Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Beach Plums

If you spend any time on the Eastern Shore anytime soon, keep an eye out for Prunus maritima: Beach plum. This plum is a native to the Atlantic coast, growing in the dunes from Maine to Maryland. Because of the state of our dunes, unfortunately this plant is endangered; not because she isn't resilient and prolific, but because beachfront property is so valuable and susceptible to development.

The little plums are tiny, only about the size of a cherry. They are sweet, sour, and astringent. Some might even call them bitter. The season of ripeness is August through early October. The shrubs are biennial bearing so you'll have to find a few spots to harvest. Usually the fruits are made into jam. In fact, I first learned about these fruits at the farmers market from Jerry of Ferry Landing Farm & Apiary. His wife makes delectable jams: strawberry rhubarb, elderberry, and beach plum. When I was at the beach observing the plants I realized I was looking at a Rosaceae family shrub and it had fruits on it. One taste and I knew instantly what it was. When I started jumping up and down from excitement I got some strange looks and my husband pretended he wasn't with me (note to self: foraging on the boardwalk during an art festival will draw attention). While he was wandering off into the crowd I was able to share some of my enthusiasm with one nice gentleman  who seemed genuinely interested to learn a little about them.

Harvesting these plums isn't the easiest feat. The plums themselves are somewhat concealed by the leaves so knowing a few characteristics of rose family shrubs is useful. Lazy so wikipedia. Blogger Toby Cecchini describes the process thusly:

"This harvest found me pulling wooden spines out of my shin; getting covered in bloody scratches as I pushed into dense, barbed shrubbery; stretched out in comically abusive yoga postures with my hands snaking through prickly labyrinths toward the chalky bloom of a perfect dark plum just out of reach. None of it will sway me."

A quick internet search on my way home gave me the idea to make an infused liqueur. In all honesty, I read this article and decided to do the same. According to some the flavor of beach plum is similar to that of sloe berries (I don't know because I have never seen a sloe berry) which are the sour and astringent fruit of the blackthorn tree, a spiny shrub that grows untamed in the hedgerows of England. These fruits are made into sloe gin. Now I am not a huge fan of gin, or rather I should say of college party cheap gin and tonics, but I wanted to expand away from just doing brandy or vodka infused liqueurs.

The problem with finding a new wild food is sometimes I get really excited about it and other life stuff gets in the way. I got home from the beach at around 7 pm on a Sunday so the liquor stores were closed and I was leaving for a trip/conference the next day at 5 am. Fortunately freezing the fruits was recommended in the aforementioned article so I threw my bag of plums into the freezer and packed for Medicine of the People.

When I got back I picked up some gin, threw the plums into a jar and covered with a good amount of Tanqueray (which the shopkeep informed me is one of the only gins made with fresh herbs). You can add a bit of sugar at this time, or wait until you're mixing up a cocktail. Infuse for at least a month. The gin will take on a beautiful rose color and will taste both fruity and almondy. I am planning one more trip out to DE for plums to make infused gifts for this winter. I'm thinking I'll go to Beach Plum Island (yes it's a real place).


2 ounces beach plum infused gin
1 ounce fresh lemon or lime juice
sugar or simple syrup to taste
Prosecco or sparkling water to fill
Lemon or lime wedge, for garnish.

In a shaker filled with ice, combine first 3 ingredients and shake well. Strain into a pretty glass and top with sparkling wine or water.