Sunday, July 17, 2016

Preserving the Harvest


This year, our adolescent pluot tree hit puberty.  The tree is still gangly and has a long way to grow, but for the first time it produced more than a plate-full of fruit. 

With the bounty, Robb made pies.  I made jam. We sat in the back yard and gorged ourselves on fruit, fresh from the tree.  We invited friends over to pick fruit. 

And eventually it all started to get away from us. Anyone sitting under the tree risked being clobbered with over-ripe fruit.  The lawn furniture was covered in sticky dried fruit pulp. The ground was littered with mushy fruit, which we threw at the hens. 

The bees were drunk on fruit nectar. Clearly, we needed to get serious about not letting the harvest go to to waste. 

A few weeks back, Robb ordered a dehydrator. We've been experimenting, trying to find the best method.  We've already realized that simply cutting the fruit in half isn't ideal. Our pluots are so juicy that large chunks of fruit take an eternity to dry. 

I fired up the history podcasts, and set to work chopping up fruit.  Cut fruit piled up in a bowl, along with the juice of one lemon and two sparse teaspoons of sugar. 

It seemed like I was chopping for hours.  

We set the dehydrator to run overnight. 

And in the morning, we had a pound of dried fruit. 

Once you've made your own, it's easy to understand why dried fruit was once such a luxury.  It takes a massive amount of fruit and time to produce the end product. 

And just in case anyone thinks that Robb and I live in a twee Instagram paradise, I will add the following detail to the story:  while I was picking fruit, trying to avoid accidentally grabbing honeybees, something skittered inside my ear canal. After the briefest moment of Raw Panic and Cellular-Level Revulsion, I enlisted Robb's help in extricating whatever was squirming inside my head. After a few false starts, we managed to flush the ear with medicated drops and Robb removed a live spider from my ear canal. 




Friday, July 15, 2016

The Season's First Butterfly Hatches


The entire life cycle of a butterfly is miraculous, but it's the final emergence that makes me want to cry happy tears.  Every. Single. Time. 

Robb and I had been out cycling, and came back to discover that the first of our brood of butterflies had hatched. Her wings were fully unfurled by the time we found her. 

I coaxed her onto my hand, and carried her over to flowers we knew Anise Swallowtail Butterflies fed on. 

She was entirely uninterested in the verbena. 

When I moved her over to the fennel (her host plant), she hopped right off my hand.  

After a few minutes, she flew away.  Watching butterflies that we've nurtured fly off into the world is always a beautiful, magical experience.  

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go rinse my eyes, and find a handkerchief. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

How Not To Keep Bees


One thing I've learned about keeping bees, is that a good beekeeper has to be prepared for any situation.

And that's one of those things that's Easier Said Than Done.

When I decided that I wanted to keep bees again (after a year-long break, where my schedule was just too hectic for bees), I put the word out among my friend, and almost instantly found myself in possession of a swarm of bees.  I thought I was ready for them, but I really wasn't.

One of the tricky things about bringing home swarms, is that you're transporting the bees after sundown, and so you're installing them in your hive in the dark.  It's a bit late, perhaps you're tired or hungry, and under those circumstances it's easy to make mistakes.

When I was installing the bees in their new home, I somehow failed to put the correct number of frames inside my beehive.  I left open spaces.  I don't really remember why I did this. Perhaps the swarm was sitting on a branch, and I thought I shouldn't overcrowd the bees.  Perhaps I was just being stupid.  Perhaps I was tired and distracted.  Who knows?

What I do know is that bees don't like gaps in their homes.  They build their combs with remarkable order.

With great speed, my bees filled the empty space with beautiful comb.  And then the queen filled every cell in that comb with eggs.  When I inspected the colony, I realized my error.  And I was unwilling to risk damaging the developing bees. So I wrote a warning on the top of the frame, and left things the way they were.

Can you see what I'm talking about?  In the photo of the comb, you see that the upper comb is surrounded by a wooden frame, while the lower part of the comb is not. The bees have built comb that slots between two of the hive boxes.  In some ways, it's really neat. In other ways, it's a bit of a mess.

Can you also see the small cylindrical structure hanging down on the bottom of the comb, about a third of the way in from the left edge?  That seems to be a cell made for the purpose of breeding a new queen.  This was odd, because clearly the colony's existing queen was healthy, and laying eggs like crazy.

