Here in the cool Pacific Northwest we’re not yet fully into strawberry season, though I’ve tasted a few tiny, tender, perfumed Alexandrias. But the rugosa roses are putting forth a new crop of lovely pink blooms daily, and I feel driven to capture their scent in one way or another. A few days ago I did so with this syrup, made with last year’s strawberries from the freezer:
1½ pounds hulled strawberries ½ pound strong-scented pink or red rose petals 4 cups sugar Juice of 1 to 2 lemons, to taste
Drop the strawberries into a large bowl, add the sugar, and crush the fruit with a potato masher. Add the rose petals and crush some more, until the mixture is more liquid than solid and much reduced in volume. Cover the bowl, and let the mixture rest for 12 to 24 hours.
Drain the syrup through a fine-meshed strainer. Stir and press the solids in the strainer to extract the remaining liquid.
Combine the syrup with the lemon juice in a nonreactive pot of at least 4 quarts’ capacity. Bring the syrup to a boil, and boil it for 1 minute.
If you’d like to store the syrup in the pantry, immediately pour it into pint or half-pint mason jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Add lids and rings, and process the jars for 10 minutes in a boiling-water bath. Alternatively, store the syrup in sterilized bottles in the refrigerator. I think it’s best to keep at least a little syrup in the fridge, so you can enjoy it while still smelling the perfume of strawberries and roses in your garden.
Makes 2 to 2½ pints
On a warm, sunny day, after a couple of hours of scything grass or other sweaty work, drop a few ice cubes into a tall glass. Add 2 to 4 tablespoons Strawberry-Rose Syrup (depending on the strength of your sweet tooth) and ¾ cup carbonated or plain cold water. Stir well, and then drink up the most refreshing treat imaginable.
If the day is coming to a close, you might forget the water and instead combine the syrup with chilled bubbly wine.
When my friend Rose Marie first asked me what I knew about water kefir, I was baffled. Water kefir, she explained, was a culture for a bubbly beverage made from water, not milk, in the form of “grains” that resemble those that produce kefir.
I was skeptical. Was water kefir, like kombucha, another excuse to drink soda pop and call it good for you?
Well—yes, more or less. But I’ve since come to enjoy using what many Americans are now calling water kefir but that has gone by many other names in the past, including California bees, African bees, ale nuts, Balm of Gilead, beer bees, beer plant, and Japanese beer seeds. Europeans call water kefir tibi, and they maintain that it came originally from Mexico, where it is likewise called tibi or, traditionally, tibicos.1 In Mexico, grains of tibicos are fermented with pineapple juice or brown sugar (or both) in water to make tepache de tibicos, a refreshing, sweet, slightly alcoholic beverage.
Rose Marie ordered some of the grains from an online vendor and brought me about two tablespoons of them in a little plastic tub of water.2 I poked them; they were firm, irregularly shaped, colorless and translucent gelatinous masses, averaging about a quarter inch across. I fed them some sugar and put the tub in the refrigerator.
Within a day or two the lid was swelling. I needed to do something soon with my tibicos, I figured, or risk killing them. I could put them in a jar on the counter with more sugar water, but I wouldn’t want those empty calories, and why would they? Surely they would prefer to have some fruit juice. I didn’t have a pineapple handy, but it occurred to me that I had dozens of bottles of fruit syrups of various sorts, left over from candying fruits or made experimentally. On hot days my kids sometimes combined the syrups with carbonated water from the grocery store. I considered how I hated buying those plastic bottles, and hauling them back to town to recycle them.
I was beginning to see some value in tibi.
So I began making my own tibi pop. The recipe is simple:
Pour ½ to 3/4 cup fruit syrup, depending on the magnitude of your sweet tooth, into a quart jar. Add a tablespoon of tibicos and enough water to fill the jar. Fit a lid on loosely. Set the jar on the kitchen counter. Wait two days. Strain out the tibicos, rinse them, and store them in fresh sugar-water in the refrigerator. Funnel the partially fermented liquid into a liter-size clamp-topped bottle, the kind with a ceramic stopper that’s lined with a rubber ring. Clamp the bottle shut. Leave it on the counter for two days, no more. When you’re feeling hot and thirsty, unclamp the bottle. Gas should explode from the bottle just as if you’ve opened a bottle of champagne. If the explosion is weak, reclamp the bottle and wait another day or two. Then pour a glass of the bubbly. Adjust the taste if you like, with an ice cube or a squirt of lemon. Reclamp the bottle, and leave it on the counter. Pour yourself more tibi every day or two until the bottle is empty.
