Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Baltic Christmas Day 19 - Black Currant Liqueur

My earliest summer memories are of my great grandfather’s farm: impatiently waiting for the apples to ripen in the orchard, the dust motes floating in the sunshine filtering through into the loft of the big red barn, the wooden slats on the floor of the shower in the old pumphouse. Although he had moved to the city and the chicken coop was no longer full of hens, my family were still regular guests. I’m sure we also made the trip in winter, though the most vivid memories are of summer.

While we had plenty of adventures exploring the big barn, most of our time was spent outdoors: setting up house under the low-hanging branches of the big pine trees, excursions to the small spring and creek, fishing the bugs out of the enormous (at least it seemed so to pint-sized me) temporary pool which had to be moved every two days so as not to kill the grass. However, it was the garden that most often attracted our attention. My sister and I would hunt for snap peas, dig the compost piles for worms, forge paths in the adjacent corn field, and count the days until the berries would ripen.

My vecpapiņš had planted rows of red and black currants, raspberries, and gooseberries, and years after he had ceased his annual plantings of corn and beans, the bushes still bore fruit - hundreds of berries dripping off the branches. At harvest time the adults would pull stools out to the field, choose a bush, and converse among themselves as they filled giant bowls with ripe berries, their hands stained and their necks tanned from the effort. Children were asked to come help, and we would hurriedly pick for a little while (placing more in our mouths than in our bowls) before disappearing into the tall grasses to weave dandelion crowns, or hunt sticks for the evening’s bonfire; reappearing only when the adults returned with their harvest.

It would be hot in the pumphouse, full of people and large pots simmering on the stove. In one pot were the mason jars, sterilized for the raspberry preserves. A second pot would be filled with the red currants which were boiled then placed in giant presses, the resulting ‘cakes’ of berry skins abandoned under the bushes for us to do with as we pleased. While gooseberries were my favorite to eat (but least favorite to pick due to the thorns), I’m unsure of how those were canned as I only remember eating them straight from the bush, the satisfying pop as they burst in my mouth. Finally, the black currants tasted bitter to a child, so although they were also preserved I mainly remember the smell of their leaves emanating from the jars filled with dill pickles lining the counter.

Fast forward thirty years, to my children exploring my grandmother’s garden. Lily of the Valley & tulips bloom in the spring and a large maple provides a jungle gym for the boys, but on one side are the black currants, descendants of those my great grandfather planted. Every year the berries are harvested, carefully rinsed then placed in special jars, covered in grain alcohol, and left to steep. When deemed ready, my grandmother  separates the alcohol, and places the berry jar in the sun. Over the coming weeks my grandmother ‘feeds’ the berries sugar, gently tilting the bottle to mix, observing the sugar dissolve over time. The berries give up their juice to the resulting syrup, which eventually will be mixed back in with the alcohol resulting in a delicious upeņu liķieris.

On Christmas evening my extended family gathers at my grandmother’s home after the church service, where we feast at a long table and then recite our pantiņi by the Christmas tree. The adults return to the table afterwards (while the children play with their presents and consume far too many piparkūkas), and at some point a bottle of the black currant liqueur is placed on the table. The syrupy drink brings a warmth low in the stomach, serving as a digestif after the meal, but also a portal into summer, those sunny harvest days full of green grass and ripe berries. We sit around the table and smile and laugh with our aunts, uncles and cousins gathered from across North America. As we sip from an īsā glāzīte we’ll nibble on sweets, sing a kaladū song, and then long after midnight bundle up for the trip home.

This summer we visited my grandmother just as the black currants ripened. In return for helping to harvest the berries, we departed with a jar full of black currants. Once home I poured alcohol over them and set them aside, and two months later carefully sniffed the result. That month I fed berries sugar for the first time in my life, fretting over the amount of sun, speed of dissolution, and whether they were ready, calling my grandmother more than once for advice. At one point it seemed time; I mixed the syrup back in with the alcohol and set aside a bottle of dark purple liquid. Two months later my husband and I sampled the result, toasting to the Latvian centennial with a drink that might not be known as traditionally Latvian, but for me is as Latvian as my family tree. As with krupnikas or balzāms, the flavors meld over time and it’s recommended to let sit for a while to mellow, but the essence of black currants is as true as the memories that come with the smallest sip.

It’s almost as if that Ziemassvētku spirit can be bottled, notes of my childhood summer days and more recent snowy winter nights comingling in that bottle of upeņu liķieris. My husband has declared that we must plant black currant bushes so as to be able to continue the tradition of making the liqueur, and although our climate is not conducive, we will give it a try. We tuck away the bottle of liqueur to continue ageing, and discuss what occasion might merit a taste: perhaps a toast to the New Year, or a birthday, or a wedding. But as I imagine the berry bushes growing along the blueberries, raspberries and blackberries in our yard, I dream of hands stained with black currants, of cucumbers pickling in dill and upeņu leaves, and of time spent with family Ziemassvētki past...

Tomorrow is the final post in the libations mini-series during this 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas - I hope you'll join us for Latvian balzāms

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