Every year before the first snow arrives to the North East -- the first serious snow -- there comes a day of the first frost. Not the wimpy First Fall Frost used in gardening and agriculture to mark the end of the growing season, not even the more serious First Hard Frost, which lingers around for a while in the night and paints the rooftops white. No, no, no, the First Real Frost comes in the night and stays for the entire day. For one entire sunny, brilliant, sharp, crisp, yet cold, freezing cold entire day, the Nature sends out its powers to immortalize the last remaining yellow leaves and flowers, solidify the winds, slow down the rivers and put the soil to restful sleep until its ready to give birth again.
I will never cease to admire the clockwork that ticks the patterns of the seasons in the North East. The Memorial Day tick marks the beginning of the summer, the time of endless grilling, trips to the beaches and melting hot asphalt. The Labor Day tick makes the summer go away. In a split of a second, almost like a switch, tick-tock we wake up and put the sweaters on as if summer never existed. Tick-tock and soon after Thanksgiving, somewhere on the road towards Christmas the frost arrives, trailed by the winds, the snow, the ice, the storms. Soon after Christmas the first real frost turns into the dark, persistent second frost of wear-you-out never ending chill, which lasts until about the April fools day, when all of a sudden the Nature sends out its powers again...
The first frost is pure. It is clean, strong and beautiful. When you go on a picture-taking walk on the day of the First Real Frost, you come back home happy and invigorated. You seek a cup of warm drink and maybe a tiny bite of a cookie to sweeten the deal. And the First Real Frost remains inside you, makes you pure, it makes you clean, strong and beautiful, and you carry the feeling around for days to come.
The first frost and the first snow make an important tick-tock in the clockwork of our culinary lives. Maybe not in the North East, maybe not in the US, maybe not anywhere in the world, but in Serbia, the tiny country in the Balkans the first snow opens up the season of “hot brandy”, “mulled Slivovitz” or as they like to call it back home the season of “the Serbian tea”.
Plum, and to be quite precise the Damson plum and the Damson plum only, is the national fruit of Serbia, the fruit of great importance and symbolism. In Serbia a saying goes that the house is to be built where a plum tree grows the best, in Serbia the lovers call each other “a plum of mine” instead “sweetheart”, in Serbia the births are celebrated, the deaths are honored and the saints are worshiped with a sip of a mighty powerful Damson plum brandy called slivovitz (шљивовица / šljivovica). The Serbian meal starts with slivovitz and ends with it. It is an aperitif, a digestif, and a remedy -- for it is known to chase away diseases -- and once the first snow arrives it becomes a tea as well, a strangely potent tea of caramelized sugar, slivovitz and water.
And while all other tea-loving nations serve their teas with cookies and biscuits, the Serbian tea is savored with feta and sauerkraut, with charcuterie, cheese pie and baked beans, and an occasional suckling pig.
And while all other tea loving nations serve their tea in proper teacups, in Serbia they never do, because in Serbia people drink real tea only when ill and no proper Serbian household will ever carry a tea set. Unless you happen to live in an odd Serbo-Sri-Lankan-Now-American household, and your hubby comes from a leading tea growing country, and you happen to be a lover of antique pottery and an avid collector of porcelain cups, always on a lookout for a new one to serve your very next cup of Assam, Orange Pekoe and occasional slivovitz tea.
The Serbian Tea
* one cup slivovitz (50% vol / 100 proof)
* one cup water
* 8 tsp sugar (or according to your liking, see the note below)
1. In a small saucepan, over medium heat, slowly heat the sugar until it melts and turns into caramel. You're looking for a medium dark caramel (if it is too light the drink will have no flavor, if it is too dark, well it will be a burnt mess). Stir your sugar to make sure it caramelizes uniformly.
2. Once the sugar has caramelized, very, very, and I will say it again, very slowly and carefully pour the slivovitz into the saucepan. (You are dealing with a mighty potent alcoholic drink and if you pour it too fast, it will virtually explode when it hits the caramel.) When the slivovitz hits, the caramel will puff up and then begin to dissolve. Now add water and wait until the sugar dissolves. Bring your tea to a final boil, but no more than that, for a brief couple of seconds only, then remove from the heat, pour into the glasses and serve.
p.s. I deliberately left out the most fascinating step of making the Serbian tea, a tradition I cherished since I was little (not that I drank the slivovitz tea when I was little, and even if I did give it a little sip, not that I would disclose it on the Internet). Well, when the tea is done, while it is still in the saucepan, if one is really brave and adventurous, one can turn off the lights in the room, light up a long matchstick, bring it carefully to the surface of the hot liquid, and poof, light up a beautiful blue fire over the slivovitz to expel the alcohol demons and extinguish their demonic fumes, which would otherwise evaporate from a brandy that strong. And just as you do not want your slivovitz boiling for a long time, you do not want the slivovitz fire burning too long either – otherwise all the alcohol will go away. Therefore, after the light illuminates the room, appreciate if for a couple of seconds and then, poof, do a mighty blow from the bottom of your lungs to put it down. Given that I already sent you down the path of pouring the mighty potent alcohol over the burning sugar, I am not suggesting that you also put it on fire. I am just describing a very nice ritual. But I am not suggesting you do not do it either, as long as you use your intelligence and exercise extreme caution in lighting the fire and putting it down.
A note on selecting your slivovitz: I should point out that Serbia is not the only nation cherishing the plum distillates. In its love for slivovitz it is joined by many of the central and eastern European nations -- Croatia, Bosnia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland and Romania. As a result, the liquor stores all over the world offer a broad selection of slivovitz bottles from the producers across the region. Most of the commercially available slivovitz will run extremely strong, at close to 50% vol, the result of double distillation and aging in oak barrels. However, the tea loving Serbian elderly recognized that you do not exactly boil your very best slivovitz, just as you do not put single malt into the Irish coffee. For the tea the elderly designated the soft plum brandy, or soft slivovitz, a 25%-30% vol product of the first distillation. Given that soft slivovitz is impossible to find anywhere but the local farmers market in Serbia, all the recipes for Serbian tea call for diluting the high quality slivovitz with the right amount of water to arrive at the required alcohol percentage.
A note on sweetness: While the elderly maintain that slivovitz for the tea should be approximately 25% vol, they do not have a very strong position on the sweetness of the drink. I like my tea a touch sweeter, which is reflected in the quantities of sugar in the recipe. Should you get in the habit of making the slivovitz tea, you will discover your ideal proportions.