The Great Ume Plum Festival

In the interest of the full disclosure that has made me the darling of the San Francisco food set, or well, the Noe Valley food set or at least the northern Noe Valley food set, i’ll admit that until last summer i didn’t know what an ume plum was.  Here’s everything you wanted to know about Prunus mume.

My Canadian foodie friend Andrew brought these to my attention last summer when i’d taken him to the Alemaney Farmers’ Market and he asked Glenn Tanimoto if he grew them.  Alas, Glenn didn’t but he knew what they were and had a neighbor who had a couple of trees.  Not retail marketed, alas.

But Andrew had seen umes at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market last May, and wonder of wonders last Saturday i was out shopping with Sybil and we passed the Happy Quail Farm booth.  There they were, both green and ripe.  Yow!  I grabbed a small bag of both kinds, and David told me that i was lucky to get them since the “season” for them is only two Saturdays.

When i got them home i emailed Andrew, who’s in Paris now, to tell him about my good luck and mention that David had said that the green ones should be pickled and the ripe yellow ones should be macerated in alcohol….or maybe it was the other way around.  Bless Andrew, he shot back immediately with instructions…and more instructions, so i didn’t even need to do detailed searching on the Internet.  So it’s now a joint project, with Andrew operating remotely.

1. Wash the plums thoroughly and discard any bruised ones.

2. Carefully pick out the tiny black remainder of the stem deep in the bellybutton of each plum because the stem has a strong tannin flavor.

3. Jar the plums in a vessel with a tight lid (I used 1 liter French canning jars) and pour in enough vodka to cover them completely, leaving an inch or so of vodka above the top of the plums.

4. Pour half a cup of white cane sugar into the green jar, swirl it around to dissolve the sugar, and put a piece of Saran Wrap over the jar before refastening the lid.

Here’s what they look like at this point.

macerating ume plums

5. For now, close the containers and put them in a cool dark place while you gather the rest of the ingredients.

Ah yes, the rest of the ingredients.  Well, see, Andrew is Chinese, so i knew in advance that i wouldn’t be able to just run down to Safeway and get everything.  Oh no.  For the ripe plums i’ll need Chinese yellow rock sugar and dried black lychee tea leaves.  For the green plums, i’ll need shiso leaves.  No problem.  That’s why God created Chinatown.

Except that nowadays everybody goes to the New Chinatown on Clement Street, where there are rows of Chinese restaurants, bakeries, herbal stores, and grocery stores, my favorite being May Wah, at 707 Clement Street, which is cavernous and has everything.  So i jumped on the Segway and headed out.  We’re having an unseasonable heat wave today, so all i needed was a tee shirt  with an unbuttoned dress shirt on top.  Beautiful ride over, since i took the Wiggle into Golden Gate Park, cut across west of the Conservatory of Flowers onto Arguello Street and thence to the butt of Clement.

The clerks in May Wah are gentle with Caucasians who are looking for ingredients they don’t even know what look like, and they had all three of the exotic items.  Of course since i was in there i went ahead and filled my shopping basket with delicacies i like such as ten different cans of Chinese fish, a bag of fried green peas with chile lime coating, a couple of packages of miso soup mix, a shrink wrap bag of dried oysters, a bar of that divine Lindt chocolate filled with bubbles of liquid raspberry, and of course a couple of bags of shrimp chips, which i discovered in Amsterdam as kroepoek and just love.

And after you shop at May Wah, the obligatory next stop is across the street at dingy little Good Luck dim sum, which has a couple of sticky tables in back but is overwhelmingly for takeout and which is famous for being the best dim sum buy in the city as well as for its cranky counter girls who give about as much quarter as the checkout counter girls at Albert Heijn in Amsterdam, whose favorite sport is reducing tourists to tears.

Alas, the Good Luck counter girls didn’t get a crack at me today because they’re closed on Tuesdays.  Which is a mixed blessing since my mouth was watering for some of their dim sum, and i thought about it all the way home as i took a route through the park so scenic that i got a little turned around so that when i finally reached the edge of the park i thought i was on the south edge when i was really on the east, and it took me a couple of blocks to figure out why everything looked all wrong and make an abrupt right turn to be headed home instead of downtown.

All in all, a very enjoyable shopping expedition.  The only problem is that the temperatures rose during the trip, and by the time i got home it was nearly unbearable.  I was almost sweating!

Now i’m waiting for the sun to rise in Paris so Andrew can give me some instructions about what to do with the exotic ingredients for the yellow plums.

While we wait, here’s a shot of the top of the Conservatory of Flowers taken from just a few yards into the park on Arguello.

Conservatory of Flowers from Arguello


6.   Andrew got back to me.  All you have to do is throw a half dozen shiso leaves into each jar of green plums and a lump of yellow rock sugar about an inch in diameter into the yellow plums.

7.  Put the jars back into the cool,  dark place and wait.  [more instructions will be added later]




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