Since today it´s Saturday I want to talk about Rakija (Ракия, raki, ракија, pálenka). Rakija is not just a popular brandy in Bulgaria but is also considered to be their national beverage. Rakija is so incorporated in the Bulgarian culture and life stile which makes it important to know about.
What is Rakija?
Rakija is an alcoholic beverage made from the distillation of fermented fruits. There is a big variation since it can be made from plums, grapes, figs, apricots, quinces, apples and pears. Its all depending on what you prefer. Rakija is known for having a high percent of alcohol, the ones you buy in the stores usually have around 40%, meanwhile the home made rakija can contain everything from 40%-80% alcohol. Even tho the rakija is a strong beverage it still has a very distinctive flavor with a deep and smooth taste. The color of rakija also has a big variation, everything from crystal clear to a golden salmon color. In Bulgaria the most common rakija is made from grapes and plums. Between August-September is the season for making the rakija made out from grapes, meanwhile the time for the plum-rakija is September to the end of November.
The history of Rakija
The making of rakija goes many centuries back in time. No one really knows the origin of it. But is considered that it originally came from the Middle Eastern countries where the Ottoman Empire developed Raki and through the conquests brought it to the countries on Balkan where they developed it to what we now refer to as rakija. A team of archaeologists recently discovered fragment of a distillation container for producing rakija near the fortress Lyutitsa in Ivaylovgrad (a town in south east Bulgaria, close to the boarder to Greece). Its dated back to the XI century AD, which at least proves that that Bulgaria produced and consumed rakija around this early time. An unknown nobleman from Veliko Tarnovo (the old capital of Bulgaria) wrote on a glass that he was drinking rakija during a Church Holiday around the XIV century. It is also said that the Ottoman commander, Lala Sahin, tried to conquer Sofia in 1382 but failed since the city was “entrusted to strong, healthy Bulgarian with mustaches that before the battle drank rakia and so became invincible”.
Rakija- a popular brandy
its not just Bulgaria who enjoy this beverage, but almost all of the southern countries of east Europe consider rakija to be their national beverage. Modern Turkey still drinks Raki from time to time but have a different taste since its made from sundried grapes and anise. Italy has their own version- Grappa. In Slovakia they drink Slivovitza which is also made from plums or apricots.
Rakija in today´s Bulgaria
To make rakija at home have been incorporated in the Bulgarian traditions for centuries, and even tho the production is getting more and more commercially produced its still very popular to make your own rakija at home. Bulgaria took measures to declare rakija as their national drink to the European Union in order to allow lower exercise duty to make domestically rakija.
Rakija is an important beverage for the life, health and death in Bulgaria and in many of the Balkan countries its not unusual to incorporate the beverage in different rituals. During the end of the Orthodox Christian burial, visitors are offered a piece of bread and rakija, they drink for the soul and spill some rakija on the ground and say out loud “For peaceful rest of the soul” and drink the rest of the rakija. During the ceremonies of weddings its a custom for the groom´s father to walk around the tables and offer a glass of rakija to all of the guests.
Rakija is believed to have healing powers. If you have a glass of rakija every day it will keep you healthy. But if you in any case would get sick you can always have a rakija to cure you. If you suffer from a cold you shall sleep with a scarf covered in rakija, and the next morning you will be good again.
And also to share a toast for happiness to the newlyweds. Rakija is also a gesture of welcoming any guests to their homes.
Rakija and food
Rakija is a popular beverage to serve on the side of the food. During summer time its very common with a fresh Shopska salata and a glass of rakija. In the winter time a glass of rakija is served with pickled vegetables or a Ruska salata (a Russian sallad). Of course rakija can be served with other meals as well, and often you will have some rakija with a Bulgarian meze. Rakija comes with a special glass dedicated for its taste.
The first time I tried Rakija
I think that all non-Bulgarians will remember the first time they try rakija.
The first time I tried rakija was in 2010, I had just been in Bulgaria a couple of days when my friend (and host) took me and a friend of her to a cave outside Sofia. I thought that she would join us but she couldn’t cause she had work. I was left alone with her friend that just knew a couple of words of English, and by that time my lack of the Bulgarian language was even bigger then it is now.
He asked me for money, I didn’t understood why but gave him some money. He walked away to a house and happily got back with an plastic bottle that ones had Coca-Cola inside but was now filled of something crystal clear and it was obviously not water. After the adventure in the cave (with one lamp for two people) we sat in opening of the cave, we ate some snacks and drank the content of the bottle. I remembered it as very strong. I sat a bit tipsy and felt a warm happiness filling my body as the rain was poring outside and the bats flying around in the cave.
That was the very first time with rakija. Its almost 6 years since that time and I have drunk many different rakijas since that time, the ones from the stores and the home made ones. I have learned to appreciate its taste and I have embraced the whole culture around this spirits. There are many songs, jokes, story´s, poems and so on connected to rakija. Many regions of Bulgaria have their own specialties and family´s their own secret recipes. Indeed there is a whole world around this brandy!
Whats your story around Rakija? Don´t be shy and leave a comment! Наздраве (Nazdrave=Cheers! …or literally translated; For health)!
Sources for this article:
My better half