Wednesday, September 27, 2006

What do you think of my Potty?

Well, I’m extremely pleased with it. Not only is it just what I wanted for a Rumtopf, it’s also just about the only one that the kids liked. I bought it from ebay Germany (there were only a handful on offer at ebay UK), and the poor thing had quite an adventurous journey before arriving here: By post to my brother’s place of work in Germany, by motorbike (in a rucksack) back to his house, by plane in my son’s hand luggage.

Rumtopf (rum pot) is the German and Austrian tradition of soaking seasonal fruit in high percentage rum and sugar, leaving the mixture to ferment in a cool place for at least a month (preferably three). Traditionally, this process would take several months, starting with strawberries in the spring, finishing with plums in the autumn, and the Rumtopf would be ready to be sampled on the first Sunday in Advent (which this year is Dec, 3rd, I believe). Emphasis is on ‘sample’, as it also seems to be tradition to drink the Rumtopf no earlier than Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

Why am I telling you this when it’s already October? Hmm, because this is the time when we start thinking about what to have for Christmas, and also because it’s not too late yet if you want to start a little Rumtopf of your own. The good news is: there are only a few hard and fast rules. Yes, it’s probably nicest to use each type of fruit as it ripens and becomes seasonally available throughout the year and layer it in your pot (see calendar below), but if you missed a particular window, or if you start as late as this, you can use simply all the fruit you can lay your hands on in one go. I have seen strawberries in the shops only the other day and even raspberries. In fact, that was my last lot that went in today, after the plums and the pears! --I know, I know, we shouldn't buy out of season... Well, if it bothers you, you can always use frozen fruit (defrost completely, pat dry, don’t use any of the liquid). In fact, there are even Rumtopf versions in which
I had to do that with the apricots, because I completely missed that window. It's just the last instalment of a long line of disappointments: my romantic ideas of filling my pot with fruit exclusively from pick-your-own-farms did not quite materialise. In the first instance, I settled for strawberries from Marks & Spencer’s. (Mind you, they humour middle class sentiments by not only telling you which variety of berry you’ve purchased but also in which county they were picked and by which farmer ... gosh, they do know their market segment, don’t they?) Other fruit were "gathered" from a variety of supermarkets.

But what the heck! In the end, all that counts is whether I'll have yummy, tipsy Rum fruit for Christmas!!

Opinion is divided as to which fruit should go into the Rumtopf. There are 1000s of recipes on the net, and I have found a school of thought that excludes quite a few fruit for a variety of reasons:

black fruit: blackcurrants, blackberries, blueberries
(too hard, too soft, and making the mixture too dark)
gooseberries, rhubarb
(too tart)
apples, pears
(too hard)
raspberries (too soft)
cherries (too hard) [1 person]
(too wooden)

Most people do include raspberries. Likewise, there were legions of people who use some or all of the black fruit. My pot (and many others!) specifically shows apples and pears, so it seems to make little sense to leave them out. Cox Orange was recommended for the apples (I used Pink Lady) and a hard variety for the pears (I chose Conference pears). Gooseberries aren’t that abundant in this country but if you happen to have a large supply in your garden, choose the sweeter ones and prick them. Pineapple seems too exotic for a “classic” Rumtopf in my opinion, but quite a few people use seedless grapes and/or raisins and sultanas. In the case of the latter, no further sugar is needed. Redcurrants can also be used, but according to some, sparingly. I’ve also seen melon mentioned. In a few recipes green walnuts are added after the plums, and mandarins (peeled, segmented, skinned) in December. Quinces weren’t mentioned anywhere but I read a recipe elsewhere for quinces in rum, so presumably they could be added (peel, quarter, pit, cut into 2 cm slices; mix with sugar and bake in the oven for 45 min at 175°C). Other exotic fruit, like mango, papaya and kiwi, have also found their way into up-dated versions, and some people like to experiment with vanilla pods or even cinnamon sticks.

