Happy New Year, Dear Readers!
During the holiday times, so much of our focus is the special, exceptional food that characterizes the season. But, I do so delight in those foods and drinks that mark both daily life and the festivals of the holiday. One such item is usvar, or compote, a delicious fruity beverage made from a mélange of dried fruits. Sometimes tart, sometimes sour, usvar may be flavored with any blend of revived dried fruits, including apples, pears, cherries, plums, blueberries and raisins, depending upon availability. Apples are probably the most common ingredient. The fruits are harvested and preserved in the summer and autumn by drying for use through winter and spring. During the harvest months, one can see garlands of apple rings dangling from kitchen windows and rafters in both the city and the village. I once watched with great anxiety as my L’viv neighbor endeavored to balance on his fourth floor apartment balcony railing to secure a string of apple slices for drying from the roof, all while smoking a cigarette, no less.
Another distinctive addition to the elixir is smoked prunes. Usvar with this ingredient is a potent, earthy taste sensation. I am crazy about a smoky usvar but it should be said that there is a wimpy, fussy contingent of the population (and my own family, I might add) that find it a bit intense for their delicate tastes.. The beverage is mildly sweetened with honey or sugar and often accented with spices or dried herbs from the garden or forest.
Of course, usvar is drunk year-round but is also customary for the Christmas table in Ukraine. And, given that Orthodox Christmas will be celebrated this year on January 6, it is the perfect time to steep some up usvar to celebrate. Or just because.
Adapted from a recipe in Ukrainia by Bete Blaha, from Culinaria, edited by Marion Trutter (2006).
1 pound/half kilo of dried apples and or pears
½ cup pitted prunes
½ cup dried blueberries or other berries
½ cup raisins
1 cinnamon stick
Juice and rind of a lemon
Honey and sugar to taste
Rinse the fruit in cold water. Bring 1½ quarts (1.5 liters) of water to a boil, adding desired sugar. Add the apples or pears and simmer for five minutes. Then, add the remaining fruit and simmer for another five to ten minutes. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice and honey, if desired. Let stand overnight so that the flavors may intensify. Strain the liquid (eat the fruits or toss them out). Usvar may be kept in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Smachno!
Photo courtesy of Linda Knedsen McAusland