Thursday, September 13, 2012

Adventures in Puglia: Brewing wild plum liquor

One of the most charming qualities of rural Mediterranean life is the tradition of transforming anything remotely edible into surprising creations that become the life and soul of the party. These people have been championing the locavore and freegan way of life long before they were foodie buzzwords; sourcing food that’s in season and free – from the back paddock, or over the fence from the neighbour’s overflowing garden – is fundamental to their food culture.

Take for instance, their tradition of homemade liquor. For a culture that has a surprisingly moderate relationship to alcohol – sure, table wine is served at lunch and dinner, but no-one ever seems to get blotto – these guys will make liquor out of anything, no matter how tenuous the fruit or vegetable connection. Brewing liquor is just another seasonal domestic activity alongside bottling tomato salsa, making jam, and slaughtering a pig for cured meats (OK, so the last one might be more of a niche activity reserved for farming types, but you get the point).

If you’re lucky enough to experience a typical Pugliese family’s Sunday lunch – assuming you’ve not fallen into a white cheese coma after the scamorza and caciotta have been served – expect a variety of unintelligible homebrew liquors to appear once the espressi are distributed. Perhaps Alloro – flavoured with laurel, better known as bay leaves – or Amaretto, made from the stones in loquats, a small orange fruit that’s native to Japan but grown in temperate climates in both hemispheres.

Wild plums: they look like blueberries, but taste like a nasty, sour slap in the face

Currently, wild plums (prugne) are in season and can be found lining the stone walls throughout the Pugliese countryside. Once picked, the plums look similar to blueberries due to their similar size and dusty white skin, but you’d get a rude surprise if you confused the former for the latter. These plums are face-scrunchingly sour with a stone in the middle, so therefore clearly suited to brewing (i.e. apparently the last remaining option if you can’t eat them fresh, sun-dried, or in a jam).

The plums and alcohol need to soak in a glass vessel for 14 days, and then the sugar syrup step needs 24 hours to settle. The tiny plums impart a deep purple hue, and the finished product is predictably sweet and alcoholic (about 30-40%, but you can’t be too exact in home brewing), with a really delicious flavour – definitely more ‘wild’ and unique than the usual plum taste.

Our 2 x 1.5-litre bottles of wild plums and alcohol, marinating for 14 days

Obviously, you can increase the quantities depending on how much fruit and pure alcohol you can get your hands on – we made three times the recipe, which should keep a few households satiated for the next 12 months.

1kg wild plums
1 litre pure alcohol
(In Italy you can buy 95% alcohol on the supermarket shelf, with a 1-litre bottle costing about 11. In Australia or Britain, you might need a pharmacist’s certification to purchase equivalent-strength alcohol from a medical wholesaler. Can any antipodeans confirm or deny? We’re not sure – recommendations welcome!)
800gm sugar
800ml water
Note: the fruit and alcohol need to stay in a 1:1 ratio, as do the sugar and water, but you can adjust the sugar syrup quantity according to your sweet tooth and alcoholic preferences.

1.     When picking the plums, don’t be too worried about if stems and leaves are still attached – you’ll do quality control later on. Pick plenty more than you’ll think you’ll need so you can be choosy and only use fruit that’s free of insect marks.
2.     Spread out the fruit and foliage onto a tea towel on a tabletop, with a bowl to collect the good plums and a bowl (or compost bin) for rejects. Examine each plum to ensure there are no insect holes – solidified sap should be a warning sign – and look for just one mark on the skin where the stem has been removed.
3.     Once you’ve weighed out 1kg (or however much you’re making), transfer fruit into glass vessel (big 5-litre Italian wine cask is perfect), top with 1L (or equivalent) of alcohol, and seal so it’s air-tight (line the lid with cling film to be safe).
4.     Store in cool dark place for 14 days.
5.     To make sugar syrup, bring 800ml of water to the boil, add sugar, remove from heat and stir to dissolve. Leave to cool.
6.     Place a sheet of gauze over the mouth of the glass vessel and strain plum alcohol into another big jar or glass bottle (the plums might have burst whilst marinating, and you don’t want floaties in your finished product).
7.     Mix cool sugar syrup and plum alcohol in glass jar or bottle, seal, and leave to settle for 24 hours.
8.     Decanter into glass bottle(s) with airtight lids, and imbibe as required!

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