Foraging for jam on the East End

Beach plums freshly picked from the beach (All pictures by Monique Singh-Roy)

Beach plums freshly picked from the beach (All pictures by Monique Singh-Roy)

Beach plums aren’t typically found in supermarkets, but the fruit — which looks more like supersized blueberry or grape than a plum — makes some of the most flavorful jam I’ve ever tasted.

Since Colonial times, and likely before, the wild fruit, which grows on the North and South forks, has been harvested to make preserves, jams and jellies. According to Cornell University, which undertook a nearly 20-year project to establish the beach plum as a commercial crop, it’s native to the Northeastern U.S.

Elizabeth Post Mirel, author of the book “Plum Crazy,” said the first recorded sighting of a beach plum by a European on a New York shore was made in 1524 by Giovanni da Verrazano. The bush was cultivated in the 1800s and by the 1930s, beach plum jelly was being sold by Ocean Spray.

In 1998, The New York Times reported that coastal development had reduced the habitat of the beach plum, which grows in sandy soil like beach dunes.

“A lot of development is taking up not the wetlands, but the good, dry, buildable land where beach plums grow,” Richard Uva, who was part of the Cornell University project, told the Times.

Beach plum shrubs typically grow in sandy soil

Beach plum shrubs typically grow in sandy soil.

Despite this, beach plums can still be foraged on the North Fork — if you know where to look. And although the fruit might be just past its peak this time of year, it’s not too late to enjoy the preserves from a local farm stand. Briermere Farms in Riverhead, for instance, currently has a limited supply of beach plum jam, jellies and syrups.

Two years ago, I had never even heard of a beach plum. But last month, I was walking along a South Fork beach when I quite literally came across them. My husband, Eric, remarked matter of factly: “Oh, those are beach plums.”

Popping one into my mouth gave me an introduction to the fruit’s sour exterior skin and sugary interior flesh. It was sweet but tarter than a grape, with a little pit in the middle.

We returned the next weekend, buckets in hand, and spent a few hours picking the fruit. The day was sunny, warm and dry as beachgoers strolled and picnicked nearby, completely ignoring us.

Beach plums grow on a low-lying, scratchy shrub. Some are tall, but most of the ones we picked were located on bushes no more than two to three feet high. That involved a lot of bending over, but it was worth it. Our efforts that day resulted in several pounds of purple fruit.

Once we brought the plums home, I picked off all the stems and rinsed the fruit before cooking it down in a large pot. The fruit cooks down quickly, creating a dark red juice that stains everything. Our kitchen looked like a gruesome crime scene afterward, with crimson counter tops, utensils and kitchen towels. My fingertips were blue for two days.

Beach plums create a deep red juice when cooked down

Beach plums create a deep red juice when cooked down.

Some recipes call for something called a jelly bag to do the job, although I haven’t gotten around to buying one yet. This year I squeezed the cooked fruit through a metal colander, which worked just fine.

After the plums were cooked down, I added sugar and pectin and made jam, securing it in glass jars after giving it a hot-water bath. Four cups of juice yields about seven to eight half-pint jars of jam.

So, what do beach plums taste like? Well, their flavor is strong, tart and almost like wine. Think somewhere between a raspberry and sweet cranberry. I couldn’t help but take several sips from my large wooden spoon as they cooked down. And it’s no surprise I later found online recipes for making beach plum cordials. The juice is just that good.

Biting into a slice of hot buttered toast topped with beach plum jam is a glorious thing! I have totally fallen in love with this Northeastern treat and search out the berries every September when they’re ripe. If you find a jar at a farm stand, give it a try.

Briermere Farms currently has a limited supply of beach plum jam, jellies and syrups available. Located at 4414 Sound Avenue in Riverhead, call (631) 722-3931 for more information or visit briermere.com.

Beach plum jam is a dark red, almost purple color

Beach plum jam is a dark red, almost purple color.

RECIPE FOR BEACH PLUM JAM

1 & 1/2 gallons (approximately) of fresh beach plums — The goal is 4 cups of pure, strained beach plum juice.
7 cups sugar
1 package pectin
(If you don’t have enough juice, you can halve this recipe).

Wash and pick over the fruit. Discard anything you don’t like the look of. Cook the berries in a heavy pot over low heat, crushing them down with a potato masher as you go.

Let the cooked fruit and juice cool, then squeeze it through the jelly bag or colander.

Prepare your jam jars and lids, washing and sterilizing them in a pot of boiling water that completely covers the jars. Then set them out to dry using tongs.

Mix 4 cups of juice with 7 cups of sugar in a large pot before bringing it to a boil. Be advised that this will expand when it boils, so leave plenty of room to avoid boil-overs.  Turn the heat to medium-high, stirring occasionally. When the juice and sugar mixture is really roiling, add the package of pectin.  The boiling will abate for a moment, then resume. Stir, stir, stir for one minute as it boils furiously. Remove from heat.

Use a spoon to skim off any foam, leaving just the clear, garnet colored liquid. Ladle into 1/2 pint jars, seal, and turn each jar over for 5 minutes, then turn right side up again. Some people don’t boil their jars once filled, but I do. Better safe than sorry. Take them out of the pot with tongs, place on a cooling rack. The jam should solidify within a few hours to a day.

Just jarred beach plum jam

Freshly jarred beach plum jam