Wild Plums: Fruit Hiding in Plain View

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Holly A. Heyser


I see wild plums. They're everywhere. And people don't know they're plums.

Even I didn't know. When we moved to California, I began seeing these odd red trees—the whole tree is a deep burgundy. Weird. No one seemed to know what they were called. One of these trees grows two doors down from me in a neighbor's front yard. Walking to the gym in summer, I'd notice it would be festooned with scores of what, to all the world, looked like cherries.

No one ate them. Could they be bitter? Poisonous, even? Finally, last year at around this time, I screwed up my courage and ate one. Wow. Tart, sweet, and definitely not poisonous or bitter! These little things tasted like a cross between a cherry and a plum.

I looked them up: sure enough, the trees, which are planted literally everywhere around here, are prunus cerasifera, commonly known as the red-leafed or cherry plum.

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Holly A. Heyser

Now that I know what they are I see them on every block, in nearly every shopping center, especially in the nearby town of Rancho Cordova, where there must be some ordinance promoting the planting of plums.

Thus the conundrum: almost all of them are on private property. My first foray for cherry-plums was in my neighborhood park, which has several trees dotted around it. Unfortunately, either this was an off year for the park trees or someone had picked them before me. All I got was a small produce bag of them, which Holly and I ate without further ado.

I resolved to scope out more trees I could pillage when the owners were not looking. Maybe on a Sunday morning?

Meanwhile, while I was on one of my foraging walks in the area I caught a glimpse of something in the corner of my eye. It was a large, light-colored orb in a tree. My first thought was oak galls, which are all over the blue oaks around here. I stopped and looked. Wait a second. This was no oak tree, and those were not galls ...

I've made wild boar liver creme caramel, lemon verbena panna cotta, oddball cakes, and weird sorbets, but never a simple pie.

They were plums! Wild plums! And the tree is loaded with them. These are the plums you see at the top of this post. How this tree got here is a mystery to me. I cannot find references to wild plums living in our part of California; another type of wild plum, a red one, lives up north near Klamath. Maybe it is feral? Maybe it's just rare? My friend Elise knows of another such plum near American River College, so it's not unique.

These plums are very different from the neglected cherry-plums in suburbia. The wildlings tasted, well, wilder. More tannic, coated in a pretty bloom like a white wine grape. Tart like the cherry plums, but not as sugary. My kind of fruit.

And they are all mine. No one else knows about this tree. It is off the beaten path, and even though the tree is loaded and the fruit is ripe, not a one had been picked, at least visibly. It is my secret treasure ...

Back to the cherry-plums. Last week Holly, our friend Evan, and I went for a quick barnyard pigeon and cottontail rabbit shoot out at his ranch—my first hunt since my injury in December—and, after we dispatched a brace of cottontails and a trio of barn pigeons, we headed to a local diner for dinner.

Holly parked right next to a cherry-plum tree. A small one, too. As I got out of the truck, I looked into the tree out of habit. It was loaded. I mean groaning under the weight of so many plums! "We have to pick these," I told Holly, who was game for it. So after dinner, we furtively filled up a grocery bag fill and headed home with our booty.

We ate a few plums on our way home. God, are they good! So tart and sweet.

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Holly A. Heyser

Now I had enough to do something with them. I immediately thought plum liqueur, and I have a Mason jar full of them soaking in vodka right now. What else?

Well, I always make ice creams and syrups. I wanted to do something different this time. What about a pie? A pie? But Hank, you never bake pies. Ever. This is true. Here's an admission: I'd never made a pie from scratch before. Really. I've made wild boar liver creme caramel, lemon verbena panna cotta, oddball cakes, and weird sorbets, but never a simple pie.

I don't eat pie very often. I do like a slice of apple pie with a hunk of cheddar cheese on it (meaning I am a true New England Yankee at heart, I guess); cheesecake, which is really more of a pie; and Holly's mother's pecan pie, which is to die for. But that's about it.

Then I watched a recent episode of Top Chef, where the contestants were required to bake a pie. Any pie. One contestant said to the judge that she hoped she didn't screw things up too bad, considering she wasn't a pastry chef. The judge replied, "That's a copout—my grandmother isn't a pastry chef and she can bake a pie." Ouch. Point well taken.

Not that I am planning on going on Top Chef anytime soon, but it suddenly seemed that I oughta be able to make a pie. Good thing Elise is a well-known pie maker. So I schlepped the cherry-plums to her house and she taught me how to make a plum pie.

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Elise Bauer

The pie crust is all Elise, but the filling is all mine. The trick to a pie filling, it seems, is to get it to set up once the pie has cooled; we cut into mine a little early, and the filling oozed over everything. No bueno. Crossing our fingers, I put the pie in the fridge overnight before cutting another slice. Success! The six tablespoons of flour in the filling did the trick.

I also tossed in some chopped walnuts—I'd wanted to use black walnuts, another native tree in the area, but couldn't find them—as well as an odd ingredient: sage. Yes, sage. It goes well with plums, and I wanted a taste of wildness in the filling. I could barely detect it, but I'd like to think I'd notice if the sage were not in there. At last that's my story ...

So there it is: I've made my first pie. (Here is the recipe.) What do you think?

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Elise Bauer

Now I know, you are thinking, what about that loaded wild plum tree? You making pie with that, too? Oh no, dear reader. I have a far more special purpose in mind for these plums.

Remember I said they were acidic, only mildly sweet, and a little tannic? What does that make you think of? If you guessed wine, you guessed correctly. So I am making a three-gallon batch of wild plum wine.

I'm letting the plums ripen a little longer, and plan to boost the sugar levels with some local honey to bring the alcohol level up to that of a normal table wine. I have high hopes for this wine; one of the finest wines I've ever made—and I make "real" wines now, with real wine grapes—was a burly red I made from damson plums. If I could find some here in California I'd make it again.

But this wine will be different. It will be a white. Crisp, dry, floral. Like I said, I have high hopes for these plums. But it'll be a while before I can report on the results: like all wines, it'll take close to a year before I pull my first cork. Let's hope it's worth the wait.

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Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.
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