Re-Awakening a Tradition
Exploring the Culinary Uses of the Native Beach Plum
Like the migratory northern-breeding birds preparing to head south, I get restless in mid-August. I don’t put on weight like they do, but I do get an awful urge to head to the dunes and pick some beach plums. It’s something we’ve done annually for over 30 years, and it’s one family ritual that is edible. This past year the fruit yield was spectacular, perhaps the best in 50 years. Beach Plum shrubs that almost never produce drooped with red and purple plums, and the usually reliable ones yielded many times their normal production. I hope you were able to get some and freeze them whole. Now on to this year. Before you pick the plums you have to find them. The best time to find beach plums is when they flower in May. One intrepid botanist conducted an aerial census of the coastal dunes from Delaware to Maine, noting in a 1932 publication that from the air the flowering beach plum plants appeared as large white balls. There were a lot more beach plum plants then. Too many have been bulldozed, uprooted and cemented over for seaside development. Nevertheless, on Cape Cod and the Islands, and throughout its range, beach plums still can be found on private property and on public lands, such as the National Sea Shore and state beaches. And many more landscapers and homeowners are planting beach plum shrubs because of their beauty and because they anchor shifting sand.
Suppose you are fortunate to find and pick a pound (about 2-1/2 cups) of beach plums, or someone gave you some, what can you do with them? You could make one jar of beach plum jelly, whose mildly astringent quality you could savor the whole winter. But jelly is not the only culinary use for these fruits and we will not go into jelly making here. Rather, start by finding some authentic beach plum jelly, which sorry to say is now relatively uncommon. Too many imitators use damson or generic plums. It’s a shame, because in the mid-20th century home-produced beach plum jelly—most of it sold at the roadside—was gobbled up by residents and visitors alike. In fact, at that time, to insure a quality product, the Cape Cod Beach Plum Growers Association successfully lobbied the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture to publish regulations defining the composition of Fancy Cape Cod Grade beach plum jelly and approve a label for those jars. Today, real beach plum jelly is made by The Chatham Jam and Jelly Shop, Coonamessett Farm in Hatchville and Green Briar Nature Center & Jam Kitchen in East Sandwich. You can spread it on your bagel or waffles. I also like to use it to make a sauce to drizzle over fruit, ice cream or a simple cake. To prepare, heat several tablespoons of beach plum jelly with a little water. But my preferred use of beach plum jelly is to enhance a sauce served over duck breast, although I’m sure it would work with the rest of the duck and other fowl.
Baking with beach plums so as not to mask their unique flavor can be a challenge. Tarts are natural for this, and bakers David Hunt and Ann Hunt O’Neill of pies à la mode in Falmouth Village made the best we’ve had. They took advantage of last year’s beach plum bonanza and produced some luscious handmade tarts. These pastries balanced the tartness of whole purple beach plums with just the right amount of sweetness in a flaky butter pastry.
Our homemade baked favorite is a moist, dense tea loaf adapted from a recipe in the September 1968 issue of Gourmet magazine. The key ingredient and primary flavor component of this cake batter is beach plum pulp, a by-product of jelly making, but which also can be prepared using finely chopped and cooked pitted beach plums.
Now if some of this undiluted beach plum passion has rubbed off on you you’re probably wondering: Do beach plums have a 21st century future? Most likely they do. Spearheaded by the Department of Horticulture at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, farmers in the New England and Mid-Atlantic states now tend beach plum plants in orchards started from selected nursery-raised shrubs grown and distributed by Cornell. Similar efforts are underway in New Jersey. These fruit crops are expected to provide new culinary experiences for an upscale, niche market. As a result, beach plum sauces are now on the menu in restaurants in the Finger Lake region of New York, near Cornell.
But why not plant your own beach plums? Ask the experts at a local garden center for a recommendation and follow their
instructions. In a few years these shrubs will flower profusely and, if pollinated, produce fruit for many years. Now that’s a tasty long- term culinary and horticultural investment that should pay off despite predicted climactic change.
- 1/2 cup of orange juice
- 1/4 cup of cognac or beach plum cordial (see recipe below)
- 2 Tbsp each of orange marmalade and beach plum jelly
- In a small saucepan, combine ingredients and while stirring reduce until slightly thickened.
