow from the healthy yolks of homegrown chickens.
Victorian cooks played with other monotone color schemes, including pink—from strawberries, lobster, and tomatoes, for example. The idea of an all-pink meal struck me as more amusing than scary as I tossed kraut made from grated kohlrabi, pinkened with red shiso, to even out the color. For lunch, I could heat up some of the kraut with sautéed pink shallots and pieces of home-brined, home-smoked picnic ham (grass fed, from Heritage Farms). And we could somehow incorporate the heap of pink oyster mushrooms that Raphaël had brought home from the Mushroomery.
As the Mushroomery’s apprentice, Alex, had warned us, pink oysters are more a delight to the eye than to the palate. With heating, we found out, they turn out salmon orange and rather tough, so I’m glad we cooked them separately from the kohlrabi and ham. But the gently heated kraut kept its lovely pink color, which contrasted prettily with the intense pink of the smoked meat. I only regretted that we had no red-fleshed apples this year; I could only imagine the sweet, tender pink slices of fruit nestled in the tart kraut.
My kohlrabi kraut, by the way, turned out exceptionally moist and tender. And topping the fermentation jar with wilted shiso apparently worked not only to provide a comely color but to prevent the growth of yeast or mold. Next time I’ll use more shiso; I’ll put some at the bottom of the jar and more in the middle, for a stronger pink that’s even throughout. Actually, I still have plenty of shiso and kohlrabi to harvest from the bed where I need to plant garlic soon, so I think I’ll start a big pot of pink kohlrabi kraut today.
At the Invasive Species Cook-Off and Dinner at Chintiminti Farm, in Philomath, Oregon, I did my part in destroying alien invaders yesterday. While chefs Jason Biga, Rick Browne, and Hamid Serdani competed to cook the winning meal of wild pig, dandelion greens, and blackberries for three judges, Matt Bennett, of Sybaris Bistro, Albany’s premier restaurant, prepared dinner for the rest of us, a crowd of about two hundred. Matt’s invader-rich creations included crawdad-stuffed piquillo peppers, wild boar sausages, potato and frog leg salad, pulled turkey, dandelion spanakopita, Japanese knotweed custard, and Himalayan blackberry crumble.
I hadn’t known that crawdads were exotic. The invaders, I learned, are specifically rusty crayfish, an Eastern species that eats fish eggs and displaces the native signal crayfish (which, by the way, is an invasive species in Europe and Japan). Oregon schools have sent for rusty crawdads for science lessons. Presumably some kid or teacher couldn’t bear to let the mudbugs die at the end of the day.
I knew turkeys weren’t native, of course. Farmers, gardeners, and even small-town residents all over western Oregon complain about these invaders from the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest. Just this evening, on Sally’s farm on the way to our book group meeting, I drove through a flock of fifteen, who will probably eat up all of Sally’s grapes tonight. We have our own state government to thank for this particular plague. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife(ODFW), which imported the turkeys to provide “recreational opportunities”—opportunities, that is, to kill— boasts that “turkey numbers and distribution as well as turkey hunting opportunities should continue to expand through the next decade,” because the turkeys reproduce quicker than people can shoot them. This is not good news, ODFW! Lessening restrictions on hunting might help. Matt Bennett put quote marks around the word wild on the label for his pulled turkey dish, because he couldn’t legally provide us with true wild turkey meat.
Countering the ODFW is another state agency of sorts, the Oregon Invasive Species Council, which through grants and volunteer labor combats such problems as feral pigs, transported firewood and the bugs that travel with it, and zebra mussels, tiny mollusks that stick to the hulls of boats, cut waders’ feet, and clog up water treatment plants. Many of the worst invaders, though, are flora, not fauna. If you keep a garden in the Pacific Northwest, you will want a copy of the Council’s GardenSmart Oregon: A Guide to Non-Invasive Plants.
Co-sponsoring the dinner along with the Invasive Species Council was the Institute for Applied Ecology, a nonprofit organization based in Corvallis that promotes habitat restoration, teaches children and adults about ecology, and works to make native plants more available and affordable. The dinner and the auction that followed will provide funds to support the Institute’s work.
