Posts Tagged ‘montenegro’

Rakija: Grape to Glass

November 5, 2009

The first time I tried Montenegrin rakija, I was seventeen and already intoxicated with the sense of independent entitlement found in a first trip over the ocean. Crossing the barriers of time zones, language and – more importantly – lawful restrictions meant limitless possibility, the empowerment of pseudo-adulthood. Here, I was legal. So when initially offered a small vial of foreign alcohol, it was all too greedily accepted.

In relishing my no-holds-bar brazenness, I overcompensated with the first too-bold swig, replacing a cautious sip with a mouthful of fire that would scorch its way into my chest. What followed was a humiliating production of spattering coughs and hiccups, made entirely worse by hardy men’s laughter erupting in surround-sound. So much for maturity.

Rakija is in fact pure alcohol: a colorless, caustic liquid-syrup made from fermented grapes found in abundance throughout Montenegro. While available from commercial distilleries, rakija is widely homemade, resulting in variants of flavor and potency (between 50 – 60 percent ABV versus the 40 percent commercial norm). Such is the case with my uncle Mirko, who forgoes the use of sugar or additions of any kind, relying only on the grapes’ sweetness to cut the sheer burn of the brandy.

GrapePicking

Obviously, this isn’t your standard Friday night cocktail. Despite its shot-glass presentation, don’t misunderstand:  rakija is typically served as an aperitif, meant to whet the appetite prior to the afternoon meal. It should be sipped gradually – and trust me, you’ll want to do so anyway.

The distilling process is fairly straightforward. Hundreds of pounds of grapes are gathered and set to ferment in large kettles or drums, where they are stirred daily according to the maker’s timetable until rakija-ready. The mix is boiled, allowing the vapors to burn off and cool before condensing again into purified alcohol.

Of course, devotees will argue that the true art form is more primitive – a seemingly appropriate fit for rakija’s etymology, which connects its origin in the Arabic word for “sweat” (a reference to the vapor droplets that form, though the process itself is not without a good deal of manual labor).

One day prior to my arrival in Petrovac, the men of our family had reaped about 500 pounds of grapes for a homemade batch. I was sorry to have missed such a harvest (kind of), but luckily had the chance to see how the process worked on a visit to my aunt Slavka and her husband Vasko – who produces his own rakija in a backyard contraption that includes 100-year-old copper kettle, a garden hose and PVC piping. It just doesn’t get much more authentic than that.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to Montenegrin moonshine, in photos. Enjoy!

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Fermented grapes are stirred and carefully inspected on a daily basis

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The mixture is boiled in a copper kettle fitted with a lid where the vapors collect.

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A series of cooling pipes condenses the alcohol through the water barrel; the distilled rakija emerges in droplets from the end pipe.

Rakija3

Cin Cin!

‘Abroad’ Question of Taste

October 28, 2009

Okay, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to stop with the feature-length Montenegro narratives and get back to addressing the preeminent question that should be asked of any traveler-returned-home-at-last: So, how was the food?

Right? Because really, one of the best things about vacation – for me, at least – is that sum of moments spent savoring all manner of tongue-twisting specialties in a faraway scene that’s impossibly genuine and yet cinematic-surreal at once. You just can’t replicate that sense of place anywhere else. Proof: spend an afternoon under the shade of sprawling grape vines, flaking apart whole-grilled Mediterranean orada that’s basted in fresh-pressed olive oil – and then see if that frozen mahi in your freezer is ever quite the same (it’s not, by the way).

Perhaps even more significant to a wandering palate is the experience of travel nirvana: the personal-discovery high that occurs somewhere along the path of any globetrotting or cultural romp. Sometimes the feeling is subtle, reflective; others, so profound it can knock the breath right out of you. To a girl who experiences the world food-first, it was a simple forkful that reconciled a part of me that was, if not altogether lost, too often taken for granted. To this end, I’d like to make a sincere apology – ahem – to my tastebuds.

Okay, I know how bad this sounds. And I have to tell you I never thought I’d be in a place to make such an admission. I mean, it’s me. Nevertheless, the misdemeanor stands – enabled by a daily context of over-processed, hyper-sugary, crispy-fried, vitamin-enriched, triple-fortified. We add sodium to lunchmeat, corn syrup to whole wheat, periodic table elements to ice cream; God knows what manner of creation birthed Velveeta. Is it really any wonder that any of us are suffering from tastebud fatigue?

As Montenegrin tradition goes, there’s only one remedy – which is a good kick in the mouth (figuratively speaking, here, people).

Enter simple, fresh flavors that get back to basics and let each dish speak (or shout) for itself: Citrus! Olive! Basil! Thyme! And OMIGOSH is that real butter? No packaged posers, foreign additives or artificial con artists masquerading as anything remotely edible. And good lord, no 100-calorie-counts. Authenticity was never meant to have a shelf life.

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a typical evening table in Petrovac

What manner of eats are we talking about, you wonder? Among my personal favorites, for the epicurious:

  • Fresh, tart yogurt swirled with pomegranate seeds and honey
  • Dried figs strung together like sweet candied necklaces
  • Lamb shank roasted with rosemary and garlic
  • Peppery arugala tossed in olive oil and salt
  • Quick-fried sardines with squeeze of lemon (so long, french fries)

So yes – in a word, the food was fabulous. But more so, it brought back that sense of unspoiled delight so often disregarded for convenience and function. Eating is good, a truth that while generally acknowledged, may just be best unearthed in a warm, crowded kitchen with windows that open onto the sea.

