YOU’VE HEARD THE apocryphal late-summer joke, where neighbors drop a bag of zucchini on the porch, ring the doorbell and run away? Here in Seattle, we’d substitute Italian plums.
The dusky purple, egg-shaped fruits grow abundantly on backyard trees throughout the city. They’re small and sweet, and there’s no need to fear the legions of neighbors offering a bag — or a few bags — or a bushel.
First, the fruits freeze well and make good jam. They can be dried (they’re also commonly referred to as Italian prune plums).
Acquiring a supply also will let you join the legions of fans who use them every year to make a Marian Burros Plum Torte, the most-requested recipe in The New York Times archives (nytimes.com/2016/09/14/dining/marian-burros-plum-torte-recipe.html). When I baked the simple, rustic dessert last September, I lost count of the number of friends commenting some version of, “I just made that, too!”
The ubiquity of Italian plums in Seattle is undeniable but hard to trace. The common legend is that the freestone fruits came along with a wave of Italian immigrants in the early 1900s. The Seattle Times stated that as a fact as far back as 1969, though the usual places to back up or disprove such claims, such as the Washington State University Extension, came up blank when we asked. There’s no clear Johnny Plumseed for Washington the way there is for California, where brothers Louis and Pierre Pellier are credited with using plum scions from France to kick-start the megaton California prune industry. (In 1982, when reporting on the centennial of Black Diamond, the old mining town 40 miles southeast of Seattle, newspaper columnist Jon Hahn was told that bootleg plum brandy had been the town’s second-biggest industry: “Why do you think there’s all those Italian plum trees around here?”)
Whatever the reason, the Italian plums “are very prominent throughout Seattle,” says Annie Nguyen, executive director of City Fruit, the nonprofit agency that maps fruit trees, tends them, and helps collect their fruit to distribute to food banks and other agencies. About 300 of the trees, typically older and well-established ones, are registered with City Fruit. “We see them in Ballard and Wallingford; we see them in Ravenna, the University District, the Central District, down to Rainier Beach and West Seattle,” Nguyen says.
Of the 23,000 pounds of high-quality fruit harvested by City Fruit last year, more than 4,300 pounds were Italian plums, a notable number when considering how little each one weighs.
It also says something notable about how well-suited they are to our climate. Apple trees are far more common in Seattle, for instance, but it’s rare to have a neighbor bring over a bag of backyard apples — maybe because amateur apple growers rarely harvest such a large amount of attractive, edible fruits.
While apples face coddling moths and apple maggots, and pear trees struggle with rust and blight, “We haven’t really seen any pests attacking plums,” Nguyen says. She harvested several plum trees personally for City Fruit last year — “prolific, beautiful, great fruit” — where homeowners just couldn’t eat all they produced.
(The trees exist on street rights of way in the city of Seattle, though they’re a small percentage of the number of ornamental plums and cherries growing there, says city arborist Nolan Rundquist. The city has not encouraged, or approved, the planting of fruit trees between the sidewalk and street, he notes, because they tend to be somewhat neglected and spur complaints about fallen fruit messes.)
Commercially, the heyday for Washington prune plum growers was in the 1970s, when Washington’s total crop averaged 12,000 to 13,000 tons, compared with closer to 1,000 tons today, says James W. Michael of the Washington State Fruit Commission. Growth in California’s dominant plum industry took a toll (“and made it more difficult for other growers to find shelf space in grocery stores,” he says) as did the overall decline in home canning since that era, despite a more recent resurgence of interest.
If you have an Italian plum, Nguyen recommends a good pruning to generate a healthy, hardy crop. And if you have more plums than you know what to do with, City Fruit is happy to help harvest.
“They really move quickly at the food banks. People are really excited to get plums. They also make great tarts and pies, even plum jams,” she says.
And, of course, they’re perfect for the Burros plum torte.
The recipe, originally from Burros’ friend Lois Levine and printed in a cookbook they wrote together, appeared inconspicuously in a 1983 Burros column about Italian plums (nytimes.com/1983/09/21/garden/food-notes-the-food-at-59th-and-lex.html). The paper reprinted it annually until it announced a plan to “put an end to the madness,” as a 2016 Times article put it, in 1989. Readers rebelled, and the Times promised to make it widely available each fall. It’s been tweaked here and there over the years and is fairly forgiving.
I would have thought any most-requested dessert would call for standard pantry supplies, and wouldn’t include a seasonal key ingredient. Maybe the torte is just that easy and good. Or maybe bakers know the recipe can be made with frozen Italian plums, too, and generous neighbors have provided enough for a year-round supply in their freezer.
Purple Plum Torte
1 cup sugar (Note: Later versions call for as little as ¾ cup.)
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt (“salt to taste” in the original; optional in later versions)
12 purple plums, halved and pitted
2 teaspoons lemon juice, or to taste
1 teaspoon cinnamon, or to taste (the original called for 1 tablespoon!)
Sugar for topping
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Cream the sugar and butter in a large bowl. Add flour, baking powder, salt and eggs to sugar-butter mixture and beat well.
3. Spoon the batter into a 9-inch springform pan. (Note: I just put it in a regular buttered cake pan; it seems to come out fine.)
4. Cover top of batter with plum halves, skin side up. Sprinkle lightly with sugar and lemon juice, adjusting to the sweetness or tartness of the fruit. Sprinkle with cinnamon.
5. Bake 1 hour.