Retro Rumtopf: A Taste of Nostalgia

When I was a teenager, my father bought a rumtopf crock at a summer car boot fair. He’d tried some traditional rumtopf made by a German couple many years before and, upon finding this pot, decided to recreate it himself. He excitedly layered fruit, rum and sugar until the crock was full and stashed it in our cellar. Many months later, at Christmas time, the dusty pot was revealed, and we eagerly lined up to sample the contents.

Oh. My. Goodness.

The fruit juices had mingled with the rum to create a magnificently mouth-watering liquor, which suspended the soft, sweet chunks of preserved fruit. Served with a big dollop of vanilla ice cream, this was truly one big throwback to the summer. However, the dark, spiced rum gave it a festive feel. This truly was a winning combination; the ultimate comfort food.

Rumtopfs are steeped in nostalgia for me; memories of happy childhood Christmas’ and the long summers that helped produce the contents.

What is a rumtopf and where does it come from?

This traditional dessert is native to Germany and Denmark. In Germany, it is referred to as ‘Rumtopf’; in Denmark, ‘Romkrukke’. The literal translation of these words is ‘rum pot’. These ceramic crocks were hugely fashionable in the mid-to-late 20th century, but as the turn of the 21st century brought with it huge demand for imported produce, the need for traditional preservation methods waned. Nowadays, great emphasis is placed on seasonal eating and the carbon footprint of our food; a rumtopf can offer a cheap and tasty alternative to those expensive, heavy desserts we are so used to in the winter months.

When should I start my rumtopf?

Ideally, you will begin in the summer and continue into the autumn months, as various types of soft and hard fruits will be coming into season. As we all know, the best time to eat fruit is when it is in season; you’d be unlikely to find a flavoursome fresh strawberry in December!

What are the benefits of shopping seasonally?

The rumtopf captures the essence of ‘seasonal shopping’. But why is it better to buy in-season rather than out-of-season? I have listed some reasons below:

    • Flavour. Probably the most important point when considering what to put in your rumtopf. You want the tastiest, best ingredients to ensure that the finished product is the best it can be. There is no substitute for the delight that soft, summer apricots and sweet, autumn plums will bring to your palate.
    • Nutrition. Fruit grown in these optimal seasonal conditions will, as mentioned, be tastier. Due to being harvested at their ‘best’, they will also have a greater nutritional value.
    • Cost. As fruit comes into season, there is the inevitable glut. June sees the appearance of the juicy, British strawberries; not only are these infinitely tastier than their imported Spring rivals, but they’re probably decidedly cheaper than in the months before the summer influx.
    • Environment. If you can afford to shop locally then there are environmental benefits. Most food is transported in one way or another, thus creating a carbon footprint of sorts. However, by buying from local suppliers or farms, you are supporting local trade and hopefully ensuring that the energy used in the production of the fruit is kept to a minimum.

In the small Somerset town of Frome (where I call home), we are fortunate enough to house the UK’s first community fridge. This innovative idea, introduced in 2016, was a response to the staggering amounts of food that are wasted each year in UK households, while millions of people are living in food poverty. You can read more about this project here. This fridge allows local businesses and individuals to share their surplus food; as summer rolls in, a glut of fruit and vegetables is bound to follow.

While you may not have access to a community fridge, you may find that local gardening enthusiasts are willing to share their yield with you. Last year, a woman offered free rhubarb on a local Facebook selling page to anyone who wanted it; when I popped over to collect a bag, she told me she didn’t like eating it but enjoyed growing it – she was just pleased that it wasn’t going in the compost bin! Keep your eyes peeled for offers of free fruit as the seasons change and you may find the cost of production dramatically decreases!

The BBC Goodfood website offers an excellent seasonality table if you’re unsure about what’s in and what’s not.

Should I add sugar?

A current hot topic in the UK is the sugar tax. This recent levy on sugar has seen many producers slash the amount they add to their products. It has left rather a sour taste in many mouths as consumers begrudgingly adjust to the low-sugar or sugar-free versions of their favourite soft drinks. While the tax is only applicable to certain beverages, it would seem only natural that this will gradually be enforced throughout the food and drink industry.