As I said, there is no definitive recipe, just a few basic rules, and after that it’s a matter of taste, and like any good ‘house’recipe, it develops and matures over time into a secret formula. Below are those basic rules, some ideas of how to use your Rumtopf once it’s ready for consumption, how to create a Rumtopf from dried fruit, and a calendar if you want to do it ‘properly’.

Basic Rules

Obviously, a purpose-made Rumtopf would be nice but other large earthenware or porcelain pots (at least 3 l vol.) could be used, especially if they have a lid. If they haven’t then cellophane will do the trick. Glass jars do not seem to be favoured as the light affects the colour of the fruit. I have come across some actual Rumtopf containers made from glass though, so it must be otherwise okay, especially if you have a cellar where to keep it. If you haven’t, then keep your Rumtopf in some other dark, cool place where the temperature doesn’t fluctuate. Only use a silver or stainless steel spoon to avoid rust particles or bacteria interfering with the fermentation process. – Some people, however, discourage stirring altogether. You might also need a small dish which will fit into your pot – some people use this to ensure that the fruit is kept fully immersed in the rum.

English recipes call for rum that is at least 80 Proof (40% alcohol by volume) but on the German/Austrian sites, the verdict was unanimous: it has to be 54%. Not more, not less (you will find advice on how to mix different volumes to achieve the right result, and everybody agrees that Austrian Strohrum, which has 80% is not suitable). This is a bit tricky though, I think. Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough but I haven’t seen rum of that strength in the UK except once at a deli, where the bottle cost nearly £30! I brought a few (inordinately cheaper) bottles back with me from Germany, but if I hadn’t been able to do that, I would have risked the 40% path and just hoped for the best. The worst that could happen is that your fruit starts fermenting too much – if you can see tiny bubbles appearing. The mixture can be salvaged by carefully removing any foam, then adding 96% pure alcohol (in Germany you can get this from a pharmacist’s, I’m not sure whether that’s possible in the UK); you need ¼ l for a 5 l pot.
In France, Bourbon is used instead of rum, and generally speaking, one could use any high percentage alcohol to preserve fruit. From vodka to grappa via slivovitz – anything goes.

Divided opinions again – recommendations range from caster, preserving and even icing sugar, all the way to brown sugar. Your run-of-the-mill granulated sugar should be okay. I’m pretty certain that even using different ones at different times (Zabeena’s ‘whatever-is-at-hand School of Thought’) shouldn’t pose a problem.

As a general rule, this seems to be 1 pound of fruit to ½ pound of sugar (or 500g/250g) plus 0.2 l of rum, except for the very first time when you need a whole 0.7 l bottle, and 4 weeks after your last fruit when you add another half bottle. The important thing is to keep your fruit well covered (2cm/1inch/thumb width) with rum. (Mind you - I don't seem to be able to achieve that, there's always some fruit floating on top...)

Wash and sterilize your container in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Fruit should be in perfect condition without any blemishes and just ripe. Don't use over ripe fruits. Clean and dry fruit, remove stalks, pit and cut into pieces as suggested (above and below). Sprinkle each pound of fruit with ½ pound of sugar, and let soak for one hour before placing in the Rumtopf. To avoid loss of aroma or the evaporation of the rum, place cellophane across the top, under the lid. Check occasionally that there is sufficient rum to keep the mixture covered; add more rum if necessary.

It will keep indefinitely as long as it is completely covered with the rum. Add rum if necessary, make sure fruit are still covered.

Not everyone starts in Spring. I read about someone whose birthday is in September and who starts then, leaving it over the winter months, adding fruit in the spring and summer, so that each year, there is one ready to consume on his birthday.
The busy housewife might want to do the whole lot in one go by choosing a time when virtually all the necessary fruit are in the supermarket – for instance mid August.


