NHK WORLD > JAPANESE FOOD > Special Features > A plum job: Sampling ume in Wakayama Part 1

A plum job: Sampling ume in Wakayama Part 1

October 3, 2016

Banner image: A recently pickled umeboshi (left) and a 10-year vintage specimen

The Home of Plums

The small, sleepy, seaside town of Minabe, Wakayama Prefecture, is found close to the middle of the Japanese archipelago in a sheltered bay on the easternmost edge of the Kii Peninsula. Part of the Kansai region that also comprises Osaka, along with the historic capitals of Kyoto and Nara, this expansive headland experiences hot, humid summers and mild winters that are ideal for growing fruit of various kinds.

Approaching Minabe by train, visitors may note that large tracts of the hills surrounding the town are blanketed with orchards. And depending on the season, the curious can spot various clues as to what type of trees these might be.

In early spring, one is likely to find the slopes swathed in a gauzy haze of pink and white blossoms; while a late summer stroll along streets only minutes from the station sets the mouth a-watering as one is welcomed by the tangy, aromatic perfume of drying fruit. Roadside notices remove any lingering questions with proud pronouncements such as "Nippon ichi ume no sato": Japan's No. 1 home of plums.

Image: David McMahon
Minabe has even been dubbed “Japan’s No. 1 home of plums.”

Minabe, like many other towns in the vicinity is noted for its ume. And though some 60 percent of Japan’s annual ume crop comes from Wakayama Prefecture (over 63 thousand tons in 2015), this fruit whose unique charms are scarcely conveyed by the English term “Japanese plum,” is widely enjoyed across the length and breadth of the country as a cherished, though perhaps undersung everyday soul food.

Although there are over 300 varieties of ume grown across Japan with various traits, by far the most common these days, accounting for a whopping 50% of domestic production, is nanko-ume. Its pleasing bouquet and soft skin and flesh have even seen this strain dubbed “the king of ume.”

What is ume, exactly?

A key point that sets ume apart from the vast majority of other fruits is that it is seldom eaten without some form of processing. While the raw drupes may be edible, they are astringent and not particularly appetizing. The cyanic acid content of the flesh around the stones of unripe fruits can also cause an upset stomach.

Image: Masahiko Gekko
Ume ripening on the branch in early May.

By far the most common way to consume ume is in preserved form as umeboshi: tender, ripe plums are promptly pickled in salt and dried under the warm summer sunshine, the skin wrinkling and the bracingly tart, salty flavor becoming concentrated in the pulpy flesh within. The nanko-ume is particularly well suited to such preparation.

Umeboshi was valued in medieval times as a cure for a range of ailments, including fevers, fatigue, and digestive issues, and later entered the battle rations of the samurai as a compact, nonperishable source of mineral nutrients to invigorate warriors during grueling military campaigns.

Pickled plum’s high levels of citric acid, meanwhile, also served as a primitive sterilizing agent, helping to prevent rice and other foodstuffs with which it was bundled together from spoiling amid the humid Japanese climate.

Even today umeboshi retains its image as a convenient, unpretentious foodstuff, featuring in many a lunchbox as a filling for onigiri (rice balls, Japan’s answer to the sandwich), or as a bento side dish, most notably in the hinomaru bento. A single, round, red umeboshi atop a bed of steamed white rice bears a striking visual resemblance to the Japanese flag, a red circle on a white background, which is precisely where this arrangement gets its name (“hinomaru,” meaning “circle of the sun,” is the Japanese term for the national emblem).

A hinomaru bento, featuring a single umeboshi. "Hinomaru" is the name of the Japanese flag.

Life on the Farm

My expert guide for the day is Yoshiyuki Taira of the Minabe Town Authorities’ Ume Division. After a short drive in which he navigates some very precarious-looking hillside paths with reassuring familiarity, we arrive at one prominent local ume farm.

