At the end of every summer, as the heaps of fresh fruit start to
dwindle at the farmers’ markets, the urge to preserve it all pulls strong.
Usually, I suppress it.
As much as I love the idea of a
pantry full of homemade jams, jellies, pickles and syrups, I rarely have the
patience for serious canning, with its macerating, simmering and sterilization
But there is another, easier way:
boozy fruit. There are many incarnations but the basic premise is the same –
simply mix fruit and sugar with enough hard spirit to keep the fruit well
soused, and let it sit. You can sip the liquid as a cordial and eat the sweet,
spiked fruit over ice cream or cake. Apart from freezing, it is about the
simplest preserving method there is.
And not surprisingly, it’s lately
become somewhat of a trend among the legion of DIY canners, locavores and
fervent gardeners looking to make the most of seasonal produce.
For Amy Pennington, a professional
gardener in Seattle and the author of “The Urban Pantry” (Skipstone, 2010),
using booze to preserve fruit is just one more “branch in the preservation
“There’s drying, salting, canning
and using alcohol, which kills bacteria, meaning you don’t need to futz around
with creating an anaerobic environment,” she said, adding that preserving with
alcohol is the “lowest rung of entry for beginning canning enthusiasts” because
it’s hard to mess up.
She’s used the technique to
preserve raspberries in vodka, which she plans to churn into sorbet, and
greengage plums in brandy, to bake into an upside-down gingerbread cake as soon
as they are ready – in, oh, about three months.
That’s the downside to putting up
boozy fruit. Unlike making jam, which you can eat right off the stove, putting
up fruit in alcohol is the slow road to dessert. The raw spirit and fruit need
some time to get acquainted, traditionally from the end of summer harvest until
Perhaps the best example of
following seasons in a boozy fruit mix is rumtopf – a German preserve that
spans the entire growing season. Classic recipes have you start in June by
mixing strawberries with sugar and rum. As other fruits ripen, they are added
in layers, then the whole thing is left to mellow until Christmas.
Although the fruit mix is usually
laid down in one large crock, Kelly Cline, a food stylist, photographer and
fourth-generation rumtopf-maker in Seattle, likes to put up small batches of
single-fruit rumtopfs, like nectarines or blackberries, often laced with spice.
“I know I’m bastardizing the
tradition of my great-grandfather, but sometimes I like to celebrate the
flavour of just one fruit,” she said.
When it’s ready, she serves the
fruit in a large bowl and lets her guests nibble the rum-imbued pieces as they
“They’re like edible cocktails.”
she told me. “People get smashed.”
The delight of a tipsy buzz is yet
another reason to make rumtopf instead of jam. After moving to Berlin, Luisa
Weiss, a former cookbook editor and blogger at The Wednesday Chef, received several
serving suggestions for the rumtopf she is currently making, including mixing
it into yogurt for breakfast – an idea bestowed by her friend, a surgeon.
Arguably, boozy fruit also makes a
more exciting homemade gift than other preserves. That’s one of the things that
lured Amy Cleary, a canning aficionado and a publicist at University of
California Press, into the process.
Over the years, she’s made boozy
fruit out of cherries, peaches, plums, apricots and cranberries and given much
of it away to impressed friends.
“You can go to the store and buy
pretty good jam, but you’re not going to find brandied apricots,” she said.
The low labour, high-value gift
factor persuaded me to finally give it a try.
I went to the farmers’ market and
gathered peaches, nectarines, raspberries, plums, Concord grapes and even late
strawberries. Then I swung by the liquor store and stocked up on brandy, rum
and gin. (Any high-proof spirit will work, but these appealed to me the most.)
Finally, I stopped by the
supermarket to buy jars. On my way out, I snagged several pomegranates, which a
friend told me her mother used to preserve with vodka or Korean soju.
Then I got it all home and filled
jars with fruit, sugar and spirits, mixing and matching as I saw fit, topping
the grapes and plums, separately, with brandy, the pomegranate with gin, and
tossing the rum and the rest of the fruit together into a rumtopf-manque.
By December, if everything turns
out as well as I hope, I will have gifts for my friends. But there is a chance
I might go the way of Julia Sforza, who blogs about making preserves at What
“I got tiny apricots from my local
orchard and preserved them with brandy,” she said. “They were delicious; each
one was like a shot. They were going to be Christmas presents, but were so
good, I couldn’t bear to give them away.”
Instead, her friends got jam.