In Northern Germany, winter is a somber affair: four months of cold weather, grey skies and extended darkness. During this time, a dessert of Rumtopf, a happy melange of preserved summer fruit, is sure to brighten my mood. Every bite highlights a different flavor: strawberry or peach or pear, blueberry or peach or plum, depending what lands on my spoon. In the depth of winter, with sleet needling the windows and wind howling at the door, Rumtopf - a composition of summer fruit, sugar and rum - conjures up warm, light and carefree days.
For generations, Hausfrauen in this four-season region have devised ingenious ways to preserve the summer harvest for the long winter months. By adding sugar, salt, oil, vinegar, alcohol - or a mix of these - they have transformed fresh fruit and vegetables into delicacies with a long shelf life. Think jams and preserves. Sauerkraut. Pickles. Think Rumtopf – the sweet, intoxicating specialty that comes from Germany’s northern regions, where harbor cities have long guaranteed a steady supply of imported rum.
Making a Rumtopf is not difficult, but it requires tending. Not as much as a pet, more like a houseplant. You will be adding fruit as it ripens in the garden or arrives at the farmers’ markets, layering it in a covered earthenware pot, checking on it and stirring it. Rumtopf is a long-term commitment.
In Germany, people start their Rumtopf in May because that’s when the first strawberries appear at the markets. In late September, they add the last fruit - blackberries and pears. Then the Rumtopf has to sit for at least four more weeks so that all the flavors intermingle and intensify. Traditionally, it is first served to friends and family in December as a special advent season treat.
A tall ceramic container with a lid, cylindrical or shaped like a small wine keg. It should be large enough to hold three quarts of liquid and have a generous opening at the top. If you use a glass container (large mason jar), make sure you cover it with a cloth to keep it in darkness.
Unblemished seasonal fruit at the peak of ripeness.
Good quality rum, at least 54% alcohol.
Begin with strawberries, the first fruit of the season.
Wash and stem one pound of perfectly ripe, unblemished small strawberries, (halve them if they are larger than an acorn), set on towel to dry. Combine in a bowl with one pound of sugar and let the mixture sit for an hour.
Pour the sugared strawberries into the pot and cover with rum, leaving at least 2 centimeters of clear liquid at the top. If fruit floats up, weigh it down with a porcelain plate in the rum. Place the lid on the container and store in a cool dark place (not the refrigerator).
Throughout the summer months, add fruit as it becomes available at the farmers’ market, ending the season with pears. Each pound of fruit after the strawberries requires only half a pound of sugar (for smaller amounts of fruit, adjust the sugar). Allow the fruit and sugar mixture to sit for at least an hour before adding it to the pot, then cover it with rum (see above).
These fruits are perfect for Rumtopf:
Rasberries, blueberries, red or black currants, blackberries (wash very gently, dry on towel before adding sugar).
Cherries (do not remove pits, prick with needle so liquids can penetrate).
Apricots and peaches (remove pits and skin and cut into small sections).
Plums (remove pits and quarter).
Pears (remove pits, peel and cut into sections.
Traditionally, only regional fruit is used in a Rumtopf. Apples do not work well. Since this delicacy is a labor of love and I don’t want to spoil the entire contents of the pot, I don’t experiment with non-regional fruit.
After you’ve added the final fruit, let the Rumtopf sit for at least a month before serving it. Check on it every 10 days or so. Stir the fruit, make sure it stays rum-covered (at least 2 centimeters). Since it absorbs the liquid, you will probably have to add more rum as time passes.
Rumtopf is a decadently delicious dessert all by itself, ladled over ice cream or rice pudding, or served with a dollop of whipped cream. If you crave a second helping, remember that its sweetness masks its alcoholic punch. To minimize the alcohol content, serve Rumtopf as a flambé delight – just put a match to the fruit mixture for a dramatic blue flame. Mixed with champagne or sparkling water, Rumtopf makes a tasty cocktail. Poured into small jars, it becomes a delightful gift.
So that it lasts all winter, make sure to check on your Rumtopf after you’ve started enjoying it: stir the fruit mixture, add rum to keep the fruit covered, weigh down the fruit with a plate, keep the lid on the pot and store the container in a cool dark place.
The German saying: Gut Ding braucht lang’ Weil means “A good thing requires a long time” - a perfect motto for the Rumtopf specialty.