Wild Hungarian Plums & The Szilva Lekvar They Never Became

Veszprem, Hungary

Every year, we plan our trip to Hungary based on the seasons. We come in June for eper (strawberries). July for málna (raspberries) and meggy (sour cherries). October for körte (pears) and füge (figs). That we are here for plum season is a happy accident. And there is one plum in particular that has caught my attention  tiny purple plums that clustered on thin, tangeled branches like bunches of grapes.

Of all the stone fruits I adore, plums are my least favorite, thanks in part to growing up in a country where the fruits in most grocery stores have been whittled down to those that ship and sell well. Plums have been so unremarkable in my fruit-loving life that I can recall exactly three memorable plums: The first was one I picked directly from a tree, probably without asking, around the age of six. The tree in question belonged to our neighbors, the Weltes, and though I can't be sure the variety, the simple thought of having fruits grow on trees in your own backyard was transformative. The second, elegant sweet yellow mirabelles that I ate by the handful in St. Tropez two summers running, which are already gone from the trees here in Hungary. The third, the ruby-red fleshed Elephant Heart Plum, first grown in Sonoma County, California, a plum so spectacular that it is protected by the Slow Food Ark of Taste, lest it peril in extinction. 

There are over 2000 varieties of plums in the world, and, so I've read, at least 100 varieties grown in the United States alone. I've seen a handful of noteworthy ones in the biggest farmer's markets in New York and California, but these—these lila (purple) beauties I’ve never seen before. 

I run inside to consult Papa, and dig for his book entitled Fák (trees), the agrarian picture book that doubles as my guidebook to his backyard. I turned to the pages marked szilva. Plums. But when I explain, through András, what I’m looking for, I get a collective shake of heads from all parties.

“You won’t find that plum in a book.” András explains. “It’s a local plum. Wild.”

“So, what is it called?” I ask.

Kökeny Szilva

András smiles. Blueberry Plum, he translates.

It's a good description. Their color is deep purple-blue, with the same white bloom of a blueberry on its bush. 

I gather from the size of them, no bigger than the top digit of my thumb, there are only two things to do with them. Eat them by the handful ripe from the tree, or, turn them into preserves. 

Igen. Lekvar. Mamma says. 

Papa gestures his arms like an airplane. Aha, it is those that  same silva lekvar that didn’t make it back home with me on my most recent trip here in October, almost two years ago, due to the firm no liquids policy of the FAA (thought I maintain that lekvar is not a liquid). 

I feel a jam-making session coming on, and consider racing back to the yard to collect them all. Surely she doesn’t pit them first. I imagine she must cook them down, then pass them through the food mill, leaving all the pits behind. I explain, with gestures.

No. She shakes her head and charades herself pitting the tiny plum one by one in her chair in front of the TV. Bless her, she is a better woman than I. 

Suddenly, I’m quite tired, and the idea of pitting a few kilos of pici (tiny) plums seems like the work for another day. Besides, she has already put up several jars, plenty for spreading between our palicinta (pancakes) and over fresh kenyar (bread), and two extras she tucked aside for us to bring home (this time in our checked luggage). 

Of course, I recorded her method for another day, a time when it's my responsibility to keep the family in lekvar. I hope that day is a long ways away. 

If you come across a batch of special plums, here's Mamma's Recipe. This calls for sugar, required for the tart wild plums, but not for any sweet plum variety, which can be cooked down in its own juices until thick and sweet {I recommend the alluring fruit-lovers guide to all things preserves, The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook}. 

Szilva Lekvar

1 kilogram / 2 1/4 pounds tart plums, pitted
600 grams / 3 cups sugar 

makes 5 pint-size jars preserves

  1. Combine plums and sugar in a large heavy-bottomed pot over low heat. Cook until completely broken down, stirring occasionally, about 2 hours. Puree with an immersion blender to desired consistency.
  2. Can according the Ball canning guidelines (here), or pack in pint containers and refrigerate for up to 2 months. 

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Sarah Copeland is a food and lifestyle expert, and the author of Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite, and The Newlywed Cookbook. She is the Food Director at Real Simple magazine, and has appeared in numerous national publications including Saveur, Health, Fitness, Shape, Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine magazines. As a passionate gardener, Sarah's Edible Living philosophy aims to inspire good living through growing, cooking and enjoying delicious, irresistible whole foods. She thrives on homegrown veggies, stinky cheese and chocolate cake. Sarah lives in New York with her husband and their young daughter.