Each time you open the bottle, it will be as bubbly as before, or more so. I’ve made strawberry tibi, Asian pear tibi, plum tibi, and even tibi from syrup left from preserving green walnuts (the last tasted a bit like root beer). My only mistake was when I left the tibi bottled too long, perhaps four days, without releasing the pressure. Between opening the bottle and reaching the sink I managed to spray every wall and cupboard and several open cookbooks with plum pop.
If you don’t drink your tibi every day, do remember to open the bottle daily to release the pressure. If you forget one day, open the bottle the next day in the sink or outdoors. Ignore the example of one tibi maker, who, after a bottle of his tibi exploded, stood at a distance from the others and shot them with a rifle.
In an article published in 1990, Jürgen Reiss analyzed tibi scientifically. 3 The grains, he found, are made of dextran, a polysaccharide. Within the dextran are, in a symbiotic relationship, three species of microbes: Saccaromyces cerevisiae (which is used in making beer, wine, and bread), Lactobacillus brevis (common in sauerkraut and fermented pickles and a spoiler in beer), and Streptococcus lactis (also known as Lactococcus lactis, and used in making buttermilk and cheese). Reiss concocted his experimental tibi with dried figs and other dried fruit, as is common in Europe.
This is what happened in the fermenting tibi, according to Reiss: The sugar level declined constantly. After six days the alcohol reached its maximum level, slightly less than 0.5 percent, and acetic acid reached its maximum, too. Lactic acid was produced “in reasonable levels” only after fourteen days.
I can barely taste the acetic acid in my tibi, but I can’t miss the lactic acid. When it comes on, after about three weeks in my cool kitchen, the pop suddenly goes flat and sour. It is now vinagre de tibicos, which is drunk in Mexico to promote weight loss, fight arteriosclerosis, and prevent heart attacks. Only at this point does tibi seem truly comparable to kombucha, a weak vinegar made from a solution of refined sugar, flavored with tea, and usually drunk when partially fermented, so it’s at once sweet, sour, and slightly alcoholic. Both tibi and kombucha are considered probiotic, tibi because Lactobacillus brevis is said to survive in the gastrointestinal tract. Tibi is different from kombucha in that tibi is slow to sour and, when it does, the acid produced is mainly lactic, not acetic.
Tibi is also much gassier than kombucha, though not as gassy as commercial pop. As a child I never liked those sharp-tasting bubbles or the violent burps that followed. But with the gentler gassiness of tibi I’m learning to appreciate the taste of carbonation. Yes, carbonation has a taste! Only a few years ago, at the University of California, San Diego, scientists discovered that an enzyme expressed on the sour taste receptor cells in our mouths is stimulated by carbon dioxide.4 Humans have been enjoying this taste since at least the late Middle Ages, when bubbly mineral waters from natural springs became popular, medicinal refreshments. Ginger beer, made from another set of bacteria in natural symbiosis, originated in England in the mid-eighteenth century (you can buy ginger beer “plant” as well as tibicos from online sources). Europe’s great appetite for both mineral and bacterial bubbly waters caused Joseph Priestly to believe he’d made a great discovery when he invented the first artificially carbonated water in 1767. Soon English and American pharmacists were combining carbonated water with syrups to produce our modern soda pop. Until well into the twentieth century, people believed that carbonated water of any sort, syrupy or not, would cure or ease all sorts of ailments.
I wasn’t fooled, though. I was drinking pop without dyes or artificial flavorings or colorings, pop that might please the bugs in my bowels, pop that didn’t require buying or recycling a nasty plastic bottle, but still I was drinking pop. Could I make it a little more healthful? I eyed the quince in honey syrup on my kitchen counter. This was March, and the jar had sat there since early December. I make quince-honey syrup every year by simply mixing a pound of cubed quince with a pint of honey (this and many other syrup recipes are in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves). The honey draws water out of the quince pieces, which slowly shrivel, and soon I have 2 ½ cups of raw syrup, rich with vitamin C from the quince and aromatics from both the quince and the honey, ready to soothe any sore throat that arises.
