There are three big barrels at Father’s ranch full of sweet, ripe plums, languishing in their own juices, getting ready for the final process of distillation in a copper cauldron (“lampek”). In a month or two, there will dozens of bottles full of rakija, flavorful and awfully potent plum brandy. The plum trees have released their heavy burden and their branches rest for a moment, before the cold winds arrive from the Alps on the northwest and shake every leaf off. The grass underneath is slowly turning yellow, getting tired and ready for the winter’s slumber. The hills of Serbia are turning more subdued in color, the blue of plums stripped by busy hands, the green fading to brown.
While the nature is preparing for the inevitable change, the stores are trying to keep up with the demand for canning supplies. But I don’t have to battle the crowds and fight old, blue-haired ladies for the last bag of jar lids. I don’t really have to leave the house, unless a trip to the cellar is necessary: we wash jars and recycle them, year after year, and store them neatly on the shelves in the pantry or in the cellar. We collect glass jars, small and big, square, round, octagonal – once the food they came in disappears, they become beautiful and unique containers for the summer bounty. There is never a lack of jars in our house, and as the canning season progresses, the empty jars are replaced by filled ones, displaying pink cherries, crimson raspberries and red currants, deep red strawberries, purple sour cherries and blackberries, orange apricots and quinces, yellow peaches and nectarines, and plums in an array of colors ranging from magenta to almost black.
I have spent my summer here in Serbia constantly running from Mother’s room to the kitchen, with frequent, awfully short excursions to the Farmers’ market. I spent hours weighing sugar, cleaning fruit, and stirring jams, relieved once I can see the bottom of the fruit basket. I only wish that I can take more of the preserves with me to the U.S., but one solitary suitcase will hardly contain all my clothes, let alone allow room for innumerable heavy glass jars. I look lovingly at the neat rows and pat myself on the shoulder, realizing that I can carve another notch at the board of my culinary accomplishments.
I strut around the house since I mastered the general technique for making jam. I usually approach everything from an intellectual point of view, over-analyzing and fretting too much about the outcome. I gather the information, try to learn the science behind every process, compare, and read for hours before I step into the unknown culinary territory. But having Mother close by took all the anxiety away (not to mention that nobody would have missed a bowl or two of pounds and pounds of fruit delivered daily from Father’s ranch).
I admit to burning a few batches, not used to the intricacies and whims of a gas stove (when I was living in my parents’ house, I did not have to do anything with cooking – the highest title I ever achieved was a prep cook – and I could control the flames when scalding fresh milk or making Turkish coffee). Nobody was here to see me scrubbing the pots so I can pretend it never happened. But in the end, I came out triumphant.
I will not be here when Father brings home his treasured bottles of golden rakija, but somewhere in Southern California, we will be spreading plum jam and pekmez on my homemade bread slathered with butter and I will think back with love and gratitude on this summer that rewarded me with so much.
PLUM JAM (DÅ½EM OD Å LJIVA)
This jam is chunky and flavorful. It is best served with bread and butter.
- 1 kg ripe prune plums
- 800gr sugar
- 2 Tbsp dark, flavorful rum
PLUM PEKMEZ (PEKMEZ OD Å LJIVA)
Pekmez is thick, dark, smooth, and a bit tart. It is a great filling for sweet ravioli or crepes, but it is equally good on bread and butter.
- 1 kg ripe plums
- 300gr sugar
Last year I wrote You Can Go Home if You Have the Dough and featured a recipe for piroshki.