Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Heat Things

The first of what are promised to be numerous spates of high heat days has just passed. Last tonight's furious sky shows brought buckets of rain, bright jags of lightning, and surprisingly low murmers of thunder and immediately reduced the humidity and the temperature. In the morning, my pillow was not the soggy pile I'd woken up to the previous 3 days. The sky was blue, clean, and lightened of its watery burden. Before rising to fall back into Wednesday's work burden, I stole a few minutes staring at some of the trees on our street and the avian guests they were hosting. A lot of carefree chirping and cackling going on; at least some species were happy to be up and about.

None of the trees on our street are fruit-bearing. Their duties are confined to providing a most welcomed shade. In a city, that's a burden enough. I started thinking back on places I'd lived in back in the Land of Croats, specifically in the city of Zagreb. A city dotted with parks and streets lined with trees, Zagrebcani (as residents of the city are known) are quite proud of the small backyards that they retreat to after work or on the weekends. A place to putter, plant, and to.....make rakija!

Rather than growing trees whose main purpose is to offer shade, plum trees, lovely small, gnarly looking collection of branches bearing purplish brownish fruits are put into the backyards. And if one didn't have enough room in the back, you'd visit one of the local markets and haggle with someone like this for your necessary raw material. Anyone who distilled their own rakija was obviously the best distiller. Most of the home stills were operated or "managed" by men as the women were quite busy making this or that or something else that demands to be preceded with a stampulj of rakija. To "clear the passage", as is stated in the Land of Croats. Roughly translated as "clearing one's throat".

Two of my now departed uncles were fanatics about making their own rakija. One had several plum trees in his back and front yards, trees that I grew very familiar with as I, along with 5-6 of my cousins, were the cheap labor used to pick the plump fruit for him. His wife, an incredible and a humble cook, provided the rewards for our labor, making to-die for stuffed potato dumplings using some of the peeled plums that we'd picked. Her meals were such that afterwards we lay immobilized under the trees we'd just de-nuded of fruit, staring up at the slow-moving summer sky picking its way through the branches of the plum trees. The wind would quietly sigh as would we, laying there and thinking of what other delectable concoctions would come from her kitchen. We heard her humming and then singing from her "office" and recognized from her melodies that she had something going on.

The rakija? We learned the art of the quick-swallow early on. By the time we were 10-ish, a shot before Sunday's big meal would cleanse the palette and cause our tongue's gustatory system to stand at full attention, a necessity for the delights soon to follow.

The uncles have long since passed on as have their houses and their plum trees. The family tradition of home-brewing has gone underground. The slow and easy passage of our youth's time has been replaced by store-bought rakija, a liquid that shares minimal qualities with the homemade stuff. My cousins and I talk about those days, thinking that retirement will lengthen our days and open up possibilities of time well spent picking, gathering, and brewing. Well, if not for the end result, then for the thin threads tying us back to laying under plum trees, marveling at the blue sky dragging itself across our eyes.


A very eloquent homage to the plum! My husband's tales of such days gone by also include the time he was shot in the ass while helping himself to some of the neighbor's plump fruit (isn't this one of the 10 Commandments, or something?).
The plum is Croatia's version of Eve's apple. Tempting and always getting one in trouble.

I have no quarrel with the apple. Grappa, the apple's ode to Rakija, is a fine substitute for boredom & ennui.

As far as your husband's, uhhm, tail stories, I'm sure that the pain of the shot has long ago disappeared and he proudly discusses the incident as just another reason why growing up in the Land of Croats is simply the most wonderful way to be brought up, backside buckshot and all.
Even the pious Mennonites were once renowned for their fermented plum and/or peach juice -- although in our case, the after-effect wasn't considered a palate cleanser so much as something to get pleasantly buzzed on before bedtime. I'm still not sure what changed to make us such a bunch of tee-totalers (and their opposites).

If I ever come down your way, though, I hope to see the still.
I haven't been on your site in like forever, but Greetings from Sarajevo, I have been here nearly a year. Love it, and home made lozo of course! Now THAT is a drink!
I'm sad to say that the Cultural Heritage Exemption that I've been applying for to allow the Plum Squeezings Liquifier to be legally placed in my backyard has yet to be granted. So, any trip down below the 49th solely to witness the workings of said machinery would be a disappointment.

Yakima, great to hear that your plans of returning to the homeland have been successful. We who have opted to stay here, are eagerly awaiting Jan. 20, 2009 and getting by on store-bought imported yellow-tinged firewater.
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