We’d had no sore throats over the winter, and now spring had almost arrived. It was time to strain that syrup, revive the shriveled quince cubes by simmering them in white wine, and make myself some quince-honey tibi.
The tibicos seemed to respond to the honey as well and as fast as they did to refined sugar. The drink turned out a little foamier than usual (honey causes foaming when used in jam making, too). It tasted strongly of both quince and honey. The quince-honey tibi was especially delicious after a week, when it was less sweet and noticeably, though barely, alcoholic.
At this point I value my tibicos enough to want to share them. Sadly, they haven’t multipled noticeably; I still have only about two tablespoons. Rose Marie said ginger seemed to encourage tibicos to reproduce, but mine didn’t respond when I put a couple of slices of ginger in their refrigerator tub. In Jürgen Reiss’s experiments, he found that tibicos reproduced themselves when fed dry figs but not when given other dry fruits (raisins, dates, prunes).
In my pantry I have dried Desert King figs in plenty. My next batch of tibi, I think, will be fig-flavored—perhaps with a little ginger added, too. After that, I’ll have to try a Mexican-style batch, with pineapple. I don’t need to buy a pineapple, actually. As I now recall, there’s a bottle of pineapple syrup in my pantry.
1. The best source of information I’ve found on tibicos in Mexico is Más Allá de Pulque y el Tepache: Las Bebidas Alcohólicas no Destiladas Indígenas de México, by Augusto Godoy, Teófilo Herrera, and Miguel Ulloa (México City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2003). As far as I can find, the book is unavailable in any U.S. library or bookstore, but most of the discussion can be read on Google Books. According to this book and other sources, tibicos develop on the fruits and pads of nopal cactus, which may be the original, ancient source of the grains.
Arrope, mostillo, mostarda, saba, vin cotto, vino cotto, pekmez, petimezi—these words from various lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea all mean the same thing: grape juice boiled down to a thick syrup. Before Arabs introduced cane sugar to Europe, molasses from grapes, figs, or pomegranates was the best substitute for honey, a product that was usually more costly—or painful—to obtain.*
Grape molasses is still fairly common around the Mediterranean. In Spain arrope is used to fortify wines, to transform them into liqueurs with rounded flavor and enhanced sweetness. In Italy vin cotto is sometimes be served with quince paste and cheese. In Turkey pekmez is used in preparing many desserts. Grape molasses is also dribbled on toast, salads, steak, yogurt, and ice cream, and used as a marinade for duck and other meats.
The typical way to begin making grape molasses is to save some of the must when you’re pressing grapes for wine. You need at least two quarts must, which you’ll get from about six pounds of grapes. If you don’t have a fruit press, you can separate the juice from the seeds and skins by putting stemmed grapes through a tomato strainer. Or you can heat the grapes in a covered kettle until they come to a boil and burst their skins, and then drain the juice through a colander. For a jammier texture, press the grapes through a fine strainer (or use a food mill, if the grapes are seedless).
The second and final step in making grape molasses is to gently boil the juice—in a wide, heavy, nonreactive pan—until you have a thick syrup (like hot honey), taking care that it doesn’t caramelize. The boiling requires at least an hour and a half, longer if you’re using more than two quarts must.
Store the hot molasses in tightly closed jars. You can process the jars in a boiling-water bath, if you like, just as you would jam—five minutes if you’ve sterilized the jars first, ten minutes if you haven’t.
The color, texture, and flavor of your grape molasses will depend on your grape variety. The juice will darken with boiling in any case, but dark grapes, to my mind, make the most visually attractive molasses. The molasses will be more or less tart, and notably astringent or not. If it’s made from an American grape variety, it may gel upon cooling, though slow cooking can prevent this.
To make preserves in a truly ancient style, add fruit to your grape molasses while it’s cooking. Dried fruit, such as figs, are added to the juice at the start of the cooking. A few weeks ago I added a cup of dried figs to the juice of eight pounds of seedless, blue Glenora grapes to make two pints of dark, rich preserves.
Even more interesting are my Glenora-quince preserves. Quinces conveniently ripen at about the same time as grapes, so combining the two seems natural. I used a pound of quinces—peeled, quartered, cored, and then cut into smaller pieces—for six pounds of grapes. I added the quinces to the juice after reducing it by half. Then I gently boiled the fruit in the syrup for about an hour, until the syrup was suitably thick.