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Montenegro, Finally

October 13, 2009

A full week after my return from abroad, and I’ve been mulling over this post for nearly as long, struggling to find a starting point that can in any small way set the stage or do justice to such an epic narrative. Officially, I’ve relented on the basis of professional bias. It’s also pretty much close to impossible.

Of course, it’s comforting to note that throughout a thousand-year history, visitors here have grappled with that same task, stumbling in the sheer wonder of unrestrained creation that greets them. In person, Montenegro is by far more breathtaking than initially assumed.

Limestone cliffs along the Adriatic Sea - Petrovac, Montenegro

Limestone cliffs along the Adriatic Sea - Petrovac

Almost any travel reference will quickly turn to a ubiquitous christening by the British poet Lord Byron – who, upon first visiting at the turn of the 19th century, observed the country as ‘the most beautiful encounter between land and sea.’  Raw and impossibly seductive, it’s not difficult to imagine how the Romantic figurehead would discover a muse in a place called Crna Gora – Black Mountain in Serbian. Though, even here, the poetic ideal waxes short of the tangible Montenegro – a vivid landscape so intensely realized, it literally charges upward out of the sea in fierce pursuit of itself.

Mountains over the town of Zabljak - Durmitor, Montenegro

Mountains over the town of Zabljak - Durmitor

Defining this ‘wild beauty’ by a single impression is somewhat of a challenge, if mainly for the simple fact that it’s just so unexpected. Montenegro has long remained a tucked-away corner of the Mediterranean region, overshadowed by the better-known Italy, Greece and glamourous coast of Croatia. Totally logical, since the entire country is roughly the size of Connecticut. Only in recent years, with its recognition by the EU as an independent state in 2006, has the country gained a foothold in mainstream consciousness (though navigating the locale via GoogleMaps remains questionable). For what it lacks in geographical area, however, Montenegro more than makes up in the stark contrast of its terrain.

Pastures below thirteenth-century Moraca monastery - Moraca River Valley

Pastures below thirteenth-century Moraca monastery - Moraca River Valley

The country’s entire population hovers somewhere around 700,000 – mostly concentrated in urban centers like its capital Podgorica and its seaside mega-resort towns – leaving a vast expanse of open landscape. Crisscross the country’s narrow, cliff-carved roads and you’ll feel your pulse incrementally quicken – for more reason than hairpin turns and treacherous shoulder drop-offs. Beyond idyllic villages and gracefully rolling plains along the southern Adriatic coast, Montenegro reveals its mountain namesake in triumphant herald. Ancient stone crags leapfrog taller one over the next, arching gracefully above glacier-marred ravines and crystalline lakes. Primeval conifer forests plunge into low-lying marshlands, jutting back again in slanted cuts of rockface just as suddenly.

The Money Shot - Bay of Kotor

The Book Cover View - Bay of Kotor

Intense? Um, yeah. Welcome to Montenegro.

Let the countdown begin…

September 9, 2009

So it’s September already, which is both thrilling and overwhelming at once.

On a very big plus, my birthday is just 15 short days from today. Contrary to the dismal association of time passing and spinsterhood feared by mothers everywhere, I’ve decided to celebrate the arrival of September 24 with the unabashed self-assurance that 27 sounds very lovely and sophisticated, elegant yet youthful – and not at all sophomoric like the number 26. Something about the balance of syllables, maybe, that makes the age sound much more refined, don’t you think  – or is it just me? I was twenty-six. I am now twenty-seven. TWENTY-seven. Twenty-SEVEN.

If twenty-seven had a favorite drink, it would be a pomegranate cosmopolitan. The Great Gatsby would top the list of books twenty-seven has read. Twenty-seven’s wardrobe would be effortlessly chic and never crumpled haphazardly in the corners of her closet. The personal day planner of twenty-seven would include art exhibit openings and jazz ensemble performances, wine bar rendezvous and park blanket journaling. Twenty-seven would always contribute intelligent and well-timed observances to polite conversation and would garner praise for her business savvy from the corner office. Twenty-seven would never dribble cappuccino down the front of her new blouse.

No wonder I am very much looking forward to this new year ahead! (Note to self: must first purchase day planner. Also borrow copy of The Great Gatsby.)

To this is the fantastic addition that I will be observing said auspicious occasion in the charming coastal village of Petrovac, Montenegro – preferably while lounging on the coast of the Adriatic Sea or swallowing fiery gulpfuls of Serbian rakia in time to pulsating discoteque Euro-trance. Vacation! Ten whole days of reconnecting family roots, afternoon strolls on the cobblestone sea wall, visits to mountaintop monasteries, balmy evenings on the terrace… and away-from-it-all bliss in a foreign country totally unreachable by landline or email.

Petrovac2

Zdravo, Petrovac!

Fortunately, EG will be coming along on the hiatus. Soon-to-come epicurean adventures include turkish coffee fortune-telling, curing cheese in olive oil, the art of Serbian rakia distilling and more – recipes and rich family anecdotes included, of course. The grego-girl guide to eastern europe premiers sometime around Sept. 21 (after I’ve survived the 15-hour travel ordeal).