Prunes! er…dried Plums!

Prune: A plum preserved by drying, having a black, wrinkled appearance

Plum: A prune before it’s preserved by drying…

Around the first of September the Italian plum trees begin to drop their fruit and I swing into harvest frenzy.

A block up the street from my house are two derelict plum trees I consider my own. Every morning I make my way up the hill to “my” trees, with a couple of plastic bags that once held the morning paper. I call the trees mine because the absent owners of the lot they sit on seem neither to care either for the trees nor their produce, but I do. If I don’t collect the plums they just rot and get eaten by ants, birds, and yellow jackets.

Picking plums is like hunting Easter eggs, because the plums hide in the tall grass under the tree like so many blue-frosted Easter eggs. (Prune plums aren’t ready if you have to pluck them off the tree; they have to drop. Commercial pickers shake the trees.)

I come home laden.I make one batch of plum jam each fall (the best jam in the world), then transform the rest into prunes.You slice them in half, remove the pits and place them on racks in the food dryer for a couple of days per batch.

Since I don’t use any chemicals on them, I bag them up and keep them in the frig or freezer.Prunes are of course famous for helping with “regularity”, but in more recent years nutrition experts extol their anti-oxidant content.

Whatever. I love them. My family loves them. My friends love them. A baggie of my home-dried prunes or a jar of the jam is a cherished hostess gift or stocking present.

I know I said that my favorite dessert in the world was blackberry cobbler, but I forgot my other favorite dessert: plum kuchen.Keep reading: the recipe is at the bottom of this post.

Yesterday I drove past MY trees on the way back from an errand and noticed someone standing under one of them.She had her hands full of MY plums. It turned out to be my dear friend Kathi!

“What are you doing picking MY plums?” I demanded.

“Have you got a baggie in your car?” she responded. “My hands are full and I’ve got a ways to walk yet.”

Kathi and I are going to have to duke this one out. She can go find her own damn tree because there are other derelict prune trees in the ‘hood. In fact Clark County WA, where I live, used to be one of the top prune-growing areas in the US. No kidding.

These trees are vestiges of an agricultural crop that sustained the area for about fifty years starting in the 1880s. By 1900 more than 435,000 prune plum trees were producing 819 tons of fruit a year. I’m not sure whether that was fresh or dry weight.

Prunes were popular because they could be shipped long distances without spoiling. Records from that time suggest that 75% of the crop went to Germany, Austria and Poland.They sold for fifteen cents a pound until after World War I.

After the 1930s California began producing prunes in greater variety and more cheaply and local business declined. A World War II embargo banned shipments to Germany. Then an insect infestation destroyed many orchards, and growers turned to other crops.

Most of the old trees, including mine, are still small, gnarly, sickly. Most are missing at least half their branches, and the branches that remain are often dying or thickly covered with small branches known as water spouts.

And yet, every fall the miracle happens – perfect purple plums plop from the tired old branches – and I am so grateful.

Plum Kuchen (from Gourmet Magazine, ca 1975)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Sift together into a mixing bowl:

2 c. flour
2 T. sugar
½ t. salt
¼ t. baking powder

With a pastry blender or two knives, cut into the dry ingredients until the mixture looks mealy:

1 stick (1/2 cup) butter.

Pat an even layer of the mixture firmly over the bottom and halfway up the sides of an 8” square baking pan. (I prefer an 8” round spring form pan – when you remove the side it looks more like a French tart.)

Over the bottom pastry, arrange:

1 lb. Italian prune plums, halved and pitted.

Sprinkle the fruit with a blend of:
¾ c. sugar
1 t. ground cinnamon

Bake in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes.

Beat together and pour over the fruit:

1 egg
1 c. sour cream
,.

Continue the baking for 30 minutes longer. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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3 responses to “Prunes! er…dried Plums!

  1. I too live in Clark Co., WA and love italian plums! I grew up on a small farm in La Center where there was an over abundance of yellow plum trees but only one italian plum tree. To this day I don’t care for yellow plums for that reason. I now live in Salmon Creek on 14 acres w/lots of apple & pear trees, one big italian plum and lots of lil’ suckers that are now fruiting as well! It’s a bumper crop season! Yayyyyy!

  2. oops, almost forgot ,Thanks for the recipe! ‘Can’t wait to try it!

  3. Holly (my sister’s name is Holly!) – glad to have another plum patron stop by. So close too. I used to live on five acres in Salmon Creek and had a lot more plum trees to glean from – plus blackberries. Now I’m closer to town, but still have “my” trees and “my” bushes. Check my blackberry post:
    http://365pwords.wordpress.com/2008/08/23/purple-poop-blackberry-season/

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