My hometown in Serbia is surrounded by hills. They are not high, but wavy, seemingly undulating, leading the eye from the bright meadow greens to golden fields of hay. And everywhere you look there are orchards. The plum* is the undisputed queen of the summer fruits. It is a symbol of Serbia, interwoven into our heritage, our past and present, our rituals and traditions.
When the August sun hits the slopes and reveals the trees sagging with chalky purple fruit weighing down the resilient branches almost to the ground, the holiest of the rites commences: collecting plums for “Å¡ljivovica”, a potent, distilled brandy, golden in color, with an unmistakable aroma. The fruit has to be fully ripe and not bruised. The trees are gently shaken, and the purple orbs collected in vast canvas or nylon sheets spread underneath. They are cleaned of leaves and branches, pitted, and finally ready to meet the distilling drum. For wonderful photos and detailed description of the process of making “slivovitz” (as it is known in the US), head over to one of my favorite blogs, Palachinka.
When the icy winds of November and December rattle the windows and crawl stealthily underneath the doors, I love to have a glass of “Å¡ljivovica” warmed on the stove, sweetened with caramelized sugar, steaming, inviting, and comforting. It brings a warm glow to my cheeks, makes me smile, and gets me ready to curl up on the couch with my soft, navy-blue blanket and a good book. But in the summer time I forgo the distilled form and reach for the fruit.
Father has a piece of land in the hills overlooking the town. From the beginning he called it his “ranch”. And for more then twenty years it has been his escape, his respite, his Elysian Fields. I dream that one of these days, when all the kids have flown the nest and found their own safe haven, we can retire there, in the midst of the luscious greenery, surrounded by a vineyard, a vegetable garden, a chicken coop and an orchard boasting dozens of plum trees, all different varieties.
Every summer we go to Serbia. This year we did not. In June my heart was breaking every day thinking of cherries, red, yellow, bing, and sour, falling on the ground, unused and lost. In July I yearned for the early pears, peaches, and apricots, sweetened by the fierce sunshine. And now, I long for the plums. Even though I am thousands of miles away from “the ranch”, in my daily dream-escapes I can almost feel the breeze sweeping down the slope and smell the freshly cut grass drying in the sun.
I pick an oval-shaped plum with a center line dividing the halves, rub it with my thumb until it shines, squeeze it so it opens, juicy, luscious, sweet, pulling away from the pit. I eat one half first, throwing the pit in the grass, and then the other. The taste is the essence of summer. I close my eyes and there is a touch of wild flower honey on my tongue mixed with the aromatic pistils of the acacia blossoms I ate in grade school. There is a hint of the roses Deda-Ljubo planted… deep burgundy ones with velvety petals that lined the edge of our yard. I detect the smallest note of acidity from a particular type of wild lemony grass a cousin taught me to pick the summer of my sixth grade. As the late afternoon breeze rustles the leaves on the trees around me, I pick another plum, and then another, my fingers sticky, but still greedy. I steal the moments from the summers past in each flavorful bite. These memories I cannot share with my family and I feel guilty. But I smile in spite of this. One day my children will form their own sensuous mementos, and I will forgive them their selfishness.
The markets around us are overflowing with plums. I could not have Father’s beautiful, fully ripe fruit, but Husband brought me a couple pounds of Italian prune plums a few days ago. My first thought was to make these wonderful Central-European potato-dumplings filled with plums, but I reconsidered, convinced the rebelling dumpling-craving Beasties that one day soon they will be on the menu, and made jam.
*The big, round fruits everybody around me calls “plums” do not exist in Serbia. Dozens of varieties are all oval, smaller, similar to Italian prune plums. I have found that Damson plum is more appropriate name for the Serbian fruit.
MOTHER’S DAMSON PLUM JAM WITH RUM (MAMIN DÅ½EM OD Å LJIVA SA RUMOM)
- 1kg (2 lbs) damson plums, washed and pitted, cut in quarters
- 800gr (1 ¾ lbs) sugar (I put less, about 600gr, 1 1/2 lbs)
- 1 Tbsp spiced rum, or 1 tsp cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 350F. Put the fruit in a 5 quart stainless steal pot. Cover with sugar and heat on medium heat until it bolis. Turn the heat down, and stir until the sugar melts. Put the pot in the oven, and cook for 90 minutes, occasionally stirring. Add the rum or cinnamon. Let it cool, and pour into sterilized jars (I got 1 quart plus 1 small, 4oz jar of jam â€“ no need to worry about safety, it will disappear in a couple of weeks! The small jar is going to be a gift to my single mom co-worker who really appreciates it).
This is my submission for this week’s Summer Fest which features stone fruit.