One September before we were married, my husband took me up to his grandmother's house in the dunes near Ryder Beach in Truro. He sat me down at her kitchen counter, and told me it was time to learn to make Hami’s beach plum jelly.
Hami was Alice Thomsen Bradford. And the first thing she taught me about beach plums was that they’re hard to predict. Some years the fruit shows up, and some years it doesn't.
The fall when I sat down with Hami came on the heels of a banner year for beach plums. It was September 2008, Hami was 93, and the year before, she’d made 200 jars of beach plum jelly.
“I never left my yard, or the one next door,” she said. “I think I could have had, literally, 1,000 jars if I’d wanted to continue doing it. But by then, of course, the Cape was running out of glasses, Certo, sugar! You would have to go off Cape, everyone was making jelly. Wherever you went, you’d see people grabbing at those wonderful things.”
I’d never heard of beach plums before I came to Wellfleet. They only grow in certain places — in sandy, coastal areas, with their toes buried near the shore. They taste almost exactly like regular plums, only a bit more tart, and with slightly bitter skin. And the thing is, you can’t just plant them.
“I understand that at Cornell University, for instance, they’re trying to grow them commercially,” Hami said. ”It just can’t be done. It has to be near the shore and just come up naturally. That’s why they’re such a treasure.”
The fruit is the size of a cherry. You need 8 heaping cups of beach plums to get 6-8 jars of jelly.
And what does Hami put in her jelly?
“A great deal of sugar!” she said. “Did you know that by the time you press down the berries and get 4 cups of the juice, you need 6 cups of sugar to go with it. You boil it up, add some Certo. One minute you boil it, take it off, put it in nice sterilized jars. Then you’ve got, really, prizes.”
In those jars, beach plum jelly will keep for months, even years. But Hami had a big family—five kids, 13 grandchildren, and eighteen great grand children by the time she passed away in January of 2013. Even when she made 200 jars, the beach plum jelly never lasted long.
“I still have a little left, but I’ve been giving it away,” she said. “I had 200 jars, as I told you. I have about a dozen jars left. Do you want one?”
I happily accepted that jar, and the next. In fact, even though Hami had showed me her technique and I had her recipe, I never pulled it out until we ate the last jar of beach plum jelly made by Hami herself. That was last spring. This year is another banner year: the other day we picked sixteen cups of beach plums in half-an-hour in the yard next to Hami’s old house, the one Alex’s parents now share with his Uncle Mark and Aunt Carol. And just like Hami taught me, we boiled them down, strained the juice, and added sugar and certo. And while it might not be 200, we’ve got a start: 15 jars of purple gold in the cupboard, labeled Tommy Bradford’s Beach Plum Jelly.
Thank you Hami.
Alice Thomsen Bradford’s Beach Plum Jelly Recipe
If you don't have time to make jelly when you pick the fruits, you can make the juice and freeze it until you're ready. This is also a good trick for spreading out the jelly in between years of plenty.*
Makes 7 or 8 (8-ounce) jars
8 heaping cups beach plums
1 cup water
6 cups sugar
1 package Certo (or 3 ounces liquid pectin)
In a large soup pot, cook the beach plums and the water over medium-high heat until the fruit is soft. Set a large mixing bowl underneath a colander and pour the hot juice through, straining out the pits and skins. (Some people say to use cheesecloth, but Alex's grandmother says she never bothers, and her jelly always turns out just fine.)
Measure out 4 cups of beach plum juice. Rinse out the pot and pour in the juice with the sugar. Heat the mixture over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved, and bring it to a rolling boil. Add the Certo (or the liquid pectin, if that’s what you’re using) and bring the mixture back to a boil for 1 minute. Remove the jelly from the heat and pour it into sterilized jars. Store in a cool, dark place for up to a year.
*Note: Beach plums grow over a fairly wide range of the East Coast — from Maine to Virginia. But if you can't get them, you can substitute regular large plums, chopped to approximate the quantities.