Monday, May 26, 2008

Umeshu jam

Every spring when green plums become available, I make umeshu (plum liquor) by steeping whole plums in 30 degree spirit alcohol with sugar. I normally use the sugar from the sachets that you get with yoghurt. This year, I started using Okinawan cane sugar (kokuto) for extra flavour, and it's very good. This means that the following spring, I have a glass jar with very little umeshu in it, but a lot of alcohol soaked plums. Deciding what to do with them is almost as big a headache as you get from drinking one sip too many of umeshu.

In previous years I've put the old plums in with the new ones, but that just results in a build up of plums and less umeshu to drink. I've also tried eating the plums, but they're offensively alcoholic tasting. One year I put a load of plums in the compost and that seemed to work, although I'm sure it must have killed a few alcohol intolerant critters in the compost.

So this year, I looked around on the Japanese Web under "umeshu jam pressure cooker" and found some very simple recipes for umeshu jam.

The procedure is simple. Put the whole plums in a pressure cooker and add a little water. The picture below shows water up to the level of the plums. The missus suggested this was too much, so I poured half of it away, and it was still too much.

We have a super high-performance pressure cooker, so only one minute of bubbling on the hob was required.

After the pressure dropped, I opened the cooker and found that the fruit of the plums was much loosened from the pits. Squeezing the plums between big cooking chopsticks, I got most of the fruit off, and took out the pits (which will go into the compost). Then I simmered the remaining sauce/jam to thicken it, while stirring with a wooden spoon. Even after pressure cooking, it gave off a very strong boozy smell. Opinion was sharply divided along gender lines as to whether or not this was a good smell.

I used too much water initially, and since thickening it was becoming a bit of a bore, I decided to bottle the product as sauce rather than jam.

I dunno, this looks kinda yucky

It isn't an attractive product. The missus had her nose turned up throughout the whole procedure, and the young master noted that the finished sauce seemed to be full of plum skins. I intend to reserve judgement, chill it and have it with yoghurt. I think that, made with less water, a thicker jam might make the basis of a good Christmas pudding. At any rate, there's no shortage of umeshu plums to experiment with.

This jam is disgusting. On its own it tastes of nothing but alcohol. It has a very unappealing mushy texture, like all the inedible bits of fruit. In yoghurt, the alcohol taste vanishes, leaving only the nasty texture to spoil the yoghurt.

This concoction is going to go into the compost after a suitable period of quarantine in an open container mixed with some absorbent organic material.

Lesson learned.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Gift seeds

My American friend and colleague in Suwa sent me some seeds which his mum sent him from the US, and I've been carefully nurturing them in pots. In fact, they came along so well, I gave one of each to another American friend here who provided me with coriander last autumn. This seems like quite a lively international exchange of vegetable matter.

I have sugar pumpkins, red Hmong cucumbers, and Black Seaman Tomatoes. The red Hmong cucumbers are Hmong the best in the world (I keep saying this, and it tickles me every time).

This afternoon as the sun was going down, I planted the pumpkins in mounds of compost. The tomatoes and cucumbers should be ready for transplanting next weekend, Insh'allah.

These triffids are also about to flower. I think I better keep my son indoors when they do.

Bamboo beehive

Following on from my post about bamboo, I decided to try making this simple beehive, described in this PDF (you may need to copy and paste the URL in your browser to view it

I used a couple of segments from the base of big Moso culm.

Top bar hives are a kind of hive with bars across a box of some sort. The bars are fitted with either a strip of thin board hanging down, or a wood with a triangular section. This is so the bees can hang off it to start making their comb. With this in mind, I stuffed a bamboo twig in each segment hoping that the little hooked feet of the bees will eagerly cling to them without any special encouragement.

The front door ended up being a bit bigger than expected as the interior segments got damaged when I split the culm. So I shut up the hole a bit with some carefully fitted slats. I think it looks most welcoming - I'm hoping that I've achieved the bee equivalent of a nice carriage light.

The back door is just a ragged gaping hole, but I figure that's good for ventilation. I understand that bees have a gubbins called propolis which they use to fix up parts of their lodgings that aren't quite A1, so I expect to see lashings of propolis around that part soon.

I wired the finished 'hive' into our big tree. I chose wire instead of the rope apparently favoured by the Tanzanians because when it blows up here, everything that isn't fixed down flies about and I rather think that bees prefer things to be in Bristol fashion.

There are plenty of bees around, and I'm sure it's only a matter of time before one of them hooks it's little toes over the thoughtfully placed bamboo twigs inside. Realistically though, it seems unlikely that bees will take up residence in a roughly split piece of bamboo, wired into a tree, but if it works in Tanzania, it seems worth trying here. The bamboo 'hive' replaces the bird house we made. No birds ever went near it, but when we took it down, we found a gecko living very comfortably inside it. I wonder what will set up house in our hive...

In the meantime, I'm going to be looking out for a box suitable for a top bar hive, and will go and talk to the bee keepers in the district.


I found myself reading a blog about cocktails (I have no idea why in retrospect), and it mentioned sea-buckthorn. Since this superfruit also contains protein, it's surely a plant that somebody who plans to keep, but not feed, chickens needs to look at. So without further ado, I found the cheapest vendor of sea-buckthorn on the Japanese net, which happened to be, as far as I can be bothered to check. This berry has male and female plants and you need at least one of each, so I bought two to be going on with. I figure that if I want more of either later, I'll be able to propagate cuttings.

The sea-buckthorn grows into a big prickly shrub which should be ideal as a hedge for keeping out beagle/terrier mix dogs. With goji and and sea-buckthorn berries, I will surely corner the market in Matsuyama for healthy, organic superberries.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Garden developments

The garden is changing daily with the onset of spring. Plants that looked about ready to die over the winter have suddenly started to grow vigorously and look very promising again. All of the hedges that struggled through last summer's drought looking very pitiful have flowered and put forth new leaves. They look as though they may start to function as screens, as intended.

Likewise the fig orchard is looking lively with longer stems, floppy leaves, and behold! two actual figs already.

The sparrows that live in our neighbours' roofs have produced offspring which are learning to fly, principally by hopping about in our hedges. Their parents squeak encouragement from our trees. Since we've started to open our windows again, it's noisy with them shrieking away.

The wild pink poppy that I found last spring growing on a paddy bank which I seeded in our garden grew slowly over the winter and has suddenly shot up. It's a weird pale green colour that really stands out against the other greens. It's getting ready to flower.

In my wanderings around the neighbourhood, I found myself in the rambling 'yard' of a garden and landscaping operation. Amongst the rocks and other furnishings scattered about, I spotted a nice piece of granite with a depression cut in the top, either for a birdbath or a small pond. As soon as I saw it, I wanted it. So we entered into negotiations with the landscaper and got it for a good price. As it's a bit too deep for a birdbath, I think I'll put some medaka fish and water weed in it.

This weekend marks the start of 'Golden Week'. For some reason, a couple of years ago the national broadcaster NHK began calling it an 'ogata renkyu' or a 'large scale succession of days off'. Seeing as it's a measly handful of days generally interspersed with working days, it's neither 'large scale' nor a 'succession of days off'. In fact the new appellation has a distinctly propagandistic feel about it. While the French exist as a people to show what 'ogata renkyu' really is, the expression should rightly elicit only bitter guffaws. At least it does in my house. Anyway, not to look a gift horse in the mouth, I'm jolly well looking forward to the opportunity of pulling up heaps of weeds before they get the better of me again.