In Japan, early summer is the time for making Ume-shu or Plum wine. When the plums are taken early from the tree for preserving. A sweet wine, more like a liqueur, it is delicious on the rocks, with soda or in cocktails and works well in desserts too – think plum jelly, ice cream or granita. I’m totally addicted to the stuff.
So early June a couple of years ago I was in Kyoto making my first batch of Ume-shu and was surprised at just how easy it was – so thought I’d do the right thing and share! The recipe that is…
Of course you need to get your hands on green, unblemished Japanese plums (actually a type of apricot)- which are probably not so easy to obtain outside of Japan but I aim to try it in Australia with some other variety of plum or apricot and see how that turns out.
First soak briefly in cold water to ensure the plums are well rinsed then gently pat dry with good quality paper towel (cheaper towel releases paper fibres so avoid it) or air dry in a wide colander lined with paper towel.
Pluck the waxy core from the stem point with a toothpick covered with paper towel -so not to damage the fruit as you flick.
Then the fun bit starts. Place rock sugar (not granulated sugar as it will dissolve too quickly) on the bottom of a large, wide, bottle/jar with a lid that tightly seals – then layer the plums alternating with the sugar until the bottle is filled. Now the amount of sugar you use is up to you – the more used, the sweeter it will be. But you do need a fair whack – use the pick below as a guide ( I used a little less and it didn’t spoil).
The winemaker and I challenged each other to an Ume-shu off so he got all fancy by adding a halved sudachi lime and a lot of black sugar. See his demonstration above.
I decided that a cinnamon stick would be the order of the day. I used mainly white rock sugar for clarity of flavour and less of it as I didn’t want mine to be too sweet. I did however add a splash of Amaretto to enhance the natural almond flavour of the ume.
After packing the layers of plums and sugar -we filled the 2 litre bottle/jars to the brim with strong white spirit. It has no real flavour to speak of – which is perfect. It is used purely because it is strong enough alcohol to stop the fruit from spoiling (about 35-40%) and it is cheap.
You can add a little sake for flavour but the majority of the liquid must be the strong white spirit (readily available in Japan but not so easy to find in Australia). You can use shochu instead of the white spirit but you need to appreciate the flavour of shochu – and I’m not a huge fan. You could use vodka or another spirit. I’ve even heard of people making it with Rum or Whiskey – now that could be really interesting but I fear you could end up masking the flavour of the plums.
After sealing well we stored in a cool (as cool as we could get in a Japanese apartment sans air conditioning) dark, spot for 3 months. We swirled occasionally – but mainly just because we wanted an excuse to stroke our babies and see how they were coming along. And tease each other about whose Ume-shu would reign supreme.
Ideally you leave the Ume-shu 6months before opening but we couldn’t wait. A small gathering on our rooftop for Daimonji celebrations was the perfect occasion for cracking the seal! Both were excellent at 3 months – mine slightly dry and elegant, the winemaker’s – rich and sweet.
Next time we might just have to make an extra batch so we can try them at both 3 and 6 months… To eat the plums themselves you should leave the umeshu as long as possible – these were still a little firm after 3 months. Keep them covered in alcohol so they do not dry out or go mouldy.
If you give this a go with Aussie (or other) green plums please let me know!