This year, the rainy season seemed to start pretty early this year. The clouds and drizzling rain tend to make me think of ume, which comes into season during the rainy season. Remembering all the good stuff that I made from ume last year, I couldn’t wait for the harvest. At first, the ume are small and green, and they are imported from the southern parts of the country. Of course, Gunma has plenty of ume trees, especially around Mount Haruna, so I waited.
Early June became late June. “The time is right,” I thought. I asked Mr. Y., who had brought a crateful of his own ume to school to share with the teachers if he would have them this year as well. “Of course, I always have too many so I will give them to you. You know, young people these days don’t know what to do with ume so it’s so nice to see someone your age making ume-shu and ume jam,” he told me in return. But being the tennis coach means that Mr. Y. doesn’t have much time off on the weekends to harvest 20 ume trees. By the time term exams rolled around, it was pretty late in the season. I was opening the last jar of last year’s jam and really looking forward to having more.
The Monday after exams started, Mr. Y. brought the ume. It wasn’t the usual crate though, it was just a small box. “These are for you,” he told me. “Every year, I harvest 300 kilograms of ume. It’s so hard, it takes all day. But this year, it only took 10 minutes. I’ve never seen anything like this.” I was really touched that he had saved some of his harvest for me even though it was much smaller than usual.
It looked like one or two kilos. They were quite ripe, but that’s just fine for jam. I had dinner plans already that night, so I decided I would make the jam the next day. Some recipes say that you should soak the ume for up to a day for “aku-nuki,” that is, to remove the harsh flavor of the underripe fruit. I also figured that being submerged in water would keep the oxygen off of the fruit and slow its ripening. I was wrong. By the time I was ready to make the jam, the fruit could barely keep itself together. It seemed like the ripening had accelerated and the fruit was so soft it fell apart if I touched it too hard. I got out the paring knife and trimmed off the bad spots. By the time I was done, I barely had 500 grams of Mr. Y.’s precious fruit. “Well I can’t just waste it,” I thought, so I got out my pot and made the world’s most pathetically small batch of jam. In the end I had one jar of ume-shiso jam to put up and another third of a cup that went into the fridge.
The next day, I was on a mission. I was going to find ume to finish my preservation projects. First I checked at my usual grocery stores, Ito Yokado and Apita. Apita usually has a nice display of ume along with all of the supplies you need for ume-shu, umeboshi, and jam, but alas, they had already packed it away for the season. Next, I rode my bike across town to check at my favorite farm-market, Shoku-no-eki. They had a display for ume, but they were already sold out. I asked a clerk, but she said I might be able to get them the next day between 9 and 9:30, but the ume had been extremely popular lately. Being that I have school from 8:30 to 4:30, that wasn’t going to work out unless I could find a way to sneak out for an hour or two without being noticed. Not a good idea. Almost ready to hang my hat up, I went across the street to the local mega-mart, Besia. Lo and behold, they had ume; imported from Wakayama prefecture and quite ripe, but ume nonetheless. At least I could make some more jam with them. I bought a kilo and a bag full of canning jars.
On the way home, I passed by Fressay, a smaller grocery store that I rarely shop at. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine store, but there’s not one near my house, so I don’t usually think to go there. I remembered that I needed another bag of sugar to make the jam. I went in and thought, “What the heck, I should see if they have any ume here.” I passed by most of the fresh produce displays. Just as I thought, no luck here…. wait a minute… what’s that tucked into the corner next to the refrigerated section? If it wasn’t the last two bags of ume. And not just any ume, but plump, firm, green ume harvested right here in Gunma. Well it was turning into my lucky day. I got my sugar and both bags of ume and was on my way. On a whim I ducked into a small, run-down looking drug store and found the sarashi cloth (traditionally used for many things including straining dashi) that I haven’t been able to find at any of the big markets and chain drug stores. Score 2 for me!
I got home around 7 and I didn’t want these ume to suffer the same fate that the last ones had, so I got to work right away. Clean and soak yellow ume. Take photos. Start cooking yellow-ume jam. Clean and soak ao-ume. Bottle half of yellow-ume jam. Add shiso and shiso vinegar to remaining jam. Bottle ume-shiso jam. Start cooking ao-ume jam. Pack ume-shu jar with layers of ao-ume and rock sugar. Bottle ao-ume jam. Bottle ao-ume jam. Take more photos. Clean up. It was nearly midnight by the time I’d finished—hot, exhausted, and spattered with jam. Maybe I went overboard buying three kilos of ume, but I’m really looking forward to a year of delicious ume jam and ume-shu.
The next day I took a jar of the yellow ume jam and ume-shiso jam to school for Mr. Y. to thank him for sharing his ume with me. I made up a little white lie that I had mixed the ume he gave me with some from Wakayama so that I could make enough to share. Imagine my surprise when he said, “Really, that’s amazing. I thought they would have all gone bad!”
this year’s finished products: ume-shu, ao-ume jam (green ume jam), ume-shiso jam, and yellow ume jam
I got a great tip from a former teacher from school the other night while we were talking about my ume projects. She said that you can make umeboshi using any recipe and instead of putting the umeboshi in a large ceramic crock with weights to pickle, you can put them in a zip-top plastic bag and weight that instead. If you eat them quickly you don’t have to sun-dry them, but if you want to keep them for a long time dry them according to your recipe. I’ve never made umeboshi myself, but this sounds like an interesting trick that I might have to try next year.