Smoke and strong alcohol

Autumn has officially begun, and with it has come a sudden drop in temperatures, and a distinctly different feel to the morning air. I love this time of year. The cooler nights bring blessed relief from the baking heat of summer, and we can actually get some work done, instead of hiding from the heat during the day. After the riot of food production that is summer, it’s a calmer, slightly more relaxed time. Clearing the last of the crops from the vegetable garden, preparing the beds for winter. Slow preparations for winter have begun, and everyone starts keeping a keen eye on the weather forecasts, watching for that first hint of snow.

It’s also a time of slow, more hidden delights; autumn doesn’t give up her goodies easily, and walnuts, mushrooms, and hazelnuts have to be rummaged for among the already fallen leaves. Now the cooler weather has arrived we can think about canning things over the open fire. Julie has defrosted the bottles of tomato juice and turned them into a rich tomato sauce, ready for warming stews and pasta dishes over winter. We’ve got the last of the apples in; some we’ve preserved in jars, some dried, and the rest carefully wrapped and stored under the bed in our spare room, just like my grandmother used to do. I love the smell of that little room from the gently ripening apples.

Everything else from the garden has just about been turned into alcohol of one sort or another. We’ve got demijohns of strawberry wine and plum wine ready to bottle, pea-pod wine, cider and cider vinegar in huge barrels in the freezer room, and the last of our peach glut is being used to make our first foray into distilling the lethal local home brew, rakia.

This process started weeks ago, when we found we had a huge peach harvest from the summer guest house. We’d been promising for ages that we would break our still out and give it a go, but had never quite gotten round to it so this seemed like a good time to start. We chucked all the peaches, minus their stones, into a big barrel with some water and a bit of added sugar and let nature do it’s thing. Natural fermentation from wild yeasts soon kicks in, and the barrel begins to froth away, needing stirred every morning. When the fruit sinks to the bottom you know it’s stopped and is ready for the final stage, distillation.

We needed help and advice from our neighbour, Nadelka, who has been doing this for years. Our still is missing some vital components, so we took our 100 litres of peach wine round to her house to use her old still. Nadelka’s still looks almost prehistoric, being so blackened with soot and battered, but she assures us it’s only 20 years old, just well used! We tipped the peach must into the ‘kazan’, as the boiling chamber is called, and Nadelka talked us through the rituals associated with this important aspect of village life.

Firstly, you have to check that all the pipes are clear of obstructions, and then seal the whole apparatus. This is done with cloth soaked in a flour paste, and it’s important to ensure that there are no leaks. The cooling barrel gets topped up with water (Nadelka’s already brewed three batches of rakia this year), and then we’re ready to go. Nadelka carefully lays the first log in the hearth beneath the kazan. This log is called the mother, and is placed across the whole of the hearth. We piled up kindling and paper behind the mother, then Nadelka crossed herself, muttered a short prayer, and called out ‘purly, purly’ (light it, light it). Match struck, flames roared, and we were in action. After that it’s a very pleasant waiting game. My job was to watch the fire – not too hot mind, but I’d be in bother if I let it go out. Nadelka pottered around all day, preparing stuff from her garden, making some lunch for us all, while I split logs and fed them one at a time into the fire.

It felt really special to be sitting there, smoke from the fire wafting around, drinking strong rakia, eating the lunch that Nadelka had prepared for us; the last of her peppers, roasted on the embers of the fire, a few sliced tomatoes, still warm from the vine, and her best Palamartsa food, brine-cured pork fat, roasted on the open fire. Delicious, but Julie didn’t fancy it, she doesn’t like the whole chunks of fat they eat here.

After about three hours, the pipes started to get warm, and we excitedly gathered round the outlet spigot to watch for the first drops of alcohol appearing. Unfortunately, the first drops are pure methanol, which is poisonous, so we had to set the first half litre aside, to be used for medicinal purposes, putting on cuts, scratches, missing limbs, that kind of thing. After that we collected everything. Here they have a thing called a spirtometer, which tells you the alcohol content of what’s coming out. We collected everything from the start, at 85%, down to the last bit at 35%, separated out into different jars so we could taste them and blend our own mix. It was really interesting to taste how the flavour changed from start to finish, and I was excited to get the blend going the next day.

After all the rakia was distilled, we helped Nadelka clean down, and we left with strict instructions on how to proceed; put everything into a pan, add a handful of dried elder sticks to add colour to the finished rakia, and leave it for two weeks. Apparently this allows some of the more volatile stuff to evaporate, and the alcohol content goes down, which was a good thing because our final mix was hovering around 50% by volume. Heady stuff indeed!

So there it is. A whole winter of hangovers lined up for us with 20 litres of rakia, wine on the go, and some beer kits yet to get started. I hope there’s not much needs done over winter!

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