I first caught sight of a rumtopf at a Berlin flea market a few years ago. It sat surrounded by assorted crockery and ceramic figurines, very large and very brown. Because I didn’t speak much German back then, having only recently moved from India, I assumed from the name that it was a jar in which one might, well, store rum. A German version of the Portuguese garrafao de vinho, if you will. But because I had no real need for a five-liter jar in which to store rum, I didn’t buy it. A fact that I would come to regret.
It was only much later that I realized that rumtopf was also the name for a rather delightful boozy fruit concoction I had come to associate with winter in Germany. It referred to fruit that had been preserved in sugar and rather potent rum, and was typically served alongside a slice of cake or pie; or heaped on top of—and thus, completely transforming—a bowl of vanilla ice cream. As it turned out, it was also named for the jar in which it was made. Yes, that jar.
The name rumtopf, staidly enough, does translate to “rum pot”—or a jar in which to soak seasonal fruit in very strong rum (clocking in at over 54-percent alcohol by volume). Much like the clunky name itself, there isn’t a hint of delicate beauty about this crock. Most traditional versions come in a somewhat unappealing range of colors, are decorated in kitschy art, and can often be fairly large and unwieldy. (Let's just say the rumtopf is no carved Grecian urn—and no one, certainly not John Keats, has ever written verse in appreciation of it.) However, there is a Teutonic practicality to them; a solidity that might be expected from a jar whose contents are meant to weather many a German winter, and sustain many a flagging spirit.
Much like the cookie jar on the countertops of most American kitchens, and the pickle urn in nearly every Indian home, there was a time when almost every German household had a rumtopf. Because what the crock lacks in poetry, it makes up for in purpose. Back in the day, when the only fruits available in winter were apples, pears, and quinces, it allowed people to preserve spring and summer fruit for bleaker-produce months. The soaking would start in spring, and as other fruits came into season, they’d add in layers along with sugar and rum. The rum ensured that you were warming your insides even as you bit into summer's best, right when the cold had you feeling completely defeated.
Once I came to associate the crock with its contents, I knew I had to have one. And no, a mason jar would simply not do. First, it was far too common. And second, an old yellowing newspaper clipping containing a rumtopf recipe—supplied to me by my husband’s resourceful 64-year-old Uncle Willi—expressly communicated that glass was the worst possible material for the crock. The sunlight would get at the beautiful fruit and cause it to lose color.
So my quest for an acceptable rumtopf began. I knew I didn’t want a newer version made of thinner ceramic with a too-smooth, bone-china teacup-like exterior. The old ones I’d seen had much more character to them, not to mention the air of authenticity that came with the “W. Germany” stamp on the bottom—proof of their provenance, and evidence that they were relics from a time gone by. A piece of history that survived long after that divisive Wall fell.
Fortunately for me, the depths of the web house many oddities, including the compiled knowledge of West German pottery. Which is how I learned that nearly every one of the traditionally glazed rumtopfs available on the market today, was made by a West German ceramics company called Scheurich and came with a model number stamped on the bottom, making it easy for collectors to keep track of them. Some even came as complete sets, with little cups in which to serve the fruit-flavored rum that remained. (More than one person told me that the rumtopf was a great way to make cheap alcohol taste great!) Scheurich even sold their pots with a recipe printed on a pamphlet.
It was eBay that eventually led me to a blue Scheurich, model 204-28, being sold by an old lady in Berlin’s Reinickendorf neighborhood—an absolute steal at 20€. It now occupies pride of place in my kitchen on an almost unreachable shelf, next to three special bottles of champagne that my husband only intends to open when he retires.
Once it made its way into my home, the floodgates opened, and I heard from friends, near and far, who held the same fascination for it that I had developed. One friend, all the way in Bombay, sent me a photograph of a white Scheurich, model 801-34, that she’d managed to buy at a brockenhaus (used goods store) in Zurich.
In most German households, the opening of the rumtopf is a fairly sacrosanct holiday tradition; doing it any earlier would be akin to, say, putting up a Christmas tree in October. Luckily for me, though, my friend Miriam Schwedt has no qualms about being a rebel and cracking open her jar long before Christmas. Miriam makes hers entirely with yellow Mirabelle plums from her garden, and uses less sugar than traditionally prescribed. “The more sugar, the bigger the hangover,” she says, laughing.
The recipe that Miriam follows came from the kindly Frau Vogel who worked as the family’s housekeeper for several years (and hand-tailored dresses for her dolls growing up). Miriam tells me that she continued to receive a plum rumtopf from Frau Vogel each year, long after she retired. The last batch she sent them arrived two Christmases ago.
She serves it to me in a little bowl, not as an accompaniment, but as dessert itself. The fruit is spongy, sweet but not cloying, with a hint of cinnamon and star anise; the syrup is thick and comforting. With that first mouthful, I cannot help feeling like I’ve been fortified against the first wisps of winter that have come creeping up.
I also know exactly what’s going into my big blue ceramic jar, come spring.
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