Recipe by Rita Anne Garrick
Beach plums (Prunus maritima) are one of the 17 kinds of wild plums found in North America. They are a stone fruit, a member of the same taxonomic group as cherries and the familiar cultivated, commercial plums, apricots and peaches. When eating and cooking these fruits we discard the pits. One recipe that doesn’t require removing the pits is a cordial that my friend and beach plum aficionado Martin L. Monk of Hatchville told me about several years ago. Begun in September, the cordial will be ready for toasting on New Years Eve.
- 2 cups of cleaned, unpitted beach plums
- 2 cups of granulated sugar
- 750 ml of good cognac (don’t overspend on this); stopper and save the bottle but do not clean the inside.
- In a glass container with a tight non-metal lid, dissolve the sugar in the cognac and add the fruit. Stir and set aside in a cool place. Stir daily until sugar disappears.
- Note on your calendar to check the jar on Thanksgiving Day to make sure there is no evaporation. Come December 30, to remove any solids, filter the contents through cheesecloth, or, if you have a couple of hours to spare, through coffee filters. Return the filtered amber liquid to the cognac bottle. Enjoy a dram after a late afternoon walk. The pickled plums can be saved and eaten.
Recipe by Rita Anne Garrick
The tart-sweet taste of beach plums seems a natural for chutney, a spicy relish made of chopped fruits or vegetables cooked in vinegar and sugar with spices. The proportion of sugar to vinegar and the particular spices can be varied to suit your taste. I like to serve
this beach plum chutney with lentils or samosas but it is also great with cheese or meats.
Hardware note: A non-reactive sauce pan should always be used when making chutney. A cherry pitter will come in handy, but isn’t required for the small amount of plums used here. You will need four to six sterilized 6-8 oz jars; jelly jars with 2-piece canning lids are best.
- 1 cup pitted beach plums cut up or a cup of plum pulp
- 4-5 medium peaches or pears or apples (or a mixture), peeled
- and roughly chopped
- 1 medium orange, peeled and cut up
- 1/2 cup of a mixture of dried fruits (raisins, currants, etc.)
- 1 shallot, chopped
- 1 small clove of garlic, chopped
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 3/4 to 1 cup sugar (or mixture dark brown and white sugar)
- 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon ginger powder
- 1 whole clove
- 1 teaspoon of grated nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon of salt to taste
- Have sterilized jars ready. They can be left in the hot water until needed.
- Heat olive oil in heavy non-reactive sauce pan, add shallots and garlic and cook over medium heat until tender, about 5 minutes. Add sugar and
- vinegar and stir until sugar is dissolved.
- Add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil while stirring.
- Continue to stir, reduce heat and cook until thickened.
- Pour or spoon the hot mixture into the jars leaving at least 1/4 inch of headspace. Close the jars tightly, let them cool and then refrigerate.
- If you want to keep the jars outside the refrigerator for more than a 2-3 days, follow the procedures for the water canning method available at many university extension sites, e.g.
- http://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheets/HGIC3040.htm or from the U.S.D.A.
Recipe by Rita Anne Garrick
The abundance of beach plum fruit this year tempted us to try making sorbet. This stuff is good alone, or better with a small amount of rich vanilla ice cream whose fat carries the plum flavor. It is potent enough to serve in tablespoon quantities rather than scoops.
Hardware: blender, strainer, rectangular plastic freezer container with lid, whisk or hand mixer
- 2-1/2 cups of pitted beach plums
- 1 cup of water
- 1 cup of sugar
- 1-2 tsp lemon juice
- 1 Tbsp Beach Plum Cordial (optional)
- Pinch of salt
- Combine the sugar and water over heat until the sugar is dissolved. Add the salt, lemon juice, cordial and plums and heat, with stirring, until it bubbles. Turn down the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes or until the mixture thickens and the plums have broken down.
- CAREFULLY (mixture is hot!) puree in a blender one cup at a time. Put the cooled puree through a strainer pressing out the pulp, this will remove any remaining skins and make a smoother sorbet.
- Pour the puree into a flat container and freeze for one hour. Remove the container and beat the slushy puree with a whisk (or electric hand mixer) and return to freezer for one hour. Repeat this process 3 more times (4 hours total). Leave overnight in the freezer for a firmer
Copyright 2008. Leslie D. Garrick and Rita Anne Garrick. Text and recipes may not be reproduced for commercial use without permission. Les Garrick has published non-fiction pieces about Cape Breton travel, French wine, American wineries, Cape Cod history, alternate fueled buses and alligator social behavior. From Woods Hole on Cape Cod, he is working on a book about the iconic beach plum. Contact email@example.com.