When you’re picking the white plums, the sweet fermented smell is stronger. They’re more delicate, ripen faster, bruise more easily. They practically fall off the tree when you touch them. They taste sweeter and almost all of them are ripe. The plum wine aroma comes from the ones on the ground. The bees know all of this, and float drunkenly from one brown spot to another.
I don’t know why we call them “white” and the other plums “black” when the sweeter ones are a chiffony yellow, like lemon meringue when they still have that frosty coating, and like lemons themselves once you rub it off. The more tart plums are redish purplish, not black. They’re more stubborn. Only one of every four or five is ripe. They’re also more durable. After a day in the harvest basket, the unsold red ones lose most of their tangy bite and soften, while the yellows become mushy and overripe.
On selling days we wake up early and pick a basket of each (about 15-20 lbs) before making our coffee and eating our granola. The plums wait for us in the shade, tenacious little microbacteria already starting to break them down. Maud drives us, the plums, the scale, and the sign into town. She drops us off a block off the plaza, right next to the man selling fake Christmas trees in the summer sun. She leaves us with some change and tells us to call her when we’re ready to be picked up.
The first day we stayed through the afternoon. John and Lindsey came and joined us for a picnic lunch. We changed locations during siesta time, but it wasn’t worth the hauling. The town empties from 2 to 6. No one moves. So we called Maud around 4 and she picked up the plums. The plan was for us to entertain ourselves in town until she came back around 6:30 for an evening round of selling, but she never showed and we walked home. We soon settled on only selling in the mornings.
We thought that our white faces and bilingual sign might attract tourists to our plum stand, but we were wrong. We sold to the residents of Cafayate for 2/3 of the price of plums in the grocery store. Standing in one place for hours each day and watching the town pass by allowed us to distinguish between a unique situation and a pattern. We watched many young mothers and pregnant girls stroll past. We noted the creative methods that people used to make their bicycles carry more than one person (one rides side saddle on the back, kids sit on the rear rack, one person sits on the seat and another pedals without sitting). We observed the various ways in which people on motorbikes did not wear their helmets (stick your arm through your helmet, perch it on your head, bungee it to the back of your bike).
We met friends of Maud’s and her son’s. One woman offered to teach Danny Spanish. We met people who had come to Cafayate for their shopping but lived in even tinier towns a few kilometers away. Each day we sold a small bag of red plums to the girl working in the Christmas decorations shop. We met an old lady who stopped three times in one day to tell us how much bigger and better her plums were, but of course never bought any. Many families passed munching cookies or eating ice cream, ignoring our alternative. Some people found our scale quaint. Some people found our accents quaint. When we’d walk around in the evenings, showered and more presentable looking, IDanny and I were constantly tapping each other and pointing people out saying “that woman bought plums from us today”.
Perhaps the most notable person we met was the man from “la municipalidad”. “Chicos” he said on the first day, “I’m from the municipalidad and I’m in charge of street vendors.” Uh oh. I explained that Maud had asked at the office of the municipalidad if it was okay to sell here. She had told us that while the plaza itself was off limits, this spot a block away was fine. He asked how many days we’d be here. I honestly had no idea whether Maud would be in the mood for plum selling the next day so I told him I didn’t know, that it was up to the señora who owned the plums. “We’re just helping. Would you like me to text her and ask?” “No,” he said, “I’ll just come back when she’s here. If you’re here every day I’ll have to charge you” She, of course, was never there. That evening we told Maud about him. She didn’t seem worried although she was surprised that she didn’t know who he was. The second day we didn’t see him.
The third day, Friday, was the day that Maud had left town for a week. We had picked only about ¾ our usual haul because we had to carry everything into town ourselves. After a long sweaty mile lugging some plums on the back of Maud’s bike and some by hand, we assumed our regular positions. Just 55 pesos into the day’s sales (about 5.5 kilos), Mr. Municipalidad arrived with his winning smile. He’s a tall, lean, European looking guy with a salt and pepper buzz cut and sunglasses. He removed them and took a pad of paper out of his pocket. “Chicos,” he said congenially, “today I have to charge you.” Not knowing whether he was charging us for a license to sell, or a ticket, we smiled back and took out the day’s earnings. “How much?” “30 pesos”. We handed over our hard earned cash as he wrote on his pad. When he asked for a name we gave him Maud’s. Her first name. They were her plums.