Early in the cooking, my quinces looked almost like sliced beets in beet juice. Afterward, in jars, the quince pieces were invisible in the dark molasses.
Preserves made with grape or other fruit molasses are more complex in taste than preserves made with refined sugar. Deliciously tart, mildly astringent Glenora-quince preserves go just as well with smoked pork or roast poultry as with toast or yogurt.
Fat bunches of Canadice grapes, my favorite for fresh eating, still hang on the vines trellised over our back deck. Before the birds and wasps get them all, I think I’ll boil some down into molasses.
* I use the word molasses for these fruit products because it originally meant “honey-like.” The word syrup seems less suitable, from a historical perspective, because it comes from an Arabic word for a sugar-sweetened drink.
Before the blossoms have all fallen, I want to share these pictures of my ‘Pineapple’ quince trees. Like other quince varieties, they grow no more than fifteen feet high, and each forms an umbrella-like canopy. The trees blossom profusely, with pale pink flowers that are bigger than the blooms of all my apples and pears. The quince trees’ springtime appearance is outdone only by their glory of autumn, when their hundreds of big, golden, pear-shaped fruits perfume the garden with a pineapple-like scent.
Prior to the invention of packaged pectin, nearly every American farmstead or garden had a tree like this, if the climate allowed, because quince is an excellent source of pectin. The tart, light-colored juice combines well with other fruits and juices and with spices such as ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The fruit is hard and mildly astringent, but when cooked it mellows and softens, without losing its shape, and with long cooking it turns from white to a startling ruby red. You can poach quinces in wine and honey, roast them with vegetables, bake them like apples, stew them with meat (as do cooks in the quince’s Caucasian homeland), and add them to apple pies and applesauce. You can make quinces into jelly, preserves, wine, syrup, paste (membrillo), and liqueur. And you can probably do all this with the harvest of one mature tree.
Even if you’re not sure you like the fruit, consider planting a quince tree. You need only one, because it will self-pollinate. You won’t have to spray it; the hard fruit resists both apple maggots and coddling moths. You can think of your quince tree, if you like, as an easy-care ornamental.
But do try using the fruits. Here’s a very simple recipe for an aromatic syrup that’s delicious in either hot tea or iced water.
Raw Quince-Honey Syrup
Use a sturdy knife to slice the quinces. For coring, a tool that looks like a thick, sharpened little spoon works best.
1 pound peeled and cored quinces, cut into 3/4-inch cubes 2 cups honey
Layer the quince cubes and honey in a quart jar. Cap the jar tightly, and let it stand at room temperature for two weeks.
After two weeks, drain off the syrup and pour it into sterilized jars. Cap the jars, and store them in the refrigerator or another cool place. The syrup should keep well for months.
Eat the shriveled quince cubes as candy, if you like, or simmer them in white or rosé wine and serve them with roast poultry or pork.
When you buy a big load of soil for raised beds or another use, you usually don’t know where the soil has been or what’s been growing in it. It probably won’t have as many weed seeds as the soil in your yard, but you can’t assume that the soil you’ve bought is sterile.
I filled three large raised beds early last summer with a mixture of silty loam and compost from a local nursery. When what I guessed were Swiss chard seedlings appeared in the beds, I was delighted. I’d been depending on chard to self-sow in my garden, but none had come up after the extreme cold of the past winter. Now I wouldn’t have to plant chard from seed.
I transplanted a few of the chard seedlings into a neat row and waited for the leaves to get big. They never grew over about two feet, though, and when I tasted them they were unpleasantly fibrous. The stalks were thin, too. By the end of the summer, I could see thick white roots protruding out of the soil. I’d never seen roots like those on Swiss chard. As fall turned to winter, the truth dawned on me: I was growing not chard but its relative the sugar beet.
Although as far as I recalled I’d never seen a sugar beet before, I knew that Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where I lived, produced most of the country’s sugar beet seed. Beta vulgaris is biennial, but the climate here allows the production of seed in just a year. Farmers plant sugar-beet seed in late summer or early fall, and the cool winter causes the plant to “vernalize,” or switch from vegetative to reproductive mode. When warm weather returns, the plant bolts, and the seeds are harvested. Some of them naturally end up on the ground. I suspected that the soil I’d bought had come from a former sugar-beet field. A Web search for photos of sugar beets confirmed my suspicion.
