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Rakija, a story about the fiery water of the Balkans
The story of Balkan plum vodka
The origin and the exact place and time of the invention of the drink are unknown to us. To this day, the feuding Balkan countries are competing in the race to become a pioneer of this drink, every now and then announcing the discovery of more and more interesting evidence confirming their theory. And although it is not known who officially this drink is: Croatian, Bulgarian, Greek or Serbian, one thing is certain: rakija appeared in the Balkans in the Middle Ages , most likely due to the Ottoman Empire that dominated the region.
The first development of distillation techniques is credited to the ancient Egyptians. In the 11th century, Arab doctors distilled alcohol with herbs for the needs of contemporary medicine. Jesuits shared aqua vitae, i.e. "water of life" in 16th century Italy. By that time, distillation was already known and practiced almost all over the world: in China, on the Arabian Peninsula, in the Byzantine Empire, among the Slavs, Celts and Germans.
According to written sources of Serbian rakija already existed in the Balkans in 1354. In paragraph 166 zakonik Du ¹ ana , or legal code announced in the mid-fourteenth century. By Serbian Tsar Stefan Du Sanaa we read about the severe punishments imposed on abusers of strong alcoholic beverages. At that time, however, the distillation processes were known only to scientists, and the drink was used primarily by the royal family and its immediate surroundings, who drank it for medicinal purposes.
The Bulgarians have their own theory on this. According to them, the clay cauldron found by archaeologists near the town of Ivaylovgrad dates back to the 11th century and was most likely used for the distillation of rakia. This would mean that plum vodka had already existed in Bulgaria two centuries earlier.
Rakija on the generally accessible level was popularized in the mid-16th century, when almost the entire Balkan peninsula was under the Ottoman occupation. In addition to captivity, the Turks brought some benefits to the southern Slavic region in the form of fruit (apricots, oranges, peaches and medlars) and copper cauldrons called kazgan in Turkish , which replaced the traditional clay cauldrons . During this period, the first kafanas , i.e. taverns, where you could drink and eat well, began to open in the region .
In the 18th century, for the first time in history, a higher consumption of rakia than wine was recorded in the Balkans . In 1889, five types of plums ( šljivovica ), grapes ( komovica ), cherries ( trešnjevača ), and pears ( kruškovača ) and juniper ( klekovača ). The most appreciated was šljivovica, which remains the most popular type of Balkan vodka to this day . However, the most significant increase in the production and consumption of the drink in history took place at the beginning of the 20th century, after the final liberation of the peninsula from Turkish rule, when fruit-growing began in the Balkans.
The period that followed the Second World War was not the happiest for South Slavic strong alcohol. Socialism, which mastered not only human hearts and minds, but also every branch of the economy, made the production of rakia industrialized, and thus deprived of individual character and soul. The communist regime, wanting to prove at all costs that it is better than capitalism, transformed the local liquor manufacturer into mass production, completely ignoring its quality or finesse.
The quality of rakia produced in the Balkans has started to improve significantly in the last dozen or so years. Increasing numbers of small family businesses are restoring the almost forgotten traditional technique of producing the drink. Good quality fruit is used for distillation, in line with the "mouth to mouth" principle.
Cultural significance of Rakia
In the past, almost every Balkan household had its own boiler for distilling rakia and a private, secret recipe for obtaining it. The chatter gathered around the cauldron, and the master of ceremonies made sure that the fire was kept alive and the production process proceeded successfully. At the same time, the housewife was baking potatoes and bread on the heat, and finally serving dried meat, butterscotch, bacon and homemade cheese with freshly "smoked" rakija and homemade pastries. There was a buzz around the table, there was a smell of dishes in the room, rakija circulated among the guests, and the lit fire crackled merrily in the hearth, casting dancing shadows on the clay walls of the cottage. And although it sounds like a description of a wedding, this is how modest family feasts used to be in the Balkans, and even better rakija.
Southern Slavs say that those who have never sat on a log next to a hot crayfish pot have lost a lot in their life . The tradition of driving rakia is older than memory, and with the aforementioned cauldron you could hear and see what is nowhere else in the world. The soul of the Balkans is the village, and the soul of the village is rakija - the national drink of the Slavs living south of the Danube.
In southern Slavic, people are born at rakia and are said goodbye to it. Rakija accompanies them during all family celebrations. He appears at weddings and christenings, at parties farewell before leaving his son to the army ora of the table Christmas Eve and Easter. You sing with rakia, and you cry with it. Rakija is a faithful companion accompanying man on a long and difficult journey through life.
Unfortunately, however, nothing lasts forever. Yugoslav villages are slowly dying, and with them the fireplaces of old, clay houses and the centuries-old tradition of home distillation of alcohol are dying out. Unused orchards wither, no one picks up fruit. Once heated, cauldrons rust in run-down sheds. Nobody needs them anymore.