I have noticed that many rumtopf recipes advocate the use of sugar; one website even suggests a 2:1 ratio of fruit to sugar! These sorts of amounts will yield a sickly end-product. The only sugars you will need to rely on are natural fruit sugars; if you’ve bought ripe, seasonal fruit, you may only need to consider refined sugar as a ‘seasoning’.

Why should I use ripe fruit?

When considering buying fruit, it may need to ‘ripen at home’ or it may be ‘ready to eat’. These two types of produce fall under the headings of climacteric and non-climacteric fruit respectively.

Climacteric fruit can ripen after it has been picked. The fruit has an increase in cellular respiration after it has been harvested, which allows unripe fruit time to be transported to the shops for purchase without the worry of it spoiling too quickly. A good example of this is the banana; you can buy it green and take it home to change to whatever ripeness you prefer. Bananas, like most fruit, produce ethylene; this ripening hormone is the reason that bananas make other fruit in your fruit bowl ripen more quickly!

Non-climacteric fruit must only be picked when ripe, as it requires the plant to do so. Examples of non-climacteric fruits are strawberries and grapes.

Like most people, I automatically feel and smell fruit before I buy it. If it is hard and scentless, I instinctively know it’s not ripe. If it’s soft to the touch and has fragrant skin, I associate this with ripeness. The structure of fruit is made up of complex sugars (polysaccharides) like cellulose. As fruit ripens, these structural sugars break down into smaller sugars (monosaccharides); therefore, ripe fruit has a softer feel. The riper the fruit, the more the structural sugars have degraded and the softer and sweeter it will be. These natural sugars (glucose and fructose) are much better alternatives to refined sugar.

Rumtopf Recipe

So, taking everything above into consideration, my recipe is as follows:

    • A rumtopf
    • Cling film
    • A mixture of ripe hard and soft fruits (pears, pineapple, cherries, plums – you decide!)
    • Dark, spiced rum (any brand), with a high alcohol percentage (50%+)
    • Sugar (to taste)

Before starting, I will mention that it is not generally recommended that you use berries and soft fruits like strawberries. These very soft fruits will disintegrate during the maturing process and leave you with a slurry rather than a fine liquor.

    • Wash your vessel in warm, soapy water and dry thoroughly. You can use any container with a good seal on the top (for example, a large Kilner jar) but a traditional ceramic rumtopf is best.
    • Take your fruit, rinse it, and cut it into bite-sized pieces, approximately 1-inch cubes. You want it to retain its shape whilst it steeps in the alcohol.
    • Layer your fruit in the base of the rumtopf. I recommend you sample the fruit to gauge how sweet it is. Add a pinch of sugar, if necessary.
    • Top up with rum until it’s completely covered. The rum needs to have a high alcohol percentage to preserve the fruit. We have used a combination of two-thirds basic 40% spiced rum and a bottle of overproof rum with a percentage of 75-80%. This brings the average percentage to over 50%. You can of course use all overproof rum, but it could get quite expensive!
    • Once you’ve finished the layer(s), seal your rumtopf. If you’re using a Kilner, it may have a good rubber seal. A traditional rumtopf won’t have a seal, so put a layer of clingfilm over the top. Pull it taut, but with enough slack to put the ceramic lid back on.
    • Store your rumtopf in a cool place to mature.

You can top it up as and when you get the new layers. Repeat instructions 2 to 6 until the rumtopf is full. As you add each layer, you can try a teaspoon of the liquor to check the sweetness as it matures.

You will need to leave the rumtopf to mature until the winter. Traditionally, it is opened over the festive period. Some people suggest opening on Advent, others on Christmas Eve. Open it when you want to and make your own tradition!

Rumtopf is best served with vanilla ice cream and waffles; we’ll revisit this topic and divulge the waffle recipe in December when we open the rumtopf!

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