While still in the earth, the sugar beet plant looks much like chard, and also like a growing table beet, because these three are all variants of the same species, Beta vulgaris. (That chard and beets of all sorts are the same species, and that this species prefers to reproduce through cross- rather than self-pollination, explains why organic chard and regular beet farmers feel so seriously threatened by the effort to introduce Roundup Ready sugar-beet production.) Native to Europe, Betavulgaris has been cultivated since prehistoric times as food for humans and livestock. The ancient Romans were apparently the first to use the roots, which were small, narrow, and either white or black, in addition to the greens. By 1596, when the horticulturalist John Gerard grew beetroots in England, anonymous gardeners had developed red “Roman” beets as big as carrots; apparently none were yet round.
The mangelwurzel, or fodder beet, developed later than the table beet, apparently in the Rhineland in the eighteenth century. A variety of Beta vulgaris with a large, yellow, white, or red root that kept well over the winter, the mangel was valued as a supplement for milk cows but came to be seen as poverty food for people, partially because of its corrupted name; mangelwurzel, “scarcity root,” devolved from mangold wurzel, “chard root,” the name by which it is still known in Germany. Mangels were being cultivated in America by 1796, when Amelia Simmons wrote of beets that “the white has a sickish sweetness, which is disliked by many.” You can still get mangel seed from old-fashioned garden-seed companies like R. H. Shumway, and in England mangels are still fed to cows and pigs, carved into jack o’ lanterns, fermented and distilled into liquor, and competitively hurled as a rural amusement.
From the fodder beet developed the sugar beet. A German chemist, Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, reported in 1747 that crystals from the syrup of mangelwurzel were identical to crystals from cane syrup. His student Franz Carl Achard experimented with mangel varieties and growing methods to maximize the beet’s sugar content. In 1801, soon after the Haitian Revolution threatened the world supply of cane sugar, the king of Prussia granted Achard funds to begin commercial production of beet sugar in Silesia (now part of Poland). Through selective breeding to increase the sugar content of the beets, Achard developed them into a viable commercial crop. A few years later, during the Napoleonic Wars, Britain blocked supplies of West Indian cane sugar to France, and Napoleon ordered the establishment of large-scale sugar-beet farming and refining. Europe was soon producing most of its own sugar.
Across the Atlantic, abolitionists eager to undermine the demand for slave labor promoted the use of sugar beets from the 1830s on. But the first successful U.S. beet refineries weren’t established until the 1870s, by Claus Spreckels in California. Today beets account for 30 percent of the world’s sugar production and 55 to 60 percent of U.S. sugar consumption.
So, what was I to do with my sugar beets? I came across a mention of something called Zucherrüben Sirup, sugar-beet syrup. It’s a specialty of Germany, especially the Rhineland, where, as one German manufacturer advertises, it’s “an old favorite as a sandwich spread special for breakfast!” Also used to sweeten sauces, cakes, and other desserts, Zucherrüben Sirup is made by cooking shredded sugar beets, pressing the mash, and concentrating the juice to the consistency of honey. Having experimented in the past with making no-sugar-added syrup from apples, grapes, and watermelons, I had to try sugar-beet syrup.
In early January, I got around to digging up my sugar beets. Cleaning them was a chore. The skin comes off easily with a vegetable peeler, but I had to excavate a lot of crevices to get the beets fully clean. For the shredding step, I found that a cheap box grater worked better than my fancy mandoline.
I put 4 pounds of the shredded sugar beets into a large, heavy pot, covered them with 3 quarts water, brought the water to a simmer, and covered the pot. After the beets had simmered 15 minutes, I pressed them in a small fruit press placed in a large stockpot, and then propped the press over the pot to finish draining.
Left in the press was a hard cake of shredded beet the size of a dessert cake layer. The chickens loved it.
In the stockpot was a little more than 3 quarts of almost colorless liquid. I strained it to remove any remnants of beet solids, and then I boiled the liquid, uncovered, in a wide, heavy pan for about an hour and a half, until I had 1 cup dark amber liquid about as thick as honey syrup.
I let the syrup sit in a jar on the kitchen counter for a couple of weeks. By then some of the solids had settled out, and the syrup had lost its slight cloudiness. I poured off the clear syrup. The residue had a slightly bitter aftertaste. The syrup had an earthy aroma reminiscent of table beets and an odd bite on the tongue.