If you’d like to contribute to the campaign against invasive species, consider registering for next year’s Invasive Species Cook-Off and Dinner, or simply arm yourself with a hoe or a shovel or the teeth in your mouth, and go fight the invaders in your own backyard. Some of them can be very tasty.
Jelly isn’t much in style these days, I’ve noticed. Many people consider it too sweet, otherwise bland, and nearly devoid of nutritional value. I feel that way about many kinds of jelly myself. Who would choose strawberry jelly over strawberry jam, raspberry jelly over raspberry jam? Why throw out all of the fruit’s fiber and sacrifice the appealing texture that fiber provides?
Some fruits, though, are too fibrous or seedy for a mashed jam. When they also have high levels of pectin and acid, they are perfect for jelly. Oregon grape, Mahonia aquifolium, is one of these fruits.* I love the dark, tart, spicy jelly I make from the Oregon grapes growing beneath the bigleaf maple near our chicken house.
Still, some people would always choose a jar labeled jam over one labeled jelly. So, last summer, for the first time, I decided to try making Oregon grape jam. Because Oregon grapes are seedy—a quarter of the weight of each berry is in its three seeds—I decided I would strain out the seeds, but I would still include some of the fiber that distinguishes a jam from a jelly. Because Oregon grapes are so rich in pectin, I would add a little liquor to soften the jam. Here is my recipe.
Seedless Oregon Grape Jam
3 pounds (about 9 cups) stemmed Oregon grapes About 1 quart water 5 to 6 cups sugar 2 tablespoons brandy or orange liqueur
In a large saucepan, combine the Oregon grapes and enough water to cover them. Cover the pan, and boil the berries gently, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Crush the berries with a potato masher or other tool, and then boil them gently, uncovered, for 10 minutes more.
Press the berries and their liquid through the fine screen of a food mill or through a strainer, leaving the seeds behind. Measure the purée; you should have 5 to 6 cups. Put the purée into a preserving pan along with the same volume of sugar. Heat the mixture, stirring, over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved, and then raise the heat to medium-high. Boil the mixture until it “sheets” from a spoon or until the temperature reaches 218 degrees F. Immediately remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the brandy or liqueur.
Ladle the jam into sterilized pint or half-pint mason jars. Add lids and rings, and process the jars for 5 minutes in a boiling-water bath.
Makes about 4 pints
Making Oregon grape jam is slightly more work than making Oregon grape jelly, since the latter requires only dripping, not pressing. The result really isn’t much different; both the jelly and the jam turn out opaque, smooth, and richly flavored.
You could vary this recipe by adding spices—a stick of cinnamon, for example—or using another sort of liquor (I used my sister’s homemade liqueur of rosemary and Meyer lemon). If it’s a truly rough texture you want, you could include some or all of the seeds.
*Mahonia nervosa, also known as Oregon grape,is a related, shorter species with similar berries that can be used in the same ways as those of Mahonia aquifolia—in jellies, jams, pies, and wine.
Every day this winter I’ve eyed my citron melons in the entry hall, admiring their summery beauty and wondering how long they would keep. Some people say they store well for a whole year, but I’m guessing that’s true only in a quite cool place, such as an unheated cellar. The temperature in my entry hall is usually about sixty degrees Fahrenheit, probably not cool enough to warrant pushing my luck past February. Last week I figured that, though I didn’t need more citron melon preserves, I also didn’t want to lose the chance to experiment more with the melons, which I might never grow again. So I cut into a second one.
Although citron melons are notorious for their hard rinds, I’d had no trouble cutting my first melon, back in December. This time the rind seemed to have toughened. I sympathized with the writer of a poem, published in the Burra, Australia, Record in 1935, that begins this way:
There ain’t no dish I’d rather try Than my dear wife’s good melon pie. I get a melon from the pit And take the axe and open it.
Instead of an axe I used my twelve-inch chef’s knife, which Robert bought me for cutting big winter squashes. I’ve been a little bit scared of this knife ever since the day it flew into the air and I caught it by the blade instead of the handle. Now I often use the knife by holding it in place and pounding it with a rubber hammer (which as you can see I also use for closing paint cans).