I decided to wait, to see if my next inspection might happen at a time when this particular comb wasn't full of larval bees.  That upper photo was taken on June 17th.

It's now July 10th, and the bees that were pupating in the cells have hatched out.  However, the queen has refilled the cells with new eggs, and the workers have closed those cells up again.  Another generation of bees are developing.

I had an idea about cutting the comb away from the wooden frame. I had made a sort of cradle to hold this comb, so that it could be re-inserted into the hive.

But the developing bees are just too precious to mess with.  So, I'm going to leave things alone again.

Oddly, the queen cup that was present a month ago seems to be gone now.  Did I crush it when I moved the comb last month?  Did the bees decide they didn't need it, and tear it apart?  Did I queen hatch out of it?  Who knows?

I am not going to win any awards for beekeeping, but at least I don't feel like I've done anything terribly harmful to the bees.

A Year Ago
Does This Cat Make My Knitting Look Big?

Two Years Ago
The Caterpillar Plantation

Three Years Ago
Backyard Plums

Four Years Ago
P is For...

Five Years Ago
A Very Similar Beekeeping Situation, Though Not In My Hives

Six Years Ago
Visiting an Experimental and Historic Farm

Seven Years Ago
Holy Crap!  We're Buying A House!  (AND WORRYING)

Eight Years Ago
Nice Tail (Click this one for the photo)

Nice Years Ago
I Need Someone To Talk To

Saturday, July 09, 2016



This was the year that the pluot tree we planted burst with fruit. Previously, we had been thrilled to get a dozen or so fruits. 

Now, we've got more fruit than we quite know how to manage. 

I suspect I'll be making more jam this weekend. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Caterpillars in the Pantry

Once again, Robb and I are raising Anise Swallowtail caterpillars in our pantry. The butterflies lay tiny, tiny eggs on our fennel, and once these eggs hatch, I bring the caterpillars inside, to protect them from predation. 

The caterpillars go through a series of life-stages, transforming over and over before their final metamorphosis.  Its a fascinating process to observe, up close.  

This year's group seems hell-bent on attaching themselves to the Worst Possible Places.  The green chrysalis is attached to a piece of screen that used to be part of their tank's lid.  The lid is seated in a track, which means that anything attached to the lid gets squished when the lids opens.  Or, since we're tender-hearted, it means that we cut apart the lids to save the butterflies.  Robb assures me that we can replace the screen without too much trouble.  Yesterday, another caterpillar did the exact same thing, despite all the tempting sticks I've provide.  (You may be able to see a brown chrysalis attached to a lovely safe stick, on the right side of the photo.)

At the moment, we have seven chrysalises pupating.  It will be interesting to see if this batch hatches out right away, or if some of them delay hatching until next spring. We've seen both, and I'm unaware of any pattern for predicting which way it will go.

A Year Ago
I was drowning in work, and didn't write anything on the blog

Two Years Ago

Three Years Ago

Four Years Ago

Five Years Ago

Six Years Ago

Seven Years Ago

Eight Years Ago

Nine Years Ago

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Plum Wine


When one has backyard fruit trees, there's a moment of use-it-or-lose-it.  Since we have a laughably small freezer, and since we had already made plenty of jam, it was clear that we would have to make a batch of plum wine.

Plums -- like grapes -- have a naturally-occurring yeast on their skins.  This yeast is perfect for wine-making.  Also, it's just so beautiful. Next time you're in a museum, go look at the still life paintings, and really take a moment to marvel over how beautifully the grapes and plums are painted.

What's not so aesthetically thrilling is the process of home wine-making.  This is another in my series of uninteresting circular cooking photos.  In this case, you're looking at week-old smooshed plums that have just had additional yeast sprinkled over them.  Thrilling.  I know.

I picked the last of our backyard plums, which weighed exactly ten pounds.  We pretty much doubled this recipe (although we didn't wash off the wild yeast on our plums).  I dumped the plums and the water into a sterilized bucket and then just smooshed them with my hands.  We sloshed the bucket around every day for a week.  At the end of the week, we added some champagne yeast. A week after that, we transferred the liquid out of the plastic bucket and into a glass carboy.  