In retrospect, I think I could have extracted more sugar from the beets if I’d cooked them longer, stirred them more, or both. But will I try again? Probably not. Frankly, the experiment renewed my appreciation for more flavorful liquid sweeteners—cider syrup, maple syrup, and most of all honey.
Zuckerrüben Sirup isn’t bad, though. If you’d like to try some and can’t find any sugar beets in your neighborhood, you can order the syrup through online stores such as the German Grocery Store.
UPDATE 2022: At the time I wrote this article sugar beets were controversial in Oregon and elsewhere, because many farmers had begun planting GMO sugar-beet seed. This allowed them to spray glyphosate (Roundup) all over their fields, on their crops as well as the weeds. Doing so saved them from hiring workers to weed the fields. Besides, they argued, the GMOs couldn’t be found in the refined sugar. But the unintentional overspray of glyphosate was damaging neighbor’s crops, weeds were becoming resistant to the herbicide, and Roundup Ready plants were crossing with non-GMO plants, even on organic farms.
Some farmers found they couldn’t plant non-GMO seed even if they wanted to. Suddenly, non-GMO sugar-beet seed was practically unavailable. The industry warned of a likely sugar shortage.
Many farmers carried on growing GMO sugar beets. They were allowed to harvest the beets in the spring of 2010, but a judge ruled that growers would have to plow up any GMO beets that they planted for the next harvest season. Then, in February 2011, the judge’s decision was reversed, and in 2012 the U.S. government completely deregulated GMO sugar beets. Some states passed their own regulations regarding GMO foods, but in 2016 Congress exempted beet-derived sugar from all state-imposed GMO labeling requirements. In 2018, the USDA declared that refined foods derived from GMO crops, including beet sugar, would not be considered GMO foods at all. In its latest affront against American consumers, the USDA has now banned the term GMO (too political!) and developed a pretty green and blue label, depicting a plant, for identifying “bioengineered” foods in the supermarket. If consumers want more information, they will have to scan a QR code.
European and Asian countries, meanwhile, began allowing the importation of GMO foods and even permitting their own farmers to grow them.
Glyphosate has not been vindicated. After buying Monsanto, Bayer announced a $10 million settlement to resolve lawsuits over Roundup’s role in cancer cases. Researchers have begun to question the effects of the herbicide not only on human health but on the health of the soil and its organisms and on the water into which it leaches. And glyphosate-resistant weeds are an ever-growing problem.
Undeterred, Monsanto and Dow have recently developed “Agent Orange” GMO corn and soybeans, resistant to a combination of glyphosate and 2,4-D. As Vietnam veterans know too well, 2,4-D is associated with cancer, lowered sperm counts, liver disease, and Parkinson’s Disease. The chemical is believed to harm the human hormonal, reproductive, neurological, and immune systems.
Agent Orange sugar beets may be next in the queue.
It’s possible that the sugar-beet seeds in my purchased soil were of the GMO type. Although I still wonder where that soil came from and what contaminants it may have contained, the beets themselves were no threat to anyone. I didn’t let them go to seed, and my sugar syrup was almost certainly free of any trace of GMOs or Roundup.
But if you want to plant sugar beets and try your own hand at making beet-sugar syrup, I advise buying non-GMO sugar-beet seed. It is easily available via the Internet from small companies that cater to home gardeners.
I didn’t invent watermelon molasses, Sara Bir informed me. At least I wasn’t the first to invent it.
I’d cooked twenty pounds of watermelon into a cup of syrup because I and the rest of the family were tired of eating watermelon and the melon was overripe anyway. Besides, I’d had grape molasses (arrope, mostillo, mostarda, saba, pekmez) on my mind. I’d been thinking about life before cheap cane sugar, especially in Europe. Honey was a cherished sweetener then, but it wasn’t always available, at least not at a price that many people could afford. Before the word molasses and its cognates referred to cane syrup, they were applied to honey-like fruit or vegetable syrups. Molasses derives from the Latin word for “must”—grape juice—and the word for “must” comes from the Latin word for “honey.” The oldest reference to molasses in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1582, defines it as “a certeine kinde of Sugar made of Palmes or Date trees”; the second, from 1588, calls it “Sirrope of sugar, beanes [etc.].” When you had more fruit—even beans!—than you could eat, you might preserve its essence by boiling down the juice.
