Ume plum ‘season’ in the Bay Area

Ripe ume. Photo by Pauline Fujita.

In early May as the first strawberries are getting everyone excited about fruit again my anticipation is instead devoted singularly to ume plums. Ume season in Japan falls around the end of June whereas here in the Bay Area the fruits seem to find their way to market around the end of May or early June. Prunus mume, or ume plums as they are better known, are no plum at all but are members of the apricot family and an early fruiting member at that. Typically the fruits are picked green and most commonly made into a sour pickle called umeboshi or used to make plum “wine,” umeshu. The fruits can’t really be eaten raw — not only will they give you a stomach ache but they are sour to the point of being unpalatable. When tamed by pickling, whether by salt or alcohol, the ume plum mellows to a distinct and tart plummy flavor that is in my opinion, unmatched. The “ume” flavor is so distinct and popular that in Japan you can get all manner of ume-flavored items — everything from ume potato chips to ume tea, ume ice cream and ume chewing gum.

Even as a pickle umeboshi are salty and sour. This pickle is so infamous for its pucker power that there is a standard cartoon representation for the mouth of someone eating umeboshi — a giant asterisk. For as long as I can remember I have loved all things ume, even the super sour umeboshi which isn’t usually a hit with kids. When I started making my own Japanese pickles, or tsukemono, I always imagined that I would never get to make “real” umeboshi with actual ume plums as they are very hard to come by outside of Japan.

Enter the magic of globalization and Safeway-sized Japanese supermarkets like Nijiya, Mitsuwa and Marukai. A couple years ago on a routine restocking mission to one of these stores I chanced upon a small basket of green ume for sale and almost literally fell over. Naturally I bought out the remaining ume and began looking into where, when and how ume is grown and sold in North America. Turns out, the North American ume crop is small and the season short: The fruits are only available in stores for two to three weeks around late May/early June. Had I blinked I would most certainly have missed the “season” and my chance to make ume-flavored treats.

You might be wondering “why bother.” I’ll admit it — umeboshi are involved to make and perhaps no tastier than what is available at the store. I mostly make my own to be hard core about my ume consumption. Umeshu on the other hand is dead easy to make and infinitely more tasty than what is commercially available. And ume miso is just as easy to make, not sold at the store, and even tastier than plain miso.

But perhaps, instead you are wondering why you wouldn’t go all out and grow your own. If you were so inclined, a small number of nurseries carry prunus mume fruit trees for the adventurous gardener. Interestingly, the popularization of ume among gardeners is credited to one Dr. J. C. Raulston of the North Carolina State University Arboretum which consequently hosts the largest collection of ume trees in the United States (more than 50 varieties), despite the fact that the population of umeboshi enthusiasts in North Carolina is probably quite small.

About Pauline Fujita

Pauline Fujita lives in Santa Cruz, California. A biologist by trade and a glutton at heart, she's especially interested in Japanese and Japanese influenced food.

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