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Old World Huntington Beach to host Plum Fest, whose roots stretch to WWII Germany

A fresh plum tart next to a photo of Elly Schwarzer and Dolores Bischof, who inspired Huntington Beach's annual Plum Fest.
A fresh plum tart next to a photo of Elly Schwarzer and Dolores Bischof, who inspired Huntington Beach’s annual Plum Fest.
(Courtesy of Cyndie Kasko)

In Southern California, there’s no shortage of festivals extolling the merits of fruits or vegetables harvested during their peak season. But you’d be hard pressed to find one with the unique provenance of Plum Fest in Huntington Beach.

Held each year in mid- to late-August at Old World Huntington — a location known for Oktoberfest celebrations and events with German and European roots — the one-day festival honors the humble stone fruit in a most majestic manner.

Old World Huntington Beach on Sunday hosts its 27th Plum Fest, which celebrates a family matriarch and her German heritage.
(Courtesy of Willy Sanjuan)

From plum crepes, jams and tarts to martinis, schnapps and doughnuts, those able to attend the 27th annual festival this Sunday, from 1 to 6 p.m., can enjoy a variety of fruited delicacies alongside a full Biergarten menu, folk dancing and performances by German band the Bluebirds.

But the real star of the show is the “pflaumenkuchen,” a cake made with plums from Italy that ripen briefly in mid-August, according to Cyndie Kasko, whose parents, Dolores and Joseph Bischof, built the Old World Village in 1976.

Today, Kasko lives on site and oversees operations alongside brother Bernie Bischof.

“There’s only one week when this special Italian plum is ripe, so we always order cases and cases of it,” Kasko said.

An employee at Biergarten at Old World Huntington Beach assembles plum tarts in advance of the site's annual Plum Fest.
(Courtesy of Willy Sanjuan)

“Every German knows about [this cake]. It’s very flat and it has sliced plums on it. You mix butter and sugar together and put clumps of it on top and serve it with cream — it’s to die for.”

The dessert is the beating heart of Plum Fest, started in 1995 to honor a promise made between a mother and daughter trapped in Nazi Germany during World War II more than 80 years ago, Kasko recalled in an interview Tuesday.

In 1939, when her mother Dolores was just a child, she traveled with mom Elly Schwarzer by boat to Germany to bring Schwarzer’s parents back with them to the U.S. They did not know the specter of World War II loomed on the horizon.

Elly Schwarzer, with daughter Dolores, 5, in 1939 on a ship bound for Germany. The journey would change their lives forever.
(Courtesy of Cyndie Kasko)

Because Schwarzer still had German residency, she was not allowed to return home with her daughter, so the two hunkered down. But when full-scale fighting broke out in the region, Schwarzer was forced to send a 5-year-old Dolores to a children’s home for temporary safekeeping.

Dolores had always received a homemade plum cake from her mother for her Aug. 21 birthday and, in 1939, found herself stuck in an orphanage facing the prospect of turning 6 with no celebration to speak of. But Schwarzer had a trick up her sleeve.

“Somehow my grandmother figured out how to get those plums. She baked a cake and sent it through the soldiers to the kinderheim,” she said. “My mother always swore that was the best tasting cake she’d ever had.”

When Kasko’s mother and grandmother were finally reunited, Schwarzer promised Dolores she would always make her a plum cake for her birthday. And she kept that promise, even as the pair remained in Germany for the next nine years.

“My grandmother baked her last cake when she was 100 years old,” said Kasko, adding Schwarzer passed in 1995 at age 103.

Elly Schwarzer, seen in the 1960s, passed on a love of German plum cake, pflaumenkuchen, to her family that lives on today.
Elly Schwarzer, seen in the 1960s, passed on a love of German plum cake, pflaumenkuchen, to her family that lives on today.
(Courtesy of Cyndie Kasko)

Her death not only left a void in the family but left Dolores — at that time in her 60s — without reliable access to her beloved pflaumenkuchen. That’s when she and her family members, living and working in Old World Village, decided to serve the cake on site.

Since 1995, Plum Fest has grown into an event that attracts hundreds to the Huntington Beach plaza and has become a well-loved tradition among members of the founding family and those who work there.

Keven Shaw has been head baker at the German Deli and Biergarten for the past seven years and has pitted quite a few plums in her tenure. When more than 30 cases arrived in Huntington Beach from Italy on Friday, it was all hands on deck.

A plum tart is one of the fruited delicacies available Sunday at Plum Fest in Old World Huntington Beach.
A plum tart, ready for the oven, is one of the fruited delicacies available Sunday at Plum Fest in Old World Huntington Beach.
(Courtesy of Willy Sanjuan)

Teams of prep staff will work from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. pitting thousands of the stone fruits before chopping, juicing and blending them into signature dishes.

“They come in at the last minute, and you have to make all the plum cakes,” Shaw said. “It’s just a crazy fun thing that we’re used to.”

It’s a huge undertaking, but one employees are happy to perform each year, especially in the years since Dolores’ passing in 2010.

“The thing that makes it special is it had so much meaning for Cyndie and Bernie’s mother and their grandmother,” Shaw said of the significance of plum cake. “And this day celebrates them.”

Elly Schwarzer with daughter Dolores MacGee on the day of Dolores' wedding in 1955.
(Courtesy of Cyndie Kasko)

Old World Huntington Beach is located at 7561 Center Ave., in Huntington Beach. Admission and parking are free. For more, visit oldworldhb.com.

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