Fruit molasses hasn’t gone entirely out of style. Grape molasses, fig molasses, and pomegranate molasses are still imported to the United States from the Mediterranean region and sold at high prices in specialty stores. These products provide a mellow sweetening in sauces, dressings, and desserts, and grape molasses is the sweetener in cheaper kinds of balsamic vinegar.
Why not make molasses from watermelon? I’d decided to try it. The result, as I described in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves, was remarkably like grape molasses. With so much boiling, fruit juice darkens and loses its volatile flavors. In the finished syrup, you taste mostly sweetness and minerals.
When Sara came upon my recipe for watermelon molasses, she’d already made a version herself—an experience she describes in entertaining detail in Metroactive. Sara had come upon a little cookbook, Our Favorite Recipes, compiled by the Friendly Aid Society of Free Evangelical Lutheran Cross Church of Fresno, California, and published in 1979. In the book were some distinctly American dishes, such as Jello salads, but there were also foods with exotic-sounding names, like grebbles and berrocks. What interested Sara most were the three coffeecake recipes calling for watermelon molasses, and the recipe for watermelon molasses itself.
Sara wrote me to ask what I knew about watermelon molasses. I didn’t know much; I certainly didn’t know it was a popular ingredient in the kitchens of Fresno Lutherans. I wondered where these people had come from. I pondered the word berrocks, which didn’t sound as if it had ever been German.
On the Web, I found numerous recipes for bierocks—yeast buns stuffed with ground beef and cabbage—and at least one was attributed to the Volga Germans. These were people from southwest Germany, mostly, who at the invitation of Catherine the Great in 1763 settled along the Volga River in Russia, where they were allowed to maintain their language, culture, and various religious traditions (Lutheran, Catholic, Reformed, and Mennonite; Jews weren’t welcome). Although the Volga Germans kept mainly to themselves, they must have learned a few things from the locals. Their bierocks or berrocks—the accent is on the second syllable—were pirogi.
A century after the Germans began migrating to Russia, they lost some of their special privileges, including exemption from military service. When other countries beckoned new settlers, whole Volga villages moved themselves to North and South America. In 1886 and 1887, I discovered, Evangelical Lutherans from several villages on the eastern side of the Volga, near Saratov, settled in Fresno County.
Fresno is a good place to grow watermelons. So is the Lower Volga, a Russian culinary dictionary assured me. Watermelons grow so abundantly from Kamyshin to Astrakhan, on the Caspian Sea, that until recently much of the crop was either brined or boiled into nardek—watermelon molasses! Modern transport allows the shipping of fresh watermelon today, so nardek is produced in only small amounts. It’s a lot of trouble to make, after all, and today refined sugar is cheap. For Fresno Lutherans, however, the tradition lives on, or at least it was still alive in 1979. Nearly a century after their ancestors had come to Fresno from Russia, the Friendly Aid Society members still required watermelon molasses to make a proper coffeecake.
The Friendly Aid Society members called their watermelon molasses by the English name, the same one I used. But I thank Sara for sending me on the trail of an old word—nardek—for my invention that truly wasn’t new at all.
There is little as pleasantly startling as the scent of blooming violets on a cold day in early spring. The little purple flowers have spread so thickly through my front lawn over the years that I now have nearly more violets than grass. But what a lovely ground cover, and what a cheering fragrance when nothing else is blooming but periwinkle and the early, scentless daffodils.
Sweet violets (Viola odorata) are edible; many people candy them or sprinkle them over salad greens. If you don’t mind spending twenty minutes or so picking the blossoms, you can also make them into syrup—syrup as amazing for its blue color as for its aroma. Come summer, you’ll want to try it in soda water, iced tea, or champagne.
The recipe that follows is adapted from my forthcoming Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.
Sweet Violet Syrup
3 ounces (about 4 cups) stemmed violets 2 cups water About 2 cups sugar
Combine the flowers and water in a saucepan. Simmer the contents, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
Strain the mixture through a dampened jelly bag. You can squeeze the bag, when it’s cool enough to handle, to extract more liquid. Then measure the volume of the liquid, and combine it in a preserving pan with an equal volume of sugar. Heat the mixture over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Raise the heat to high, and bring the syrup to a full boil.
Remove the pan from the heat. Funnel the syrup into a bottle. Store the bottle, tightly capped, in the refrigerator.