Preserving the art of pickling plums
When Kuniko moved from her former homestead to a new house on the other side of the same hill, she took her ume trees with her. Two would be sufficient. She was 67, retired, and years beyond her former life as career homemaker feeding three children plus numerous guests packed around a 10-foot long table each night. She would harvest from these two trees each June to make just enough pickled plums for her husband and herself to enjoy. At least that was the idea until someone planted 10 more trees.
The Prunus mume tree, commonly called a Chinese plum or Japanese apricot, is indeed related to both. And though the species relation is in fact closer to the latter, in common parlance we refer to it as the former. Plum trees, their blossoms and their fruit are prized in the culture and mythology of Japan.
In a small orchard behind Kuniko’s house these dozen plum trees bloom each February. Their white, single petal flowers glow in the cold misty air, a delicate promise of a forthcoming spring. Gradually the petals fall, leaves unfurl and rock hard, fuzzy green orbs grow towards ripeness in June.
Born in the same year that Japan invaded China, initiating World War II in the Pacific, Kuniko’s understanding of the world was formed during wartime and reconstruction when resources were scarce. The notion of mottainai courses through her veins. So when presented with 12 plum trees in the backyard, she could not bear to watch the fruit fall.
Despite giving away a bulk of each year’s harvest, her pantry shelves now buckle under the weight of over 150 liters (40 gallons) of umeboshi (dried, pickled plums) ranging in date from 2006 to the present.
To make the finest umeboshi requires a few weeks of occasional attention followed by a long, long wait. For Kuniko, now 77, these prospects no longer hold much allure. Though in her heart of hearts she will be forever plagued by that sense of montainai, many factors point to ceasing the annual tradition this year. “There are more than enough in the pantry to last me the rest of my life,” she said.
“But if we don’t make umeboshi, what’s the point of a dozen trees in the yard?” we countered.
“Well, the flowers are lovely,” she reminded us.
Here in this household we’ve reached that fork in the road where so much of the old knowledge is left by the wayside as the pack dashes ahead. Kuniko is at the young and final end of a generation that took the annual pickling of plums as an assumed task in the year’s cycle. This story will sound familiar. Substitute any country for Japan, any lifelong homemaker for Kuniko and any ingredient for plums. Within the span of generations between grandparent and grandchild, knowing taste buds are bred out of the general population and the mass-produced version at the supermarket is mistaken for authentic.
The Japanese diet has long been considered one of the healthiest in the world. And umeboshi is among its superfoods, known in macrobiotic and nutritionally concerned circles as the king of alkaline foods. Saturated with organic acids that break down the detrimental lactic and pyruvic acids built up in our blood from consuming excesses of sugar, refined flours, alcohol, and meat, eating umeboshi returns the blood to a slightly alkaline state that is optimal for prime health.
Anyone who has awoken on the other side of an intoxicating evening ought to sip half an umeboshi steeped in hot water. Drink this purifying elixir, eat the pickled plum and expect to feel better.
Also revered for its anti oxidizing effects that slow the symptoms of aging and its natural antibacterial components, consuming umeboshi is credited for improving a long list of physical ailments including indigestion, fatigue, morning sickness, and hangover to list a few. Anyone who has awoken on the other side of an intoxicating evening ought to sip half an umeboshi steeped in hot water. Drink this purifying elixir, eat the pickled plum and expect to feel better.
Unfortunately, these days most store bought varieties are pumped with artificial coloring, sugars, and preservatives making what should be one of the healthiest foods on earth yet another source of toxins.
So what of the 12 trees in the yard? Kuniko has done her part. If we want to reap the benefits of this superfood, it’s time to step up and learn the ropes. On a clear day in the first trimester of June I headed towards the orchard with baskets. The first tree has all but ceased producing plums so I started in on the second tree, one of those that Kuniko brought with her. It’s the most prolific of the dozen. It takes a bit of time to spot the green orbs among the green leaves. Best viewed from a position crouched below or entangled within the limbs of the tree, it feels like a long game of twister with the tree calling the shots. Inevitably when scanning for ume from one side of the tree, a cluster is spotted on the far side. Collection requires a sort of aggressive lunge among poking twigs dotted with hairy caterpillars who adore the leaves of these trees as much as we do the fruit.
Within a couple of hours the bins were full, the trees were bare, and I had nearly 40 kilograms of ume. Someone must pickle these plums and preserve the old ways and it may as well be me.
Wash them by tumbling them gently around in in a big basin of water
Use a toothpick to gently remove any remaining bits of stem
Place drained ume in buckets and add fresh water until the ume are completely submerged
Soak for 24 hours
*This part of the process is called aku-nuki, a core practice in Japanese cooking in which bitterness or harshness is removed from an ingredient through submersion in water.
Drain and pile onto baskets and let dry for a couple of hours
Prepare your fermenting containers, weights and lids – wash, dry, and disinfect insides with a paper towel doused in 35 proof shochu or similar strong clear liquor
Prepare a bowl with 1 – 2 cups of the liquor
Measure out 5 kilos of ume, little by little place in bowl of liquor, mix, strain, and remove to a clean large bowl
Choose your percentage (by weight) and measure out the pickling salt
1000g (20%) *Takashi’s preferred percentage
900g (18%) *Kuniko’s preferred percentage
700g (14%) *Ginchan’s (of Ginsushi) preferred percentage
*If you are in it for the long haul, salt heavily knowing that you won’t consume these for several years. If you would like to work on a shorter cycle, choose a lower percentage.
(Lower percentages may require refrigeratation.)
Mix in the salt and transfer to cleaned, disinfected bucket or crock
Repeat until all ume are salted
Weight the ume with 1.5-2 times its own weight
Leave for 3-5 days until the ume are submerged in their own juice
Gather 2 stalks with leaves of red shisho per kilo of ume
Wash the shiso very well and hang it to dry
Remove the leaves from the stems
Place a large handful shiso leaves in a mortar. Sprinkle a little salt on top and mix around by hand, grinding the leaves gently against the bowl. They will soften and begin to get juicy. Just as juice becomes plentiful, squeeze the shiso into a ball lightly and set aside in a clean bowl. Throw this juice away and repeat for all of the shiso.
*This process is the same aku-nuki as before, only done in a slightly different way. Most of the juice in the shiso leaves should be reserved for the ume, but this first light pressing of juice removes the bitterness.
Take the balls of salted shiso a bit at a time and place in a new clean bowl. Add a little ume water and mix around to leech the color out of the leaves. Do this with all of the shiso until you have a bowl full of shiso in red ume water.
Distribute the shisho and juice on top of the ume in their containers, reduce the weight by half, and let rest until a sunny hot spell at the height of summer.
*Choose a stretch of hot dry weather at the height of summer for this step.
(If you have added shiso, you will have reddish umeboshi. If not you will have natural colored umeboshi.)
Remove the weights
If you have added shiso, remove the shisho from the top and place in a basket to dry
Drain the ume PRESERVING ALL OF THE LIQUID
Over the course of 3-5 sunny days, set the baskets of ume (and shisho) outside to dry, turn occasionally
Bring them inside in the evenings and cover with another basket or newspaper (anything to protect from household dusts)
Place the dried ume in a large sterilized crock or jar
Form a layer at the top with the shiso leaves
Fill the container with the reserved ume liquid
Place in a dark, cool, dry spot for 3 to 10+ years*
*With each passing year, the flavor matures from intolerably salty to mild. Ginchan begins serving his 14% salted umeboshi at 3 or 4 years old. Kuniko likes her 18% salted umeboshi in the 6-10 year old window. Consider 8-12 years old for 20% salted umeboshi.