For three generations, these orchards have been run by the family of Masahiko Gekko, who himself took over the daily operations around three decades ago. But the records of a local temple that stood upon this very site until its relocation in the 1600s suggest that the history of plum cultivation here goes back further still, to the early Edo period (1603–1868).

Since taking up the family baton, Gekko has been intrigued by ume. “It’s all about the potential. Long before they were used by humans, these trees developed their fruit in order to propagate subsequent generations. Whatever animal it was that used to seek out and eat the fruit must have had a reason for doing so. That’s what fascinated me most in the beginning.”

Image: David McMahon
Masahiko Gekko has been farming ume for around 30 years.

“Ume in their natural state are not appetizing to people, but animals don’t process them, do they? And ume don’t have the nutritional content of acorns or walnuts. I wondered what benefits these animals had recognized.”

Here as on other farms in the region, the year’s activities begin in January as the flowers that will eventually develop into the ume themselves begin to open. In February, when the plum blossoms are in full bloom, coating the hillsides in cotton candy some months before their more famous cousins the sakura, a colony of bees is brought in to assist with pollination and promote a reliable harvest.

Image: Masahiko Gekko
Ume blossoms in full bloom.

The quantity of rain between autumn and the first blooms is crucial in this regard: the wetter the weather, the more abundant the crop, with each tree producing 2,500–5,000 ume (unlike peaches, satsuma oranges and some other premium produce, the number of fruit per tree is not deliberately restricted).

Harvest comes in mid-June, and everything hinges on the weather in the final month leading up to this three-week burst of frantic activity for farmers. Too much rain reduces the sugar content that would otherwise balance out the extreme tartness of the ume (the good drainage offered by steep slopes also serves to restrict water uptake; one reason for the preponderance of hillside farms); and unseasonal hail can also leave an entire crop pockmarked and unfit for sale.

Image: Masahiko Gekko
Machinery like this is used to sort the ume crop.

A proportion of the plums will be picked by hand while not yet ripe, and these green specimens are best used for producing drinks like ume juice and umeshu liqueur. Some are shipped off in refrigerated trucks for buyers elsewhere to process, but time is of the essence as these fruit quickly spoil.

Those that are left to ripen to a pale orange hue on the branch tumble of their own accord onto blue nets stretched from tree-trunk to tree-trunk to keep the harvest in pristine condition. It is imperative that these fruit be gathered the day they fall, and the greater part are transported immediately to be processed on site––sorted for size and either cured in tons of salt to become umeboshi, or made into zesty ume jam.

Image: David McMahon
Umeboshi, drying under the warm, summer sunshine.

Some of the pickled plums are sold direct to consumers by the producers themselves, while a further portion is sent to umeboshi makers to be further seasoned to the tastes of supermarket shoppers with honey, shiso (perilla leaf), or katsuo (skipjack tuna flakes).

Image: David McMahon
Vintage umeboshi (l-r) 2004, 1896, 1997.

As mentioned earlier, one benefit of umeboshi in the days before refrigeration was the ease with which it can be stored for long periods. Minabe’s Ume Shinkokan (Ume promotion center) and another specialist shop in Minabe each have examples on display that are decades, even more than a century old, and in principle still edible (though nobody is going to put that theory to the test).

Though not quite as old as that, this particular farm’s pride and joy is a stash of 10-year vintage umeboshi. The tingling sensation of the lips, and a rounded, richly complex flavor that unfurls across the tongue and palate both linger to be savored long after the initial morsel has been swallowed.

As we will find out in an upcoming follow-up piece, Wakayama’s ume producers are doing their best to adapt to the 21st century. This, however, is a piquant mouthful that provides a succulent reminder of umeboshi’s timeless qualities.

Text: David McMahon

Ume no Gekko Nouen:
1160 Gekkoyama, Oshine, Minabe–chō,
Hidaka-gun, Wakayama Prefecture
Tel: +81- 739-74-2453

To be continued to ume article part 2.

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