The wine is an uncanny pink color, and tastes fruity, if a bit raw.  We're planning on serving it on the Fourth of July.  In the past, we've made plum wine and let it ages for years.  Given the tininess of our house, and complete inability to regulate our home's temperature, it seems to make a lot of sense to make wine that we'll drink sooner rather than later.

And speaking of which, if you're among our local readers, you're invited over for the Fourth of July.  It's our usual low-key backyard picnic, with professional-grade illegal fireworks provided by my neighbors.  This year promises to be out-of-control, with regards to fireworks.  The neighbors have been shooting them off since the beginning of June.  Let me know if you're stopping by, please!

A Year Ago
I am so busy with work that I write nothing for two months

Two Years Ago

Three Years Ago

Four Years Ago

Five Years Ago

Six Years Ago

Seven Years Ago

Eight Years Ago

Nine Years Ago

Plum Jam


It's plum season, in the San Francisco Bay Area.  This past winter gave us a slight respite from our years of ongoing drought, and the fruit trees have been celebrating.  Last year, our plum tree bore almost no fruit at all.  I doubt we got more than two dozen fruits, all together.

Not only are my trees laden with fruit, but I'm lucky enough to have friends who want to share their bounty.  Both DJ and Terrence invited me over to their yards, and let me pick surplus fruit from their trees.

They've both got trees that produce tiny plums.  One of the things about having fruit in an urban area, is that folks don't tend to know the variety of fruit in their yards, because they weren't the ones who planted the trees.  I believe these are cherry or myrobalan plums.  They have burgundy leaves, and are planted widely as an urban street tree.  Because they produce (and drop) massive amounts of fruit, these trees are not universally beloved.  So, picking friends' fruit is a classic win-win situation.  I get fruit, I give them some of the jam that I've made, and they don't have as much of a sticky mess to deal with at the end of the fruit season.

These are my plums.  I'm pretty certain that they are Sant Rosa plums, mostly because they are the most common backyard variety around here.  They are truly delicious, with a complexity that shames supermarket fruit.

The difference in size between the two varieties is remarkable.

I cut up my plums, so that they would cook at about the same rate as the smaller plums.  In later batches of jam, I started the larger plums first, and then added the smaller ones. I don't remove the skins or pits, because it's just too much work.  Skins dissolve, and I sieve out the pits later in the process.

Robb and I go to a lot of estate sales, which is where we found this lovely cooper jam pot.  When cooking in a copper lined pot, many recipes advise cooks to add sugar at the same time as the fruit. Apparently, the ph level of the sugar keeps copper from leaching into the jam.  That seems prudent.  No point poisoning our friends.

I always feel like I'm drowning my fruit in sugar, when I first add it to the mix.  Sugar is essential to preservation and texture.  But the volume never fails to freak me out.

Sometimes I think I should start a blog of photos of circular cooking photos.  Another photo of another pot...

The purpose of this pan is to have as much surface area as possible, in order to facilitate evaporation.  It's a great size, because it doesn't allow me to go insane and try to make excessively large batches.  I simply cannot scale-up jam recipes. Once I go above a certain volume, I fail at gelling.  

I really need to better understand the science of pectin.  I've read tons of cookbooks and articles, and they're infuriatingly contradictory, with questionable science crashing into folk wisdom.

When the smaller plums slip from their skins, and start to look translucent, I ladle them into our chinoise, in order to sieve out the pits.

Would anyone reading this blog be at all surprised to learn that Robb and I watch a lot of shows about the history of cooking.  We are both in love with Ivan Day.  (Seriously, there are shows we watch just for his segments.)

One of the great pleasures of cooked plums is their beautiful translucency.  When food is so beautiful, sieving out the pits can still be fun.

At this point, I'm just cooking until the jam sets. I keep a stack of ceramic saucers in the freezer, and spoon hot jam onto a cold plate.  The cold plate quick-chills the jam, and gives a sense of the ultimate texture.  (I'm convinced that one of these days the contrast of temperature  is going to shatter one of these saucers.  Which are all from the 1930s and 1940s.  Of course.  I'm such a freak.)

This is also the time that I fine-tune the flavor, adding a bit more sugar and lemon juice as needed.

I made three batches of plum-based jam, two with cherry plums and one with pluots from our tree.  Let's hope it lasts until Christmas-time.


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