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Foraging for Beach Plums

Foraging for Beach Plums
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Jason Bond is striking out. Leading a small team through the dunes in Westport, Massachusetts, cluster-bombed by mosquitoes and toting an empty bucket, all he wants is a few pounds of beach plums. It’s his first day off in months, and all his usual spots are yielding nothing but bare bushes.

And on this day, of all days, which began with the news that Bon Appétit magazine had named his Cambridge bistro, Bondir, one of 2011’s 10 best new restaurants in America. He greets it with a self-deprecating mumble: “It must have been a slow year for restaurants.” But, in fact, business has been booming since the place opened, and now this one precious afternoon away from the stoves is a bust. In the race to get out the door, one fact has slipped everyone’s minds: Wild beach plums are biennial bearers, producing bushels of cherry-sized fruit one year and hardly any the next. And no one knows whether this is a good year or a bad one.

Such are the vagaries of foraging, which Bond first learned on his grandparents’ Wyoming ranch. Here in Westport, he has harvested beach-rose petals for rosewater, wild-pea blossoms for salads, rose hips for sauces (“Great with veal and pork,” he says), wild cherries for jams, autumn olive berries and periwinkles for snacking. Where others see a bed of sand and a place to swim, Jason Bond sees dinner.

In the case of tart-sweet, somewhat tannic beach plums, he mostly sees dessert. Beach-plum souffl&eacute, sorbet, fruit leather, soda, and jam all rotate through Bondir’s menu in late summer. But this spot isn’t going to yield any of those treasures. Unlike Bond, the plums are having an off year.

Prunus maritima is a North American native, thriving in sandy dunes along the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to New Brunswick. When Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed into what’s now New York Harbor in 1524, he made note of the “damson trees” growing along the shore. European settlers observed that Native Americans ate the fruits and soon tucked them into their own pies and jams. They named Plum Island, off the coast of Newburyport, Massachusetts, after the plants growing on the area’s tall dunes. And the jams and jellies stuck, becoming one of the bright flavors of a coastal summer for generations of New Englanders.

Even as the plant’s dune habitats have been threatened by development, you can still find beach-plum jellies at gift shops in Rhode Island and Maine and on Cape Cod (see the accompanying sidebar). A few intrepid New England farmers, mostly in southeastern Massachusetts, have been cultivating beach plums with reasonable success, but most aficionados find that the hunt for the wild plum is half the pleasure, at least on a good day, which this isn’t.

After a brief rest, the group trudges down the beach to ask a gaggle of teenage boys if they’ve seen any bushes with bright-purple berries. The boys stare blankly, but one lights up. “Yes,” he says, “over in the far parking lot past the bathhouse. There were some really, like, purple berries on it.” And so Bond’s group drives across the park and trudges through the poison ivy until Jason finds it: a bush bearing a comparative bounty of fruit. It’s not much; his bucket is barely a quarter full. But it’s enough for jam, which he’ll put up and use later for pistachio thumbprint cookies. It’s enough for a taste of late summer. And it’s a satisfying win for this locavore chef who’s become too busy to get out and hunt for food anymore.

Remember to ask permission before foraging on private property. On public lands, check that foraging (personal consumption only) is allowed. Note that foraging within Parker River Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island, Mass., requires a permit.

Updated Friday, June 15th, 2012

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