Getting into the spirit of Bulgaria’s Rakiya

It’s the intoxicating (well, yes), aromatic fire in the veins and breath of Bulgaria. The traditional accompaniment to the salad at the opening of the meal. The pride of the home distiller, with his old family recipe and demanding rituals of taste-testing. It is rakiya.

As I write this, it is precisely 15 years to the day that I moved to Bulgaria. I feel something of an old hand now, especially the right one, that has raised many a glass of the stuff in convivial company over all those years.

Just last Sunday, at lunch with a diplomat – on his very first day in the country – I had the pleasure of introducing him to the ritual, explaining that rakiya may be distilled from many things – grapes, peaches, apricots, plums, pears, figs – and choosing on his behalf a well-known brand of a spirit that had begun life as bunches of muscat grapes.

Surprise and wonder crossed his face as he took his first cautious sip, traversing the ritual that so many foreigners, tourists and expatriates, have over the decades and still will.

Bulgaria, of course, has no monopoly on distilling alcohol from fruit. In this region, there are fine rakiyas from some of the neighbouring Balkan countries. Across the Atlantic, the making of moonshine and hooch is the stuff of folk tales, songs and movies. The Irish have their poteen. Even in South Africa, in the harsh northern expanses of the country where summer temperatures routinely exceed 40 degrees for weeks on end, many a farmer has overdone his witblits (white lightning) or mampoer in the searing heat.

But it has been the genius of Bulgaria to place rakiya at the start of the meal, along with that salad – Shopska, perhaps, the supposedly ancient traditional salad that in fact dates back no more than a few decades, when it was invented for foreign tourists by the socialist state’s Balkantourist.

Rather than ruminate at the end of a meal over a cognac, the fact of a hit of high-proof liquor at the beginning serves, I am persuaded, to lubricate conversation. The central nervous system is an essential but sometimes repressive thing. Whacked by a dose of rakiya, it takes itself and its inhibitions somewhere away from the table, perhaps to philosophise.

Rakiya does not live only at the table. In the villages, old men may mull all day over it, perhaps to the despair of their wives, perhaps to the satisfaction of the keeper of the kruchma (tavern) who replenishes the glasses and derives a small but steady income from their idle musings. It is present at weddings, offers solaces at wakes.

Importantly, there are two types of rakiya – and this is not a matter of varieties of fruit. There are the factory-manufactured brands in shops, licensed, bearing excise labels, with bar codes and in some cases, national advertising campaigns (their snootier cousins live in duty-frees at airports, overpriced, labelled in English and screaming their souvenir status at suitcase-wheeling passerby passengers).

Then there is the home-made rakiya, домашна ракия (domashna rakiya). In turn, this has two types: one to relish and one to avoid, at all costs.

Bulgarian officialdom and the mainstream, big-player rakiya-making industry does not like domashna rakiya. The past decade and more has seen legislative attempts to limit its manufacture, to tax any quantities made in excess of a certain amount. This has provoked some protests; at least one involving splashing home-made rakiya on the yellow cobblestones in front of Parliament.

There is a suspicion that state actions against rakiya of this kind are the result of lobbying by the mainstream manufacturers, who want Bulgarians buying their product, not savouring the fruits of their own stills.

In any case, one always wonders how enforceable such actions are. The idea of constables and revenue agents descending on every village door to check on quantities of rakiya manufactured, and excise taxes paid or not, sounds more like an idea for a Balkan movie than the genuine exercise of the efforts of the bureaucracy.

Be warned, again: not all home-made rakiyas are made equal. The real question is whether the domashna rakiya has been made for a family’s own consumption, and perhaps sharing or even selling a little of the surplus to friends, or whether it has been produced for the market. In the latter case, quality control may not be as stringent as it might be. Sometimes, the results of that turn up on television – hospital admissions, blindness, even death. One Christmas recently proved to be a few customers’ last. The producers were seen being led into court, manacled.

Put it this way: I would never buy a rakiya at a market, even from the reputable neighbourhood markets in Sofia, those regularly inspected. But as I write, our kitchen boasts a number of attractive bottles, unlabelled, the contents of which all have been decanted from a giant 10-litre plastic bottle, the provenance of which is known to us. The idea was for the original consigment to last the winter; our Festive Season round may afford it only a lifespan shorter than that.

Even Bulgarians living in cities, the ones in Sofia who look down disdainfully on what they call “the provinces”, have their familial connections in the villages or smaller towns. A respectable and intelligent friend of mine, very much a wearer of a white collar, only ever has domashna rakiya in supply. He is not the only one.

After years of experience, in a Bulgarian home, if offered the choice of a manufacturer’s brand or the family’s own domashna, I always choose the latter, though am not above a subtle and discreet inquiry that it is indeed the family’s. I value the service of my otherwise dwindling eyesight, and must concede my liver some respect.

It is winter, now, the frosted heaps of yesterday’s snow clustered in the garden and on the roofs outside my wooden arched windows. The evenings of winter bring their own Bulgarian seasonal touch: trushiya on the table. Pickles, of pepper, cabbage, carrots, and so on – like rakiya, there are varieties and differing recipes, handed down through the generations. So, at the start of the winter meal, the sipping of rakiya is accompanied by the crunching of trushiya. I have a particular liking for, in winter, opening with some good raw garlic along with the rakiya – though as a matter of principle, not if I have a business meeting booked the following morning.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Bulgarians have been making and drinking rakiya for at least 1000 years. Sometimes, so some stories tell, in past decades it has had a dubious role; I have been told that in the villages, practice was to give squalling babies a rag soaking in rakiya to suck on. That may mean peace of mind for a parent, as the poor infant sleeps it off, but – among other things – it seems a little early to introduce one’s child to the concept of a hangover.

Because after the rakiya may come the hangover; whether your tipple has been domashna or factory. Both have their risks; in the case of the home-made, the fact that it may well above the norm of 40 per cent alcohol-by-volume (some are so potent as to require dilution before drinking) and the case of the factory-made stuff, one never knows if the fruit flavour has been augmented by artificial additives.

So that was the word to the wise. We must close as we begin, when drinking rakiya or anything else; nazdrave – your good health.

(Photos: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)



The Sofia Globe staff

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