Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

Plum delicious

It was a warm, limpid August morning, but all I could think of was Christmas. Gracefully arching under the weight of their bounty, the leafy green boughs before me evoked the fruit-studded swags that festoon mantels, doorways, and tables pictured in glossy decorating magazines at holiday time. But this was no designer’s manor home. I was standing on a grassy hillside planted with European plums.

These are among the last plums to mature at Tree-Licious Orchards in Port Murray. For over a month, James Edwin Kesler — Ed, as he’s commonly known — and his son, James, have been harvesting several varieties of the succulent fruit–dainty little Methleys, yellow Shiros, meaty Santa Rosas, and the aptly named Red Hearts, among them — for sale at farmers’ markets in Montclair, South Orange, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Warwick, NY. On weekends they open their farm to anyone willing to hike along the hilly pathways to hand-pick their own luscious fruit.

Like a faint dusting of snow, a powdery white bloom coated each blue plum that peeked amid the foliage. A light rubbing is all it took to reveal the purplish skin beneath, shiny and taut. Though the plums offered a feast for the eyes, they were not quite ready to please the palate. Unlike the rounder, moister, clingstone Asian plums, which mature earlier in the season and can continue to ripen post-harvest, the oblong, drier, semifreestone European varieties–also known as prune plums–“have to be picked ripe, otherwise they just don’t have the flavor,” said James Kesler. “You have to pick them just when they look like they’re starting to shrivel up. That’s when they’re real sweet. They have to look almost like they’ve had it.” His Castleton variety of prune plum should be available for picking this week. Come Labor Day weekend, Stanley should be ready, followed by President around mid-September.Both the Asian and European species are ideal for baking, but moister plums should be treated like cherries when incorporated into cakes and tarts. “Sometimes you have to add more flour to absorb the extra moisture,” explained Carol Kesler, Ed’s wife and James’s mother, who runs Just-Made Bakery in Hackettstown.

“When the Italian plums come in, we do quite a number of things with them,” she said. Like the Asian plums, they are used in several cakes. Unlike the Asian plums, they also can be incorporated into muffin batter, since they’re not as juicy.

California produces the overwhelming majority of the nation’s plums, so not many local farmers bother growing the fruit. Indeed, dozens of varieties of peaches and apples dominate the 150 acres of orchards at Tree-Licious, which Ed Kesler, a West Virginian, seventh-generation farmer trained as an engineer, purchased in 1984. But being able to offer another type of fruit helps give him an edge at area farmers’ markets. “Plums at the greenmarkets are not common,” he said. “People come for the peaches and apples–and they end up buying them all.”

“I like plums because they’re easier to grow than the other fruits,” said his son. Plums attract fewer pests than apples and don’t rot as easily as peaches, he explained, so even Asian plums picked earlier in the season can be held in storage until at least the middle of September. The plum tree’s riskiest characteristic is that it blooms early, which makes its tender young fruit vulnerable to late frosts.

Set high amid the Musconetcong Mountains, the Keslers’ undulating landscape provides pockets of protection from wayward chills. And at this time of year, with the trees festive with brightly colored baubles, the atmosphere couldn’t be warmer.

Nutrition notes: Of the fresh fruits, plums rank in the top-ten for antioxidant content. (Make sure to eat the skin, especially on the purple varieties.) A good source of vitamin C, fresh plums also contain vitamin A, riboflavin, thiamin, potassium, and magnesium.

Plum good: A splash of citrus brings out the best in fresh plums. For an elegant dessert, take the advice of Jeff Cox in “The Organic Food Shopper’s Guide” (Wiley, 2008; $14.95) and sprinkle Limoncello or Grand Marnier over sliced plums. For a nonalcoholic treat, Carol Kesler suggests concocting a plum stew by cooking sliced plums with a touch of sugar to taste and a bit of liquid (water or, better, fruit juice) to keep them from burning.

Fun facts: Along with the almond, apricot, cherry and peach, the plum is a member of the rose family. According to an Oriental legend, the first plum tree sprang from the blood of a dragon.