We sat on the rocks below our campsite watching the tide come in. Above us a gauzy sheet of clouds hung in the high blue sky. Hanako looked up and said, “Iwashi-gumo, sardine clouds.” My mother looked up and said, “A Mackerel sky.” Fall is in the air.
My love of autumn quells the mourning of summer’s passing. As I settle into cooling climes and a get back to work mentality, inevitably it’s a time to reflect on how I spent that short glorious stretch of beautiful weather, the adventures had and the adventures missed.
This year we left Japan before the ume were ripe, passing the fruits of our dozen trees off to friends and family. It’s too much for Kuniko to handle alone and we can certainly do without making umeboshi for a few years, what with the jars and jars of them still stocked away in her pantry. But I do love the process, one that clearly bookends the start of summer.
Last year and the year prior, I took lead in making umeboshi, drawing on the copious notes I had from the year before Kuniko fell ill. She taught me to add red shisho to the ume after they have been salted and weighted to press out their juice. Red shiso imparts a dusty rose color to the plums. The year Kuniko taught me to make umeboshi the red shiso wasn’t ready before I had to leave for the States, so I never learned the proper ratio of shiso to plums. In 2014, when I took the reigns for the first time, Kuniko couldn’t remember how much shiso to use. I went to my local market to place an order and they suggested one bundle (6-8 stalks) per kilo of ume. I had 50 kilos of ume so I order 50 bundles of red shiso. Well the umeboshi from that year are a far cry from dusty rose. They are a distressing purple!
The following year I halved the amount of shiso I ordered. I spent a late June morning washing and drying the purple leaved stems on the balcony and plucking each leaf from the stems while checking for bugs. I began processing the leaves, salting them and gently massaging them to start the flow of colorful juice. Handful by handful I added them to the buckets of ume. It quickly became clear that even half the amount of shisho would be too much, so I halved it again. The color from that year is much closer to the lovely pink orbs that Kuniko always made.
But what to do with the great pile of fresh clean shiso leaves left over? Rooting around in Kuniko’s pantry I found a jar half full of several-year-old ume brine reserved after the umeboshi had been finished. I salted and massaged my left over shisho and added the leaves to the brine. I left for the States and thought no more of it.
Often the shiso leaves are pulled from a jar of umeboshi and dried in the sun, then ground to make yukari, a deep purple shiso salt sprinkled atop rice or onigiri. Knowing I wouldn’t make umeboshi this year, I satisfied my need to do something ume related by pulling a handful of leaves from the brine and drying them in the sun for a few afternoons in early June. I ground them up, bundled them in plastic bags and tossed them in my suitcase. We’ve decorated many a summer dish with that yukari. It’s a fresh alternative to salt, with a tart undertone and a rich purple color. It’s perfect sprinkled over sliced yellow cucumbers. We won’t use it much longer. As the days cool cooked root vegetables with butter and nuttier spices will replace the dishes of crisp raw vegetables with olive oil and shiso salt. But we’ll pull it out on those few hot days that punctuate September for a lingering taste of summer.