That worked to split the melon cleanly. Cutting the halves into wedges, as I’d done to make citron melon preserves, would be too difficult and dangerous, because besides growing a tougher skin the melon had also become more mucilaginous, as if someone had injected it with a quart of aloe juice. My hands and cutting board were already slippery. I tried spooning out the pulp, but that was slow going. So I used a technique I often rely on for another hard fruit, the quince. I turned the halves face down and sliced them straight downward. Then, using a smaller, thinner blade, I cut the rind from the slices without much trouble.
Now I needed to remove the big, hard, numerous seeds. I picked as many as I could out of the sliced flesh, cut the slices into smaller pieces, and picked out more seeds. This is a job to do while listening to an excellent radio program, so you don’t start dwelling on the question of what your time is worth.
Although I hadn’t found a single pie recipe for this fruit that’s often called a pie melon, I‘d found two recipes for compotes of sorts, one in Mildred Maddocks’s Pure Food Cook Book, published in New York in 1914, and one from an unnamed cook in Queensland, who described the fruit as “So country! So winter! So not dinner party material.”
I based my recipe less on Mildred’s than on the Queenslander’s, which included, enticingly, cinnamon and marsala. Lacking marsala, I used brandy.
Although the Queenslander used only a quarter of a melon, her other quantities seemed about right for my five-pound melon; this made me wonder just how big citron melons grow in Queensland. I wonder also if the flesh of Queensland pie melons is especially tender, because whereas the Queenslander cooks her compote for about forty minutes, mine needed two hours for the melon to soften.
As these differences indicate, melons called citron or pie melon can vary a lot. Mine are striped, white-fleshed, red-seeded, and tasteless. If yours vary from this description, you may need to adjust the recipe.
Baked Citron Melon Compote
½ cup raisins ¼ cup brandy 1 5-pound citron melon 1 cup sugar 1 orange 1 lemon 2 cinnamon sticks 2 tablespoons butter
Soak the raisins in the brandy for at least several hours.
Peel and seed the melon, and cut it into approximately 1-inch cubes. Heat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remove the zest from the orange and lemon in fine strips, and then squeeze out the juice, picking or straining out any seeds.
In a three-quart casserole, combine the raisins, their soaking liquid, the melon cubes, the sugar, and the orange and lemon juices and zests. Tuck the cinnamon sticks into the mixture, and dot with the butter. Bake the compote uncovered for about two hours, turning the fruit gently a few times, until the melon is tender, golden, and slightly translucent.
You can serve the compote warm or cool, perhaps with cream, though I like it plain.
The compote turned out mildly sweet. If you think you’d like it sweeter, honey would be a pleasant addition. The fruit’s mucilaginous texture remained after baking, but neither Robert nor I found it objectionable; I think it’s growing on me. Because the melon is virtually tasteless, all the flavor of the dish comes from the added flavorings–the raisins, brandy, cinnamon, and citrus. How could a dessert with those flavors be anything but good?
As the Queenslander points out, you could make this dish into a pie by thickening the liquid (with cornstarch or arrowroot or just by simmering it down a bit), spooning the fruit and liquid into a baked pie shell, and perhaps adding a topping of cream or meringue. I like the compote just as it is, though, for breakfast or an afternoon or late-evening snack–and maybe even as a homey dinner-party dessert.
The most enjoyable part of keeping a WordPress blog, to my mind, is checking your blog’s statistics to see where in the world your most recent readers live. Although many of my international readers probably lack enough facility with English to leave their comments, and some may come upon my blog accidentally, they’re still my readers, or at least my brief visitors. It’s nice to know that in some slight way my blogging may be affecting lives all over the world.
I’m musing about what an international free-for-all blogging has become because of my two recent nominations for blogging awards. Both nominations are from “allotment” gardeners (which means, I think, that they have community garden plots), but one is in Australia and the other in Britain. And one of the awards apparently originated in Italy.
I’ve reluctantly turned down the Very Inspiring Blogging Award, because it would have required my answering a lot of questions and finding fifteen other bloggers to nominate. But I’ll happily accept Il Blog Affidabile, “The Reliable Blog” award.
