Plum is one of those words I like to say over and over. If we can (if!) disregard the sticky, musky juiciness for a moment, the word itself is full of goodness. That initial ‘pl’ always brings good things to the party: play, plink, plenty, pleather, plots, plaster, plans, plugs, plants. The ‘uh’ sound is always pleasing, like a caveman grunt, and the ‘um’ brings forth ‘yum’ and ‘om.’ Yes, plums are for meditating.
Plum and prune are related not only by desiccation, but etymologically, as well. Both words come from Old English plume, which comes from Latin prunum and Greek proumnon. Ls and Rs, Ms and Ns slip all over the place across languages. And we must not forget two homonyms, plumb and aplomb…also erstwhile words unrelated to plum. Both come from roots in the Latin for weight, and a host of meanings associate with being in line, straight, and true. By all accounts, plum is a word worth saying.
Plums can do more for one’s mouth than just sound good on the tongue. I had never much paid attention to the so-called Italian prune plum until I saw it here in the Willamette Valley, and wondered why they used both the terms prune and plum. “Aren’t prunes just the dried form of plums?” thought I. Growing up in the Midwest, plums were plums and prunes were prunes.
But no! Prune plums are completely different from plum plums. The honey-sweet, dense flesh of a prune plum is much better for drying than the rounder, plumper plum we usually eat out of hand.
I did some experiments this year with plum jam. See my victims, above. The prune plums are to the right, a Fellenberg (Italian) on the top row and a Brooks on the bottom row. The bright red plum is an Elephant Heart, and the dark one on the left is a Pure Heart, a variety I’m guessing is related.
Elephant Heart plums are featured on Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste, a program that catalogues rare and unusual foods grown/produced in America. (As usual with the most widely known, East Coast-based food media, the list is very east-heavy. Only one Oregon product: a pollinator cherry called “Black Republican” that doesn’t even taste that good. Bah. Add some! I will as soon as I have time.) Anyway, they have some revealing pictures of the plums wearing their white bloom.
Elephant Heart plums are also called “blood plums,” according to the Ark of Taste. My picture above, while neither as gorgeous nor as blood red as the Ark of Taste image, shows some of the veins. More nice shots of prune plums, and recipes, are featured here and here. Too bad they won’t be around for Halloween!
I made jam with these beauties, trying to keep them as fresh-tasting as possible, with only the natural pectin in the fruit and peel, and a few leaves of rose geranium thrown in for good measure. The result is a deep red, plummy, soft preserve, with pieces of the fruit still intact. I can’t wait to serve it with pork, cut with a berry vinegar perhaps, or mixed with some sauteed onion and a little whole-grain mustard.
The “Italian prune,” also called a Fellenberg, is actually a German prune plum. The name in German, Zwetchen, or quetsche in French, has none of the charm of the word ‘plum,’ alas. Regardless, they grow remarkably well in home orchards and in local commercial farms in the Willamette Valley. Anthony Boutard relates a historical anecdote that provides the definitive commentary on this matter:
Col. Henry Dosch, of Hillsdale, Oregon, was a tireless proponent of the Oregon Fellenberg Prune. The late 1800s and early 1900s was the era of the great expositions and world fairs, and Dosch urged fellow prune growers to use these venues to promote the prune in the world. He felt confident that consumers would soon [see] the difference between “the evaporated Oregon prune and the sun-dried insipid California prunes.” Oregon prune growers never did bother to promote the fruit, selling them instead to the California fruit cooperatives, where stripped of their identity, they wound up as prune juice. The prune orchards of Oregon are pretty much a thing of the past.
I became particularly interested in the Fellenberg this year because of the particularly bountiful harvest. Our native Brooks plum (developed around 1930 in Lafayette, OR), shown to the left in the picture below, is a larger, paler, meatier, more picturesque form of the Fellenberg prune plum (on the right).
Many people dry and sauce the Brooks plum, but I have to say that I prefer the Fellenberg for its apricot-orange-colored flesh, its sweetness and more complex taste. Needless to say, both are a superior product over the ubiquitous dried California prune.
Christine Ferber’s jam recipes in Mes Confitures feature the best produce of Alsace, including the quetsche plum. One recipe, considered so emblematic of the region it is called “L’Alsacienne,” blends the plum with local pinot noir wine. Are you seeing where I’m going with this?
I present to you “L’Eugenienne,” my Fellenberg prune plum and Willamette Valley pinot noir jam!
Yes, it’s mostly gone. Because…yum! I used plums from Thistledown farm in Junction City and Broadley pinot noir. Ferber’s recipes are not safe for long-term storage, so I had to modify the processing instructions, but I did sugar the plum pieces overnight, and cook down the jam for quite a long time. A few moments of inattention created a bit of char on the bottom of the pot. It added a slight, autumnal bitterness to the dark, rich, pruney jam.
I think plum season is just about wrapped up, but if you do see some fresh Fellenberg prune plums (remembering they’ll be labeled as Italian prunes), check ’em out. They’re worth it!