It's blackberry season.
Also peach season, and apricot season, and many other kinds of fruit I love beyond reason.
In the winter, we collect, freeze and dry mushrooms to eat when the mushroom season has passed, so we can enjoy those flavors even when they are barely available in the fancy supermarkets for $40 a pound. We got 20 pounds of morels this year, and innumerable black trumpets. But in the summer, it's fruit. Boxes of it, bags of it: we gorge, and are content.
However, like the mushrooms I'm always trying to save that fruit for the winter months, when the flavor of blackberries or peaches can give you a moment of summer in the midst of the cold. Most years I make preserves of one sort or another. I've made strawberry jam and olallieberry jam, apple and pear butter, canned olallieberries and canned pears... yum.
The problem is, I'm almost the only one who eats it, so it sits there, fruit from summer waiting to be eaten when the fresh fruit is gone - waiting and waiting. It makes me sad. We do eat the canned olallieberries over ice cream (extra yum!)... but this year I decided to forget jam and go alcoholic.
Too much jam.
I remember when I was a kid, my parents went through a phase of making what they called "civil war nectar:" fruit in a big glass jar with sugar and something else, which fermented and produced a small amount of alcohol, which they ate over ice cream or cake. I've tried many times to get a recipe for that, but only yesterday found one:
1 part brandy
1 part fruit
1 part sugar
Leave it in a covered jar for a week before using.
Every time you use it, replace what you've taken with equal parts sugar and whatever fruit is in season.
Refrigerate in between uses if you are not using for more than a few days.
The place I found the recipe says: "Great on ice cream, pound cake, and such, but it does get very sneaky strong."
In my journeys through the internet looking for this recipe, I came instead across what seems to be a different approach to the same thing. Rumtopf ("rum pot"), also known as "tutti frutti" (all fruits, and yes, apparently that's where the name comes from) is a very old way of preserving summer flavors into the winter, from a time when alcohol was one of the only ways of preserving fruit:
"A tutti-frutti is started at the beginning of the summer, with fruits added to the mixture as they come into season. The last addition is usually made in September at the end of peach season. The trick to a successful tutti-frutti with brandy or a rumtopf with rum is to use an eclectic mixture of summer fruits, creating a blend of flavors. After the last addition, the entire mixture is set aside to mellow and age for several months. Of course, you can begin sampling the tutti-frutti/rumtopf whenever you like, but in Germany, it is not sampled until December on the first evening of advent. After that, it is fully consumed throughout the Christmas holidays. The spirited fruit is served over ice cream, pound cake, bread pudding and many other desserts. The sweet, fruity liquid can be enjoyed as an after dinner liqueur or mixed into cocktails."
(Thanks to Theresa Loe)
You find a ceramic or glass jar, about a gallon in size, with a tight-fitting lid. If you don't have a lid, or if the lid doesn't fit tightly, you can supplement with plastic wrap and a rubber band. You can also put a dish inside to hold the fruit down under the alcohol.
"Strawberries, cherries, raspberries, peaches, apricots, pineapple, nectarines, red currents and plums all work well. Do not use watermelon or cantaloupe (too watery), blackberries (too seedy), bananas (too soft) or citrus (too acidic). Some people avoid dark fruits like blueberries because they will discolor the lighter fruits in the mixture..."
I actually did use blackberries, because I like their flavor, and some people do the same with blueberries. I have also heard you should not use apples or pears, because they don't have sufficient body and get all mushy. The other thing I found is that having a cylindrical jar works better with the holding-down dish, which unfortunately allows fruit to escape around the edges if you use a round jar like I have.
What thrills me about this dish is the wonderful fragrance, a summery smell that comes wafting out whenever I open the lid. I smell it, and I think about the layers of fruit inside, and how when Christmastime comes we'll appreciate that injection of lost sunshine into our lives. It's like a little pot of treasure in my pantry, waiting for me to add more anytime I get some good fruit. At some point, I will try the Civil War Nectar, but for the moment I'm looking forward to that first taste of the Rumtopf in December.
Now, the other thing I made this year, which turned out extraordinary, was Creme de Mûre, a key ingredient in one version of the French cocktail known as Kir. We learned to love this drink during the ten years our family owned an old mill in France, where we would go and stay on the river and eat French food and generally enjoy the beauty of Bourgogne (Burgundy), where the house was situated. Traditionally, kir is made with Creme de Cassis (blackcurrant), topped up with white wine from Bourgogne. It's drunk as an aperitif, before food or a snack.
"Originally called blanc-cassis, the drink is now named after Félix Kir (1876 - 1968), mayor of Dijon in Burgundy, who as a pioneer of the twinning movement in the aftermath of the Second World War popularized the drink by offering it at receptions to visiting delegations. Besides treating his international guests well, he was also promoting two vital economic products of the region." [wiki]
If the rumtopf has a wonderful scent, this one is simply godlike. I find the flavor is rich and redolent of that peculiarly spicy blackberry scent, the smell of English summers and of scratched hands, sunshine and delicious forage, stained lips and that cautious, arched straining one does to get hold of a good cluster that's just out of reach. There is nothing like the smell of good blackberries, and now by making it I've actually managed to capture that smell in a bottle. It, too, has to age for three months, so I'm really looking forward to this winter, more than any winter full of jam.
Recipe for Creme de Mûre:
500 grams of blackberries
500 ml eau de vie (I used vodka - 80 proof)
250 ml water
350 grams sugar
Crush the berries and put them in the alcohol for 24 hours (cover it well).
Then strain out the fruit and put the fruit in the water for 24 hours.
Strain again, putting the fruit in the compost or feeding to your chickens.
Add the sugar to the blackberry-water, and heat until just warm enough to dissolve the sugar.
Now mix the sugar/blackberry mixture with the alcohol. Filter it through three or four layers of cheesecloth (or a thin, open weave dishtowel -- too tightly woven and it will clog), and put in bottles.
You can drink it at this point (yum), but it's apparently better if you let it age.
When my children were little, we used to read a book called Frederick, by Leo Lionni, about a mouse-poet who didn't help collect seeds and things during the summer. When the other mice complained, he said he was collecting smells and colors. Then when winter came, he was able to warm them with his words, which brought back the sights and feelings of summer in the middle of winter. I always liked this book, because it's about the things a writer wants to capture, and about bringing bits of the soft season into times that are hard and cold.
These dishes remind me of Frederick, holding tight to that fragrance and color from the season when fruit was really and truly ripe and giving it back to us again when we need it most.
So enjoy! And may your winter be full of the poetry of fruit...