Un Blog Affidabile must fit this description:
1. The blog is updated regularly. 2. The blogger shows genuine passion for the topic. 3. The blogger promotes the sharing and the active participation of readers. 4. The blogger provides content and information which is useful and original. 5. The blog is not packed with too much advertising.
A winning blogger must do the following: 1. Thank the nominating blogger and provide a link to that person’s blog. 2. Add the Affidabile logo to the winning blog, in a post, widget, or page. 3. Describe when and why the blog was begun. 4. Nominate five other blogs for the award. 5. Let the bloggers know they have been nominated.
To meet the latter criteria, I offer the following information:
The Gardener’s Table was nominated for Il Blog Affidabile by Debbi Love. At digginwivdebb, you can learn about what Debbi has been growing in her allotment.
I started this blog about three years ago. Besides serving the purpose described under “About This Blog,” it is a repository of material for future editions of my preserving books and, possibly, other future books.
All but one of the blogs I’m about to nominate is international in one way or another. Allison of Spontaneous Tomato writes about the foods of the various countries she has lived in and visited, in Asia, Europe, and elsewhere. Ting Gough of Playing with Food was born in Laos, grew up in various Asian countries, and now writes about preparing the food she grows in New Hampshire. Meg Bortin of Everyday French Chef is a long-time American journalist living in Paris and Burgundy who writes about French home cooking. Kate of Kate’s Creative Spaceis a young, British, new-and-improved Martha Stewart. Most foreign of all the bloggers in this bunch, to me, is the American who has always lived in America: Green Deane of Eat the Weeds. Through his blog he shares his amazing store of knowledge about the edible wild plants of Florida, which to someone from the Pacific Northwest is a very exotic place. Please check out each of these blogs. You’ll find them most affidabile.
While picking apples yesterday I noticed that most of the leaves had blown off one of my greengage trees, the one that grew up from the rootstock of a dead nectarine tree. Among all my Prunus trees, this one’s fruits ripen latest. The little plums, as green when ripe as when hard and new, tend to hide among the leaves. Exposed to view now were three survivors, wrinkled but otherwise perfect. Picking one at a time, I slowly savored their buttery flesh. I will have to wait most of the year for another taste like that.
Plum trees are among the very best of the weeds with which the Old World has blessed the New. In California, cherry plums (Prunus cerasifera) are so ubiquitous that until recently I thought they were native (in fact, they are now considered an invasive species). When I was a child, grownups would plant certain cultivars for their purple-red leaves and then curse the fallen fruit on the sidewalks. Children loved every cherry plum tree, planted or wild and regardless of leaf color, for the sweet, juicy, mildly to strongly tart fruits, each a perfect mouthful. Like blackberries, these fruits belonged by rights to any child who could reach them, and mothers were obliged to turn every bucketful into jam.
The Pacific Northwest is too cold and wet for cherry plums, but we have our own sweet gift from Europe: the plum, or assortment of plums, that botanists call Prunus domestica. Back when fresh fruit was rare and dear in winter, large, oblong, blue-black fruits of P. domestica were big business in the Willamette Valley, because they are so rich in sugar that you can dry them without pitting them. They still are big business in California, in places where the orchards haven’t been replaced with vineyards, though the agribusiness publicists have banned the word prune and substituted dried plums for the dehydrated product. The main commercial variety in California is called French; Oregon farms grew Italian and Brooks. Although little commercial plum culture remains in Oregon, Oregonians are still enjoying fruits from the remnants of old orchards, along with occasional planted or wild P. domestica trees of other sorts—mirabelle, gage, and damson.
Just as I my little brother and I once brought home cherry plums for my mother to make into jam, my own children used to bring home wild yellow plums. Very different from juicy, tart cherry plums, these yellow plums were low in acid and creamy-fleshed, with a powdery bloom. I sometimes made them into a vanilla-flavored jam, like the jam I’d tasted in the home of a Spanish friend, who called the plums claudias.
