Visions of sugar plums dance in my head. . .
I was imprinted in childhood with the essence of my ancestors' homeland as I watched my grandmother roll, knead, sugar and ice a variety of sweet desserts. Every September, when the Damson plums were available--she would make slivkove knedlicky, or what she called "gule"-- a Slovak word for a ball made by rolling or winding. The Damson is an ancient variety, dusty dark blue and with a tartness that, when cooked down, turns magnificently magenta and yields a mellow flavor. Beautifully enrobed in potato dough, this treat is perfectly finished with a few turns through some melted butter, mixed with bread crumbs and sugar. Always more delicious the next day when refried in a little butter; the dough gets sturdier and develops a crispier, crunchy-- sugar golden exterior.
My grandparents grew up in Bratislava, a young city by European standards and one deeply influenced by a multitude of ethnicities--Slovak, German, Hungarian, Czech, Austrian, Jewish, Croatian, Bulgarian, Slavic and Roman. So it makes sense that throughout history it's been known by many names-- Possonium in Latin, Pressburg in German, and Prešporok in our native Slovak language. It was also once known as Wilson City, "Wilsonovo Mesto", a tribute to American President Woodrow Wilson who supported the creation of Czechoslovakia after World War I.
Bratislava is the city where in 1820 a 9 year old Franz Liszt played in DePauli's Palace and in1825 Hubert J.E. was established, making it the first company in the world to produce sparkling wine outside of the Champagne region of France. Old World charm and elegance veritably effervesce around the city's edge. Located in the heart of Europe, it sits at the foothills of the Little Carpathian Mountains and occupies both banks of the Danube River which begins its journey in Germany's Black Forest and empties into the Black Sea.
The Danube is a river so majestic it inspired composer Johann Strauss's famous waltz, a Hungarian sweet specialty called Duna Kavics ("Danube pebbles") and even a mention in the Star Trek Deep Space Nine series with the "Danube-class" runabout starship used by the Federation Starfleet.
But it's the "Valley of the Plums" located about 200 miles north of Bratislava in Visovice that serves as the "plumspiration" for the high-proof brandy known as Slivovitz, a spirit born of ingenuity and the bounty of over 70,000 plum trees. My father used to stock two of the best known brands in the US on his liquor store shelves, Jelenick and Maraska. I had an appreciation for the unique bottles, labels and legacy, but knew enough of the rocket-fuel and taste of grappas and eau-de-vies to take a pass on Slivovitz. I'll raise a glass, however, for what it represents and it's place in my homeland's culture. Here's a toast to the history of plums and the heritage of beloved Bratislava. Na zdravie! (Naz-drah-vee-ay)