Thirty seven years ago, I met a man on an island off Cape Cod, Mass., and we had a summer romance. We made fish stew and grilled local striped bass. We baked bread, picked wild island grapes and took long beach walks. And when the summer was over, I figured I’d go back to my life and he would return to his.
But it didn’t happen that way. The relationship turned out to be the real deal. Thirty years ago this month, we were married, and now we are back on this island celebrating those three decades together.
This island is a place that never disappoints. Every time we come here, I worry movie stars and politicians will have ruined the place. And although there is much hype and McMansions are now littered along some of the shoreline, this is still a place of pristine beauty.
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So here we are again, cooking local seafood and taking long beach walks and early morning swims in the almost too cold ocean waters. This year there’s been a bit of a drought on the island, and that has translated to dry fields and spotty lawns. But it has also produced a bumper crop of beach plums.
Each year when we come here in late summer/early fall, I hunt the dirt roads and beach paths for the elusive beach plums. They look like a cross between an oversize blueberry and a black-purple grape. Beach plums are stone fruits, related to other plums, cherries and peaches. They flower in late spring and bear fruit in the early fall, depending on the weather.
They grow along sandy paths near salt water. They are often planted for erosion control and feed off of salty sprays and sandy soil. They are very sour and sometimes bitter, full of a crisp, distinctively fruity, almost earthy taste. They make terrific jelly.
The day we arrived, I walked to the beach and was shocked to find bushes bursting with fruit — thousands of beach plums. I ran back home and got a huge bucket and started picking. It didn’t take long to fill that bucket and then another.
Beach plum jelly a balance of bitter and sweet
Making beach plum jelly is a lot like making wild grape jelly. (In fact, the recipe below works well for both.) If it were a perfect world, I would add a lot less sweetener to the jelly, but the sourness needs balance, and I’ve found a mixture of white sugar and maple syrup works well.
This recipe involves several steps, but it is actually quite simple. The gorgeous deep purple-pink color and sweet, tart flavors are at home on the day’s first buttered toast or used to glaze a duck, spread on a sharp cheddar cheese sandwich or serve as a condiment with grilled leg of lamb.
The jelly makes a wonderful anniversary gift. Like a long marriage, it is a great balance of sweet and bitter.
Use beach plums, Concord grapes or a combination to make the jelly. It will keep in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed Mason jar for well more than a month or can be canned and kept in a cool, dark spot for up to a year. More prep time will be needed for picking, and cook time includes time to drain the cooked plums.
- About 20 cups beach plums
- 4 cups water
- About 3 cups sugar
- About 1 cup maple syrup
- 1 to 2 ounces liquid pectin
- Prepping the beach plums is crucial to good jelly. Remove all stems, rotten or moldy plums, or under-ripe beach plums (which will be hard and pale pink or red like a cranberry). Wash thoroughly and then measure the fruit.
- Place the clean beach plums into a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat.
- Lower the heat and, stirring frequently, cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until the fruit is softened.
- Place a colander or sieve over a large bowl or pot and pour the fruit through it. Let it strain by gently pushing down on the fruit with a wooden spoon or spatula to extract as much juice as possible. I let my plums strain all day, covered with a piece of clean cheesecloth to avoid fruit flies. It can sit for hours.
- When you think all the juice has been extracted, measure how much you have. Add about 1/2 cup sweetener for each cup of beach plum juice. (A half-cup will give you sweet-tart jelly, while 1 cup will obviously give you a sweeter jelly). I like to add a combination of sugar and maple syrup.
- Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved.
- Reduce heat to moderate and let simmer about 10 minutes.
- Add the pectin and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook about 10 minutes to allow the jelly to thicken.
- Taste for sweetness and adjust accordingly. To test for doneness, add a spoonful to a small plate and place in the freezer for 10 minutes. It should be quite thick.
- Put the jelly into sterilized jars and refrigerate or process for 20 minutes.
Main photo: Beach plum jelly. Credit: Kathy Gunst
Flying squadrons of Canada geese head south in formation. The water in the harbor turns a deep ultramarine. Tivoli Day has come and gone and the farmers markets are winding down. It’s fall on Martha’s Vineyard. To most island visitors, prime time on the Vineyard is July or August, but for those with a bit more time and insider knowledge, the delights of autumn on the Vineyard are unmatched. Then, it’s possible to get parking spaces on Main Street or Circuit Avenue; the air is crystalline and brisk, and on days when the temperatures hit summer warmth, a quick dip in the summer-warmed water is not unheard of. The islanders all breathe a sigh of relief from summer’s work. Their home has been returned to them and they revel in it, stopping to greet one another at the post office or while picking up canning equipment at Phillip’s or Shirley’s hardware stores.
The Vineyard Gazette begins to talk about scallop season and the senior citizens centers around the island give out free bass and bluefish from the annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. The five-week tournament is more than a fishing competition; it is an island-wide event. From on island and off, thousands come to enter the derby and battle the wily piscatorial prey on land and at sea. (In 2005, there were more than 2,800 entrants.) Then, the three Bs: bass, bonito and bluefish are the goal of the island’s hard-core fisher-folk.
Folks trade bluefish pâté recipes and such, but they also make good use of the last of summer’s bounty and throw together a batch of tomato chutney from those final tomatoes. (Although this year the rains kept the crop down.) It’s also time for watermelon rind pickles from the last of the season. Those bright summery tastes will grace the Thanksgiving table, bringing with them memories of summer and the hope for another. Soon it will be all about pumpkins and cranberries and potluck suppers.
Spicy Smoked Bluefish Spread
Makes about 1½ cups
3 ounces smoked bluefish, flaked and shredded
1 cup whipped cream cheese
2 teaspoons horseradish
1 teaspoon heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Dash vinegar, or to taste
Dash Worcestershire sauce, or to taste
1/8 teaspoon finely minced jalapeno chiles, or to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Mix all of the ingredients together in a small bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 1 hour. Serve with crackers.
Makes about 4 cups
12 large ripe tomatoes
1 (l ½-inch) piece fresh ginger
2 jalapeno chiles, or to taste
2 1arge onions, quartered
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup distilled white vinegar
1. Peel and slice the tomatoes. Place them, along with the ginger, chiles, onions, garlic and basil in a food processor and pulse until the ingredients are the consistency of a thick liquid.
2. Place liquid in a heavy non-reactive saucepan with the raisins, brown sugar and vinegar and stir well. Place the saucepan on the stove at medium heat and bring the mixture to a boil.
3. Lower the heat and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for about 1½ hours, or until the mixture reaches a jam-like consistency. Remove from the heat and pour into scalded half-pint canning jars. The chutney should be served immediately but will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
Larger batches can be made for canning for those who have bumper crops of tomatoes, but proper canning procedures should be followed and the jars should be processed in a hot-water bath.
Recipes adapted from “The Martha’s Vineyard Table,” by Jessica B. Harris (Chronicle, 2007)