This Spanish name comes from Reine Claude, the sixteenth-century queen of the French king Francois I, who named the honey-sweet plums in his wife’s honor. By the early seventeenth century a man named Gage had imported the favorite Reine-Claude cultivar, Reine-Claude Dorée, to England. Unlike its close relatives, which produce tasty but usually unremarkable fruit, Reine-Claude Dorée is said to bear plums that are fragrant as well as extra-sweet. Although related plums, like those from my nectarine rootstock, are often green even when fully ripe, Reine-Claude Dorée starts out green and ripens gold. In England, Reine-Claude Dorée became known as the true Green Gage, and its shirttail relatives as greengages or just gages (because they are not always green).
Mirabelles are similar to gages, but they’re a little smaller and quite yellow when ripe. Two cultivars, mirabelle de Nancy and mirabelle de Lorraine, are celebrated commercial crops in France, where they’re mostly used for jam and eau-de-vie. Although mirabelles belong to the subspecies syriaca, they cross freely with italica, the subspecies that includes the gages. I don’t know whether the yellow plums my children collected were gages or mirabelles or something in between.
One year a zealous farmer ripped out the roadside tree my children had been picking from, figuring, apparently, that the support its roots gave to the wall of the irrigation ditch failed to compensate for whatever nutrients they stole from his beans. So I told the kids I’d plant an even better tree, and bought a grafted greengage from the Home Orchard Society. I hoped this tree would turn out to be the famous Reine-Claude Dorée. A few years later, to my chagrin, the tree began producing fruit much like that of the roadside tree—very sweet and smooth-textured, with skin that ripened gold with tiny red speckles–but lacking in acid and fragrance.
In 2004 David Karp traveled to France in search of the true Green Gage and found that the cultivar is now a rarity there. It takes too many years to come into bearing; it crops erratically; its delicate fruits must be picked with extra care; and the rain causes the plums to crack and rot. As David reported in the New York Times, a French plum farmer told him that Reine Claude Dorée was “bizarre” and “capricious.”
The next best thing to Reine-Claude Dorée, say the French, is the cultivar that started as a seedling of Reine-Claude Dorée in Belgium, where it was discovered in 1832. This Belgian gage, Reine-Claude de Bavay, produces fruit nearly as delicious as that of la vraie Reine-Claude but is less finicky.
A few years ago, I was able to buy both a Green Gage and a Bavay gage tree from One Green World, Oregon’s famed source for uncommon fruiting trees and shrubs. Though the deer regularly chewed off the leaves and tore the lower branches, and borers bored through the cambium, the trees seemed to thrive, and this past September they produced their first fruits. My mouth watered for a week as I waited for them to finish ripening. When they looked ready I wrapped my fingers around each fruit and tugged very gently. If the plum pulled away easily from its stem, it was ready to eat. If not, I’d try again the next day.
The so-called Green Gage fruits were a disappointment. With unspeckled green-gold skins, covered with a thick, dusty bloom, they were a little larger than the fruit of the Home Orchard Society tree, and they had the same wonderful creamy texture and sweetness when fully ripe. But their taste was flat.
The Reine-Claude de Bavay plums were ugly. A little bigger than the so-called Green Gages, they ripened more green than gold, with a heavy bloom, rash-like red patches, scabby spots, and open cracks. But what a marvel in the mouth! Here was all the buttery texture of the other gages, a powerful honey-like sweetness, and a strong tartness besides.
I gave my husband one Bavay, and I ate all the rest as they ripened over the next few days. To heck with Reine-Claude Dorée; I had discovered a greengage I loved. I dreamed of next year’s crop, which was sure to be larger.
Two weeks after I finished off the Bavay plums, I found the tree on the ground. I was mystified at first, because we hadn’t had a storm or any strong winds. But the graft must have been weak—the tree had broken along it—and I could see borer damage at the break, too. I guessed a deer must have hit the tree, just hard enough to fell it, while leaping over the fence behind it.
I let the tree lie. Now it’s time to haul it away and decide: Should I plant another grafted Reine-Claude de Bavay, or should I try to get a scion to graft onto the healthy sucker that, presciently, perhaps, I let grow up over the summer?
And, just for the sake of comparison, should I try once more to find a real Reine-Claude Dorée?