That old-fashioned summertime chore, canning and preserving, is enjoying a renaissance in urban culture. While it never went away in the country, in most cities and towns, the past three generations have been spared the necessity of putting up jars of summer produce to see them through the winter. Now, preserving is a fast-growing hobby.
Smoking, drying, curing, pickling and fermenting are all good ways to preserve seasonal foods without refrigeration. But the easiest method is to drowning the stuff in a strong spirit. The Germans have been doing it for centuries – it’s called rumtopf – and it starts with the first local fruits to ripen in late spring.
In Canada, B.C. residents have a head start on everyone else, with gooseberries, Saskatoon berries, and strawberries all ready for the crock by the end of May, beginning of June. Folks from Central Canada to the East Coast can start with rhubarb; it’s an early arrival and it adds a lovely tartness to all that sugar and sweet fruit to come. As each fruit’s season arrives, a new layer is added to the jar: fruit, sugar, rum, and so on until the last in autumn – usually pears. Sticklers for tradition say to not use apples; their texture doesn’t hold up, though the tiny, tart, crab apples would be a lovely addition.
Start now, with a view to bringing the jar out to the holiday table in December, to spoon over ice cream or simple pound cake. And once all the fruit has been enjoyed, any leftover fruit-infused, sweetened rum makes a lovely tipple.
Here’s how to do it:
You’ll need a big jar or crock with a well-fitting lid – it doesn’t have to be airtight. Keep your eyes peeled at second-hand shops, proper rumtopf crocks are always turning up. UV light will hasten breakdown of the fruit, that’s why earthenware or ceramic crocks are traditional.
Wash and cut into bite-size pieces the first fruit of the season. Add the fruit and sugar, stir and let rest to macerate. Do this step in a separate bowl, then transfer to the crock after an hour. Pour in enough rum or brandy to
cover the macerated fruit completely. Cover and set aside in a cool, dark place until the next fruit comes into season.
Sugar, acid, and alcohol create an inhospitable environment for bacteria, but it’s vital that the fruit is under the alcohol. If it floats, weigh it down with a small plate. Repeat the steps until the rumtopf is full or the season is over; whichever comes first. Remember to check the level of alcohol every now and then – there may be some loss to evaporation – it may need topping up. Once the last layer is added, put it away again for at least six weeks before enjoying.