This is the stuff I grew up with. About as common to me as milk, cheese and bread. Of course, being an extremely high volume alcoholic drink, I didn’t drink it, although that didn’t stop my Dad when I was about 4-5, with a few of his male friends, jokingly telling me to dip my finger in the shot glass and taste it, chuckling at my grimacing face when I did.
That story there, is quite indicative of the backgrounds of those who grew up with this drink.
Rakija. A spirit. Specifically, a fruit brandy, popular in the Balkans that is typically made from grapes or plums. Most rakijas average at 40% alcohol. The most well known Croatian rakija would have to be the “Sljivovica” which basically means ‘plum drink,’ as it is derived from plums.
Other country versions and comparisons can be found in Macedonia’s Mastika, a drink made from mastic, which is the natural resin of a small Mediterranean tree; Turkey’s closely named Raki, also composed of grapes but with a touch of anise; and Greece’s Ouzo, made of similar ingredients with the additions of various other herbs and berries.
But enough on the crash course of alcohol in Mediterranean Europe. I grew up with this stuff all around me – and as is usual, when that happens, it’s not very interesting to you. People around you, friends and those who don’t share your similar background, freak out that your parents have this drink, let alone would let you have a sip of it… and you’re 14. But that’s the relaxed European standard. That’s the way it was done. It is done.
I drink alcohol now, but this stuff is strong. I have it on special occasions. I ‘cheers’d to it with my parents the morning of my wedding day. I’ve had it on many other special occasions, not questioning whether I should or not, because it is ‘a special day.’ You don’t decline rakija for a big event. That’s like telling the person serving you that you will not accept happiness. It’s like ‘what now?’
I’ve also learnt that you can’t just have ANY homemade rakija. Yes, it can be homemade, and most of it that I’ve tried has been just that. But homemade doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better than store-bought ones. Homemade ones can be burnt in the distilling process, burning your throat as you drink it on the ‘X,’ and others load it with sugar. You gotta know your supplier, you know ?
Hubbie decided we were having one together last night. As I’ve reiterated, this isn’t my drink of choice or something I have a lot of, despite it’s strong presence in my upbringing. But not one to say no to drinking in company (we are so bad) I agreed, and in response asked him “before, or after dinner?”
It was to be before. But, being Winter, it was to be heated. You should really ALL try this at home:
First, get yourself some Rakija. Dan Murphy’s sells loads of brands, but I recommend a plum derivative.
Second, pour two shots of the spirit (for two people) into a little pot and add about a teaspoon of sugar.
Third, bring to the boil, keeping a close eye on it. It’s meant to boil and bubble and foam, rising to the top. You can turn it off as it rises, or you can lift the pot up, letting the bubbles subside, and then return the pot to the heat, letting it rise again, doing this about 3 times.
The rakija can’t burn you, even when it’s this hot. The worst that will happen is like me, you will be fearful of it burning you, and in going to slowly and tentatively take a sip of the hot drink, you will in your mouth inhalation actually breathe in more fumes than necessary and cough like a dickhead. That is all.
This warm drink, is amazing. I think alongside my regular red, it will be my ‘occasional’ (it is 40% after all) drink of choice in these cold months.
I’m grateful that after all this time, I am rediscovering a drink I have had alongside me this whole time, and appreciating its qualities in a completely new way. It’s like discovering treasure. I am that friend now: ‘what? You have rakija? Get out!’