Green Plum Wine
On a hot summer’s day, there is much to be said for the simple pleasure of dropping a small cube of ice into a glass of crystal clear plum wine, watching it crack and enjoying its refreshing taste.
On a hot summer’s day, there is much to be said for the simple pleasure of taking a small cube of ice and watching it crack in a glass of crystal clear plum wine. For those in the know, the mere mention is enough to remind one immediately of its refreshing, tart flavour.
Plums blossom as early as winter, but the fruits themselves do not ripen until late spring and early summer. As the days get warmer, flowers come into full bloom. As the flowering season approaches its end, their tempting green fruit with its unique sour flavour begins to ripen. The Chinese idiom, “quenching thirst by thinking of plums,” first recorded in Shishuo xinyu ( A New Account of Tales of the World), tells how Chinese warlord Cao Cao of the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220– 280) cleverly consoled his thirsty soldiers. During their march, Cao’s soldiers were without water and extremely thirsty. Cao spread the news among his soldiers that they would soon arrive at a forest
of fruiting plum trees and would be able to quench their thirst on their sweet, tart fruits. His soldiers, mouths watering at the thought of these “plums,” were able to continue marching until they found water.
The plum’s sour and sweet tones make for a delectable wine. In a good plum wine, one experiences both the sweetness of the fruit and the mellowness of a fine wine.
It is said that Cao Cao was the first to make wine with green plums. In so doing he created a story known as “discussing heroes over green plum wine” recorded in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which has lasted generations. As the story goes, after Liu Bei sought refuge with Cao Cao, Liu hid his capability and ambition in the capital of Xuchang by devoting himself to gardening and planting vegetables, for fear of being found out. It was an act which, in the words of Zhang Fei, was “something heroes show contempt for.” Liu was a hero himself, possessing the qualities of a state leader. Although he had only Guan Yu and Zhang Fei as military officers and a troop of less than 3,000 soldiers under his command, Liu was widely known across the country as a man of good faith. Cao Cao, himself aspiring to rule the land, considered Liu a competitor. In spite of Liu’s attempt to shy away from any lofty aspirations during his stay in Xuchang, Cao Cao was fully aware that Liu could be a powerful rival if given the chance. As Liu was watering his vegetables one sunny day, two men sent by Cao invited him for a drink. Liu followed them. When he arrived at the destination, he saw Cao sitting in a pavilion in his back garden, a plate of green plums and a pot of wine to his side. Cao told him, “You’ve been doing great things at home!”
The meaning behind Cao’s words made Liu’s face turn pale. The warlord then mentioned “Learning to grow vegetables isn’t easy,” relieving his stricken counterpart. Cao related his story of the soldiers marching for plums, and with the mood improved, they both sat down to freely enjoy the wine infused with green plums and converse in private. When Cao asked Liu who were the heroes of the present day, Liu mentioned the names of a dozen famous men, such as Yuan Shu and Liu Biao, but the warlord did not agree. Pointing his finger first at his guest and then himself, Cao said, “The only heroes in the world are you and I.” Liu was shocked, and his chopsticks rattled to the floor. At that moment, a storm burst with a tremendous peal of thunder and rush of rain. Liu acted as if the thunderstorm had given him a shock and hid the fact that it was the words he had heard that had so startled him. For hundreds of years, the story of “discussing heroes over green plum wine” has been told far and wide, with storytellers vying to create a heroic atmosphere by following suit.
The late spring and early summer, when green plums sway in the wind and rain, is the perfect time to make plum wine, which is sweet and mellow with a slight hint of sourness.
It is easy to make green plum wine. First, choice green plums are soaked in salty water before being cleaned in clear water and dried. The dried plums are then placed in a container, along with a layer of rock sugar and some high- alcohol rice wine. When the sugar dissolves after a few days, a second layer of green plums and another layer of rock sugar are placed in the jar. The same process is repeated several times until all the rock sugar dissolves and the green plums are covered in wine. Afterward, the container is sealed and put in a dark place for six months to a year.
China is a country known for producing good wine. Poets were often inspired by wine and wrote of plum wine in their poems. In his poem “Wan ge“(“an elegy”) Bao Zhao (c. AD 414–466) wrote: “I remember the days when we drank together, plain dishes filled with green plums.” Li Ying of the Tang Dynasty also described how plum wine is made in “Chunri ti shanjia” (“visiting a mountain dweller on a spring day”): “On the mountain road looking for purple ferns, under the tree I picked some green plums; tender tea leaves turn greener after stirring; newly made wine we are heating.” During the Song Dynasty, poems about plum wine became an even more common sight. Sima Guang (1019–1086) related in “Kanhua sijueju Cheng Yaofu” (“a sightseeing poem to Yaofu”): “To go with the wine, just pick some green plums; there is no need to prepare other dishes.” In “Chunri tianyuan zaxing“(“a pastoral poem on a spring day”), Fan Chengda (1126–1193) wrote: “People return to the town from tomb sweeping, newly opened rice wine and green plums they’re carrying; as the journey is short and time sufficient, why not come to heat the wine in my thatched hut?” While the mood to compose may have struck each poet, behind each composition, the attraction of plum wine must have also played its part.
In China, almost all classic food and wine is depicted in beautiful legends and classical poems. Even the most common foods have been described in literary works. He Zhu ( 1052– 1125), a Song ci poet and descendant of the Tang Dynasty poet He Zhizhang ( c. AD 659– 744), expressed his melancholy once in the poem Qingyu An: Hengtang Lu
(“Lakeside Lane: to the tune of Green Jade Cup”): “Just see a misty plain where grass grows thick, a townful of willow down wafting on the breeze, or drizzling rain yellowing all green plums!” The poet tried to tell later generations that one should enjoy the happiness of drinking and falling in love when green plums are at their most beautiful and to live without regret over the yellowing of the plums, when everything is too late.