And although the drink was an inseparable element of every Balkan home for several centuries, it has been enjoyed by the black Piarist for some time. Instead of being a gastronomic brand of the region and an element of its intangible cultural heritage, it has been covered with a veil of negative stereotypes and prejudices. Whenever a scene of domestic violence appears in Balkan films, the perpetrator is most often under the influence of rakia. There is no movie, series, book or piece of music in which violence or problems are not at least indirectly related to its consumption. Such a cliche in Yugoslav pop culture perfectly illustrates the misconceptions that the drink has to face.
For many years, Rakia was treated in the Balkans as alcohol for the poor, losers and those living in a backwater. As noted by Serbian sociologist Ilija Malović, in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, the source of alcohol problems is not looked for in social, cultural, psychological or economic factors, but in rakia itself. To better illustrate the injustice of this situation, it is worth comparing rakija to brandy, with which it is most often compared due to its similarity. Imagine what would happen to the reputation of cognac if the French were as cruel and ungrateful to it as the Serbs are to their native alcohol. What would happen to their distilleries, production and state budget revenues from the export and sale of the drink to tourists? Because cognac is an icon of French cuisine, and rakija from a regional gastronomic brand has become a Balkan scapegoat . And yet, in terms of quality or taste, it does not give way to its French competition.
Fortunately, the awareness of the inhabitants of the former Yugoslavia is growing. People began to realize that the greatest legacy left by the ancestors was a tradition worth caring for. That is why individual Balkan nations are slowly returning to home methods of driving rakia, hoping to save them from oblivion. Technology also comes with help. Traditional methods and recipes combined with the benefits of technology give amazing results, and rakija begins to regain the good name it once enjoyed.
According to specialists, the production of rakia should be systematized and covered by one specific procedure ensuring the highest quality product. There is already professional and generally available literature on this topic on the market, but there is still a lack of sufficient number of producers interested in the project to create a uniform brand. It is difficult to talk about any branding, when everyone produces the drink in their own way, according to their own recipe.
Types and ingredients, i.e. Travarica, Komovica, Dunjevac
Rakija is a strong alcoholic drink obtained in the process of distilling fermented fruit. Usually, its power reaches from 40% to 50%, but often there are more powerful variants (usually home-made) exceeding the limit of 60%. The liquor is the unwritten national alcoholic drink of the former Yugoslavia, although its roots can be found in the Ottoman Empire and today's Turkey.
The most popular rakija, or šljivovica , is produced, as the name suggests, from plums . However, the drink can be prepared from virtually any fruit. The most common types are lozovača (grape), kruškovača (pear), kajsijevača (apricot), dunjevača (quince), smokvovača (fig) and trešnjevača (cherry). The type of drink is also determined by the additions that enrich the rakija made of plums or grapes. And so there are: travarica (with herbs) , orahovača (with nuts), medovača (with honey), klekovača (with juniper) and mastika (with anise).
Pure rakija is colorless, and its color depends on the additives used (nuts, herbs, honey, cherries). The color and aroma of the drink are also influenced by oak barrels in which the alcohol is stored. A good quality rakija is always served at room temperature. If we are treated to a chilled drink, we can be sure that it is of poor quality, and the low temperature is intended to camouflage unwanted properties and aromas. The heat brings out the depth of taste and aromas, so good quality varieties are always served uncooled. A popular practice in the Balkans is also drinking mulled rakia, which is usually eaten in autumn and winter and which is believed to have healing and warming properties.
According to connoisseurs and longtime masters of Balkan alcohol, each, even the tiniest, vulgar and aggressive aroma or a hint of taste coming out of the drink is a sign of a mistake or fraud made at the distillation stage. Sugar added to unfermented fruit makes the resulting alcohol much less aromatic. For example, a pear rakija will not have the typical smell and taste of pears. This applies, of course, to all types of fruit. Artificial aromas added to rakia to enhance its taste properties are also a big problem. Such an enriched drink can be recognized by its too intense, even perfumed smell and taste. The rule is simple: no rakija can have a more distinct aroma than the fruit from which it was made.
The method of administration also plays an important role in tasting rakia. It is a mistake to serve it in a vodka glass. It is best to serve the drink in a glass with a stem , in which it has enough space and oxygen for the oxidative processes that take place after opening the bottle after a long period of maturation. Rakija is usually served with the so-called meze, that is with Balkan snacks. They most often include shed lettuce, turshiya, i.e. pickled vegetables, dried meat and white cheese. Travarica, on the other hand, goes well with dried figs.
The traditional dish for administering rakia is čokanj (tudzież fraklić - depending on the region). It is a glass shot glass with a long, narrowed neck and a capacity from 30 to 50 ml. Čokanj is the oldest and remains the most popular type of glass serving alcohol to this day. It is used both in private homes and in catering establishments . In the 1960s, the Yugoslav authorities considered it unhygienic due to the narrow neck making it difficult to wash the glass from the inside. In the past, the vessel was also used to store ink. Today it is a folklore element of the equipment of Balkan restaurants and one of the most popular souvenirs imported from the countries of the former Yugoslavia