The fruits of my labor
I know you are all thinking about the pretty, fragrant blossoms in the spring and the ripe, dripping fruits later in the summer. What could be so bad about that?
The problem with fruit trees is this: They produce fruit – usually much more of it than the average homeowner knows how to deal with. The second problem is that they produce fruit 10 to 20 feet up in the air, which is a real pain in the neck. The third problem is that they all tend to ripen on the same day. The fourth problem is that the day they ripen is usually hot.
In my yard, we only have five fruit trees: two apples, a peach, a pear and a plum. The first few years they were in the ground, they produced nice, manageable quantities of fruit. Last year, we got four pears. The squirrels ate every single peach, and the plum tree took a year off. The apples are dwarfs and very easy to deal with.
This year, there are at least 1,000 pears on the tree, which we will pick next month. We beat the squirrels to about 200 of the peaches, and there are so many plums I couldn’t begin to count them.
Knowing harvest day was approaching, I got out my dog-eared copy of the Ball Blue Book and looked up the ingredients for plum jam and plum chutney – both of which I have successfully made before. I did my shopping trip, picking up 10-pound bags of sugar, screw bands and jar lids, vinegar, and odds and ends like mustard seed. I had them all handy and at the ready in anticipation of the big day.
Plum-picking day was Saturday. We picked all the plums we could reach with the ladder – agreeing that anything beyond that was “bird food.” We washed them and removed all the stems and leaves. Then, we visually inspected them for possible critters – nasty things that live inside. This all took several hours, after which we were too tired and sticky to consider doing anything more with them. So they sat on the counter until Sunday.
First thing Sunday morning, I got out my giant spatter-ware canning kettle and set it on the stovetop. Then, working in several batches, I simmered the plums until they were soft and put them through a food mill. For anyone who has not used a food mill, it’s a pre-historic device that separates the pulp of the fruit from its skins and seeds. When you put pitted fruits into the food mill – boiling hot pitted fruits – it sends the pits and bits of skin flying around the room as you crank it. Last week, I had white kitchen cabinets; as I write this, they are spattered purple. As you can imagine, the hot fruit bits also ended up on my glasses, in my hair and on the dogs, who were smart enough not to stick around for long.
After a couple of hours of turning plums into plum puree, I began making the jam and the chutney. I processed a couple of canner loads of each, which took a few more hours. I figure I had two burners going full bore on my gas stove for at least five hours. I’m sure the gas company is delighted about this – after all, only crazy fruit people use lots of gas in August.
While I was standing at the stove, sweating, sticky and swearing at nobody in particular, the thing that got me through was thinking about the early settlers that founded this country. When you go to Plimoth Plantation, actresses dressed in long, dark wool garments – with big hats and billowing aprons – stand over wood fires stirring up big iron bubbling pots in stifling, tiny houses with few windows and poor ventilation. Trying to visualize these impossible conditions kept me sane and feeling somewhat fortunate.
While I was working on the plums, my husband volunteered to peel and slice the peaches, which he did on the porch – smart, considering my mood in the kitchen. He did a great job and I am lucky to have him.
For our weekend effort, we ended up with 10 quarts of peaches in the freezer and 14 jars of plum jam and chutney in the pantry. I also made a peach pie, which was a well-deserved reward.
The peaches and plums have been dealt with, but there’s still the somewhat frightening matter of the 1,000 pears next month. I’m already thinking about the pilgrim women standing over their boiling cauldrons.