Rumtopf can be enjoyed over ice cream/frozen yoghurt, plain yoghurt, cake, toasted waffles, lemon pound cake, vanilla or chocolate pudding etc., or by itself with a topping of fresh whipped cream. It’s also great as a topping for tartlets.

Or you might want to try it as an accompaniment to game dishes.

Rumtopf Cocktail

2 tsp Rumtopf per champagne glass, top with sparkling wine or champagne

Rumtopf Jelly

Heat 10 heaped tablespoons of Rumtopf, add a splash of Rum for good measure, add 3 sheets of gelatine, fill into glasses and leave to cool.

Making Rumtopf from dried fruit

1kg dried fruit (apricots, prunes, figs, dates)
1 l 54% rum
zest of 1 lemon
1 vanilla pod

Wash the fruit, dry for two hours in the oven and cut into pieces
Layer the fruit into the Rumtopf, interspersed with lemon zest and vanilla
Top with the rum (make sure your pot is only ¾ full – the fruit is still swelling up)
Needs at least a week of soaking

Calendar for a Classic Rumtopf

May + June
One pound of strawberries (hulled) + half a pound of sugar + one 0.7-l-bottle of rum.

June + July
One pound of cherries (with the stone) + half a pound of sugar + 0.2 l rum.

July + August
One pound of apricots or peaches (blanched, skinned, pitted and halved/quartered) + half a pound of sugar + 0.2 l rum.

August + September
Half a pound of greengages, damsons or mirabelles (pitted and halved) + half a pound of raspberries (hulled, cleaned but not washed) + half a pound of sugar + 0.2 l rum.

September + October
Half a pound of apples (peel, core and cut into slices - then drop them into a water and lemon juice bath to keep them from discolouring; some people even simmer them) or fresh pineapple (peeled, cut into pieces) + half a pound of blackberries (picked over) + half a pound of sugar + 0.2 l rum.

October + November
Half a pound of pears (see apples ) and half a pound of plums (pitted and halved) + half a pound of sugar + 0.2 l rum. Four weeks after the last fruit, add half a 0.7 l bottle of rum.

Enjoy the fruits of thy labour: sampling begins on the first Sunday in Advent.

Short formula:

3l (min) pot
· 2l (min) rum (54% if possible) [3bottles @ 0.7l]
· fruit – sugar ratio = 2:1
· leave fruit to soak up sugar for 1hour
· rum – per pound of fruit:
first time = 0.7l
subsequent times = 0.2l
last time = 0.35l
leave to ferment for 1 month (min)

  • rule of thumb: fruit needs to be covered by at least a thumb’s breadth of rum

Sunday, September 24, 2006

St. Bernhard

Der gro├če Sankt Bernhard - I had searched for this image, and I'd been ever so pleased when I found it. Because it shows the pass and it shows a motorbike. I wanted it for the 'cover' of a CD I was putting together for a friend of mine. A friend who was into motorbikes and who was called Bernhard, or Bernd for short. I never made it. I never got it done. I've got the playlist, yes. But it was too long. It needed decisions - I'm useless at decisions. And now he's dead. Dead and gone. Forever and ever. At his own hand. In the most horrid way possible.

I'm not the one who found him - and yet, I cannot get rid of the picture. How can it ever go away? How on earth could that have been the end of Bernd? The most vivacious, fun-loving, easy-going bloke you could ever come across. He was kind, funny, andthe sort of person you'd call a real brick. His giggly laugh is inimitable and unforgettable.

We're all devastated. -- If you know anyone with a heart disease who seems unusually low, PLEASE do all you can to make him/her see someone who's aware of the connection between heart disease and depression. There's only an 80% chance that treatment will work -- but we didn't even think it was depression. He just seemed low, subdued, not quite the same. It seemed understandable after a heart-attack at 39. We didn't realise it was depression. We didn't know there's a connection.

I think I was 14 when I first met him, and 17 when I went out with him. Going to his funeral was like burying my youth.