Real Food Encyclopedia | Plums
Although not as ancient as the figs, dates and olives of Mesopotamia, plums are among the first domesticated fruits in central Asia and Europe. Plum stones believed to be from wild species have been found at Neolithic (4000 to 2500 BCE) sites in the Ukraine among the Trypilian culture, as well as at sites in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Cyprus.
In the 19th century, a botanist named Luther Burbank trekked across the country to Santa Rosa, California, where he developed more than 100 varieties of plums. His crossbreeding efforts set the stage for the American fresh plum industry, which has made Asian varieties and Asian crossbreeds its claim to fame.
As for prunes — aka dried plums — the credit goes to Louis and Pierre Pelliers, two brothers who came from France in the mid-1800s to plant Agen prune plums which they grafted with a wild American plum, resulting in the California prune. By the turn of the century, there were 85 dried plum packing plants in California, which would become (and has remained) the world leader in dried plum production. By 1932, California rolled out commercially-produced prune juice.
Fun Facts about Plums:
- The plum blossom is revered in China and has been depicted in paintings and poetry for millennia. It is seen as a symbol of endurance and renewal.
- In the Middle Ages, the word “plum” was used to refer to various kinds of dried fruit, such as raisins or currants.
- “Virginia House-wife”, the 1836 cookbook by Mary Randolph includes a recipe “Magnum Bonum Plums in Brandy,” in which she calls for green gage plums. “The large amber, and the blue plums, are also excellent,” she writes.
- In 2000, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted permission to the California Prune Board to permanently swap out the use of the word “prune” for “dried plum” on all its packaging. Stagnant sales resulting from a long-held public perception that prune equals laxative, the industry sought a rebranding and is now known as The California Dried Plum Board.
What to Look for When Buying Plums
No matter which variety you choose, you want taut, firm skin (versus swollen). No bruising, discoloration or soft spots. You’ll know your plum is ripe when it yields to a little pressure from your thumb. Unripe plums will ripen at home in a paper bag in the refrigerator.
Variety is the operative word here: Plums can be as small as a cherry (beach plum) and as big as a tennis ball (Santa Rosa), shaped like a football (Italian prunes) or squat, like a tomato (cherry plum). They come in shades of yellow (Mirabelle), Granny Smith apple green (green gage) or deep red with a green streak (Satsuma). Flavors ranges from super tart to honeyed, floral to melon. They all have pits, which also vary in size, but most are freestone (thanks to all the Burbank breeding). Try a few new to you and see what you think!
Sustainability of Plums
As mentioned earlier, the lion share of supermarket plums comes out of California, which means long-distance travel is required to reach produce aisles in all remaining 49 states. This one-state commodity set-up is a good argument to eat plums from your respective food shed and when they’re in season. During off season, the US imports plums from Chile. In short, commodity plums, no matter what time of year, come with a heavier carbon footprint associated with shipping.
Pesticides and Plums
Of the items analyzed in the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, the conventional plum is regularly ranked in the top 20. If you’re looking to avoid pesticides, look for organic plums.
Traditionally, the plum is a warm (but not super-hot) weather fruit that needs lots of sun but not lots of humidity. This is why they can grow in California several months out of the year. Depending on the variety and growing region, plum season can begin as early as May and go well into September. July and August are peak plum season in most parts of the country. August is typically when prune plums are harvested and dried.
Plums and Geography
According to recent FAO statistics, China is by far the world leader in plum production and the United States sits near the top of the list. Here at home, California has long dominated domestic plum production, both fresh and dried. Other prominent plum producing states are Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Michigan.
Botanically speaking, the plum is part of the Prunus genus, which includes various stone fruits — apricot, cherry, nectarine and peach — as well as the almond. They’re all members of the extensive Rose family, which includes the apple, pear and strawberry. The fruit is classified as a drupe, defined by the hard stone pit surrounding its seeds.
There are dozens of species, but here’s the lowdown on what you’re most likely to find in the US marketplace:
- Domestica: also known as the European plum, which includes the prune plum, greengage and egg plum. Closely related are the damson and bullace, grouped under the subgenus P. Insititia.
- Salicina: also known as the Chinese or Japanese plum, which botanist Luther Burbank (mentioned earlier) crossed with P. Domesticato create dozens of cultivars. Most supermarket plums in this country are such cultivar mashups. Santa Rosa, Burbank, El Dorado, Redheart and Friar are just some of the names you may have encountered. Burbank also developed the plumcot, an apricot-plum hybrid.
There are also several wild plum varieties native to North America:
- Maritima: also known as the beach plum, which grows on sandy dunes along the Atlantic coast, from Maine to Maryland.
- Subcordata: also known as Klamath, Oregon or Sierra plum, which grows in southern Oregon and northern California.
- Americana: aka the American plum, wild plum or Marshalls plum, which grows in the central states as well in the east.
- Angustfolia: aka Chickasaw, Cherokee or sand plum, which grows in the south.
- Nigra: aka Canadian plum or black plum.
The past decade has seen the arrival of two additional apricot-plum hybrids, namely the Aprium and the Pluot, which is also sold as “Dinosaur Egg” plums.
Keep in the refrigerator, and in a paper bag if you some ripening assistance. Plums should be eaten within a few days of purchase.
Cooking with Plums
You can eat plums out of hand, of course, but there are many other ways to eat this luscious fruit.
Try grilling up a bunch of plums, halved and pitted and brushed with olive oil. Once they come off the heat, drizzle just a touch of honey, a squeeze of lime and some chopped basil. Or leave off the basil and top with a spoonful of Greek yogurt.
In her cookbook, “Plum Delicious,” Nani Steele suggests poaching plums in a vinegar brine scented with cinnamon, vanilla and allspice that transforms into a spiced syrup. She recommends pairing them with cheese or with poultry or pork. One of our favorites is the famous Plum Torte from the New York Times — published in 1983; a timeless classic!
There are only so many plums you can eat out of hand. Here are a bunch of ideas to enjoy plums into the cold months — as a remembrance of summer.
- Make chutney for a cheese plate or your next roast beast.
- A batch of plum catsup to zip up the next grill fest
- Asian plum sauce that you can keep in the fridge or process in jars for the winter
- Plum schnapps for when it’s really cold out
- Plum jam — great for gifts at the end of the year
Fresh plums are a good source of potassium and Vitamin C. A five-ounce plum contains more than two grams of fiber. Dried plums are loaded with fiber — one-fourth cup contains three grams 12 percent of the daily recommended value. All that fiber is great for regulating blood sugar levels and feeling satiated (and perhaps eating less in between meals). They’re also are a natural source of sorbitol, a sugar alcohol which can have a mild laxative effect on the body. Prunes are also rich in phenols, disease-fighting phytonutrients and have been studied for their potential to increase bone density and keep osteoporosis at bay.
The caveat: Prunes are high in oxalates, which can crystallize and are a potential risk for anyone with kidney or gallbladder conditions. As always, check with your health care provider before including prunes in your diet.