“And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees and changing leaves.”Virginia Woolf
It’s a bowl full of jumbled globes, the size of large olives or medium escargot, set casually to one side of the cheesemongers slab, that catches my attention. They are dusty-green, veined with gold, some just blushing a sun-bussed red. It’s still early in the market day, before the chaleur, so the light pebbling of morning dew hasn’t yet whispered away. They’re lovely.
I stare perhaps a bit too long,
“Mirabelles sauvage,” indicates the frommager genially, wiping pristine hands on pristine apron and proffering the bowl. He inclines his head in the universal language of vendeurs, “Try some.”
And I do. I won’t say it’s a Proustian moment, for I have never tasted anything quite like them before. There is no Sunday afternoon tea in my aunt’s parlor, no transporting back to my youth in nostalgic bliss, but there is a unique and almost giddy flooding of the senses, a burst, sweetness, cool and tart, and grass, and summer, and honey, and sun.
And just the name: Mirabelles sauvage…wild mirabelles…savage plums. And parsing out the Latin etymology it means, ‘beautiful to look at’. And wild.
OK, bit of a hyperbole to say I’ve never tasted anything like them before. They’re a type of plum, so they taste…well, plum-y, intensely so. But piercingly sweet, with a background suggestion of maybe pineapple, or banana. Is that a shadow of a whisper of coconut? And since they’re the size of olives, you can pop one after another into your mouth as you wander, burst and flood, spit the pits in the grass by the wayside.
In Lorraine, a region in northeastern France where 70% of the world’s mirabelles come from, April orchards burgeon dazzling white, hillsides swathed in clouds of quinate blossoms. Because of their small size and high yield, by August the trees are drooping under the weight of orange and red-flecked fruits. And although over time harvest has become largely mechanized, the process is basically the same: spread nets beneath the trees, shake the trunks, get out of the way or be pelted with a cloudburst of juicy golden pearls. Friends just returned from visiting family in the area, and came back with several buckets full. It would be a shame to let them go to waste.
Mirabelles are illegal in the US. Or at least importing them is. You can possibly find the random tree in someone’s backyard, smuggled over in pit form and nurtured to fruition. No nefarious story behind it, simply a trade agreement with France to protect the French market. Just as you can’t call it champagne if it doesn’t come from the Champagne region of France, or ‘Bourbon’ unless it comes from Kentucky, mirabelles ain’t mirabelles unless… Also, whereas alcohol is a good import tax generator, not so much for fruit. And rather than allow the delicate fruit to be shipped, possibly resulting in sub-standard reputation damaging quality, the French choose to maintain and promote the mystique of the ‘Mirabelle de Lorraine’.
I’m walking the backstreets of our quartier, and up ahead I spy a friend, Philippe, straining with a long pole – maybe five metres – two pieces of bamboo lashed together with which he’s probing the branches of a large spreading tree that overhangs the street. At first I think he’s doing a bit of trimming, but on approach notice that on the end of the pole, he’s attached an inverted plastic bottle with the bottom cut off, forming a cup.
“Je cueille des prunes,” he says affably. And I realize I’d never noticed that this particular tree was indeed a plum – which is an indictment of my powers of observation, as the pavement beneath is littered with more than a few fallen, smashed, and rotting fruit. And with a deft twist of the wrist, he cups a greenish-purple orb in the bottle/cup and shimmies it down into a waiting basket.
“Ils seront les confitures de l’hiver” (‘They will become the jams of winter’)
His aren’t mirabelles, more a common plum, but it’s reassuring to know that urban harvesting goes on in the neighborhood. I’ve also scouted out all the pots and corners with fresh and abundant herbs for casual, wandering harvest.
And it’s not clandestine – scattered throughout the quartier are raised wooden planters, put there specifically as mini community gardens, seeded seasonally with herbs, tomatoes, peppers, and various salad plants. They bear the legend “Incroyables Comestibles – Nourriture À Parteger!”
And plums are plums, but if you can get mirabelles, the following recipe works particularly well. They (and all stone fruit) have naturally high pectin, so it’s a ridiculously simple process. A good project for a last of summer/first of autumn morning. Then you can break out a bit of savage plums and sunshine in the depths of February…
Mirabelle & Rosemary Jam
1 kg Fresh Mirabelle (or other) plums, pitted and quartered
400g Preserving Sugar*
Juice of ½ Lemon
2 Tblsp Fresh Rosemary, (harvested ‘round the corner), finely chopped
1 Tblsp Balsamic Vinegar
½ cup (120ml) Water or Rosé wine as needed
*Preserving Sugar is a type of large crystal sugar used for jams – it creates less scum/foam, and allows the impurities to rise to the surface easier. But….you can also just use granulated if that’s what you have.
Place the plums, sugar, lemon juice, and rosemary in a wide pan. Add about ½ cup water (or dry rosé if you want to capture a bit more summer). Bring to a boil while stirring constantly, reduce heat to a simmer and let bubble away for about 20 minutes, skimming any foam/scum that gathers, until reduced to a thick, chunky, syrupy consistency. While it’s cooking, sterilize several jam jars. Ladle the still very hot mixture into the jars to just below the rim and seal immediately. Turn the jars upside down for a few minutes, right them, and store in a cool, dark place. Sealed, they should last about 6 months. Once opened, refrigerate and use within a week or three.