The little Chinese words beside the date June 6 on Google Calendar intrigued my interest this morning: “芒種?”
An instinctive translation read “the day to plant mangoes?” Oh really. I like mangoes too, but I didn’t know mango was that important to the Chinese farming society? – To the internet we go!
So it is awns they are talking about. Like rye or barley. That makes more sense. And 芒種 (“Grain in Ear” in English) is the solar term before 夏至 (summer solstice). In Japan it marks the start of the East Asian rainy season, or 梅雨 (plum rain) as it’s commonly called.
Some say the term 梅雨 evolved from 黴雨 (Japanese)/ 霉雨 (Chinese) (the same pronunciations as 梅雨 in both languages respectively; literally “moldy rain”) due to the season’s wetness and the molds that follow. Another saying is that it is the season when plums ripe and turn yellow, so you may see “黄梅雨” (“yellow plum rain”) in China as well.
Indeed, plum rain was one of the news headlines last night. I think the discussion topic was “Stationary front of plum rain ready?!” or something emotionally similar to that panicky state.
In short, the seasonal rainy front forms when the cooler continental air mass meets the tropical monsoon air mass from the south. The persistent precipitation covers China, Korea, Taiwan, Japan and eastern Russia, and lasts from early June to mid-July depending on the geographical location. Plum rain is called the “fifth season” in some parts of East Asia due to its length and consistency; in Japan you will get a sixth season, “秋雨” (“autumn rain”), which is another meteorological phenomenon that lasts from late August to October.
Plum rain is treated with great conscious in Japan. Housewives will be prepared to fight with molds popping up in the house, and daily news would be chasing the rain movements with good details. There are even definitions to describe the rain’s states and conditions, not to mention official records covering every aspect of the season… Such wariness may sound a bit over-the-top, but just imagine this rain is what occupies a great chunk of everybody’s mind for at least a month, people ought to find something to entertain themselves at home, right?
You will find phrases like “How to enjoy [i.e. survive] the plum rain”, and that’s where umeshu (梅酒; plum wine) comes into the picture – it’s the plum season after all. Logical!
Finding the ingredients and equipment for making umeshu is as easy as going to a grocery store (preferably a larger one). Big, clear containers, different types of plums and shochu of various brands are often lined up by the entrance to announce the season’s arrival. Excited, you pick up all you need to make a umeshu in less than a minute and hurry the grocery shopping, so you can get your hands on the plums as soon as possible.
For a basic umeshu you will need:
- Plums – 1 kg
- Sugar – 0.5-1 kg
- Distilled liquor – 1.8 L
Any of the above ingredients is flexible in choosing. For example, you can use the most common green plums or the classier 南高梅 (Nankoubai; smaller white plums), or of varying degrees of ripeness. Sugar can be rock, or honey or brown sugar instead; and for the distilled liquor, shochu is a popular choice, but you can go exotic with vodka, whiskey, brandy or the like, as long as the alcohol level is above 20 degrees*.
*While winemaking at home for personal use is legally permitted in Japan, using any alcohol of less than 20 degrees for the making is dimmed as illegal.
The winemaking is equally simple. Wash or sterilize the containers thoroughly and let dry. Run the plums under water, or lightly rub them with alcohol if preferred. Carefully take out the calyx of each plum using a toothpick, ensuring no damage as we don’t want anything to be infected. Put in sugar, plums and lastly liquor into the containers, tighten the lids, and store them somewhere cool and dark. Now all you need to do is wait.
The resulting tastes, without question, will depend upon the chosen ingredients, other than the winemaking and aging. I highly suggest making several versions in one shot so you can compare them nicely when the time comes.
The wine should be ready in three months, or it can age up to 10 years. However, aging longer will not necessary guarantee a better wine – like reading any wine label, you will not judge what’s inside the bottle solely by the vintage. This is especially true for homemade wines, due to the higher number of uncontrollable factors that can alter the end-result than a professional environment.
Some survey says vintage of two years offers the best taste in umeshu. For experimental reason, I would make four bottles with the same ingredients and open one after three months, then six months, one year and two years.
Wait, let’s make it five bottles, that way I can give the last one to someone if it turns out well. But if it’s really good then I should make more to give away as gifts… But where do I store all these bottles????????
And the question becomes bigger when I start thinking about making other seasonal wines. Apple for fall, lemon for winter and mikan (mandarin) for spring. How about the jam and pickles?
I need a bigger house.