Not long ago, I gave a dinner party typical of the Washington scene, with guests who had spent considerable time in other places. Foreign service officers, journalists, academics who had enjoyed sabbaticals. After dessert, I brought out a frosty bottle of magenta liqueur. There was a quiet, collective moment of memory triggering and then a chorus of happy voices.
The sweet, velvety plum brandy has been produced for hundreds of years, primarily in Croatia, Serbia, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria. Italians have their own version as well, although the spicing is different and its foundation is often wine instead of eau de vie or another clear liquor.
Late-summer plums are most commonly used: deep purple, ovoid and freestone, such as damson and Italian prune types. The fruit is pierced, covered with sugar and alcohol and stored in a cool, dark place for months. The French varieties Reine-Claude, or greengage, and mirabelle are suitable for brandymaking but may be too precious (i.e., hard to find and expensive) for such treatment.
The most exquisite and complex slivovitzes are aged in casks, like wine or bourbon. But nose around and you’ll discover that many Eastern Europeans, including those who live in the United States, are fermenting their own concoctions in humble jars.
My introduction to the wonders of plum brandy came by way of a college roommate of Hungarian ancestry. I was fortunate to attend many huge Sunday dinners at his family’s home outside Pittsburgh. They went on for hours. The meals were animated and boisterous from the start, but when the slivovitz appeared, in an old wine bottle with a hand-hewn cork, glasses were pushed forward and shortly thereafter, the decibel level rose considerably. Slivovitz’s power to lubricate a free-flowing exchange of ideas became clear.
Years later, a box of plums arrived on my doorstep. I decided it was time to make slivovitz. Internet recipe searches turned up a consistent combination of plums, sugar, spices and citrus notes, covered with grain or other liquor and left to steep for three months before straining. The result was thick, sweet and plummy — precisely as I recalled from my college days. As DIY projects go, it’s ridiculously easy and superior to much of the commercial-brand slivovitz that goes down like lighter fluid or cough syrup.
Since then, the homemade kind resides in my freezer. Veteran slivovitz drinkers know that the consistency becomes even more velvety when the liquid is very cold. (And when I serve it as a digestif, I expect great debating about everything important.)
Through experiments over the next few seasons, I found that early plums yielded a thinner liquid, less deeply flavored and too full of fire. I replaced lemon zest with orange peel, only to return to the balance created by the more tart citrus.
I swapped allspice for cinnamon. So-so.
I added juniper berries. Not good at all.
I combined coriander and cardamom. Delicious.
The right plums make a difference. Until the end of September, farmers markets are full of the preferred, late-season varieties. About three pounds of the fruit and a large jar or two should get you started. Now’s the perfect time to bottle your own slivovitz, so it will be ready for the holidays.
In our household, last year’s batch was gone all too quickly, almost all of it consumed at another dinner party where the conversation was lagging a bit. A quick pour got things rolling again. In hindsight, perhaps refills weren’t the best idea, as evidenced by our pounding heads the next morning.
Regardless, I’ll be doubling this year’s batch. The shelf life of slivovitz is indefinite, but if you keep the stuff on ice, it won’t last long at all.
Barrow is a Washington cooking instructor. She blogs at www.mrswheelbarrow.com.