Rakija is one of the great fabrics of Croatian society. Liquor from plums, mistletoe, figs. If there is juiceā€¦ All you need to know about Balkan healthcare.

Disconnecting people since 1273

When I moved to the former Soviet Union in 1992, I met some local colleagues in Yekaterinburg for a quick drink.

Or so I thought.

The Russians had a toast they used when clinking those 200-gramme glasses of vodka – Pod stolom!

This literally translates as ‘Under the Table!’ I was to find out why about one hour later when at least three litres of vodka had disappeared in a rapid round of toasting. It was my baptism of fire to the Slavic ways of hospitality.

For Russians vodka, for Croatians rakija. Whatever the local firewater in this wonderful part of the world, there is no escaping it. You can only embrace it and hope for the best.

rakija eastern europe

Is rakija as healthy as they say?

If I believed everything I heard in Croatia, I would probably be dead. The medical prowess of rakija is unbelievable. A shot every morning boosts the immune system, rubbing it into your back relieves muscle pain. It reduces cholestoral, as well as the chances of having a stroke or heart attack. I have never seen any medical evidence to back up these claims. But what i can say is that I have seen some very old people in Croatia who look very healthy, and who swear by their daily rakija medicine.

I can, however, confirm that drinking too much rakija contributes directly to a reduction in consciousness.

How do you make rakija?

Full disclosure – I have never tried. But here is a man who has, and who went to the trouble of producing a very informative video about the process. He was even sober enough to get the camera pointing in the right direction.

Croatian purists among you may complain that this rakija video is about making rakija in Macedonia. It is, but trying to find good quality (and sober) videos explaining how to make this miracle medicine in English is not that easy. And I am guessing that the process in Macedonia is pretty similar to Croatia.

Etiquette for saying no

One of the things you quickly learn about rakija in Croatia is that every family seems to make their own. Even worse than that, every family which makes rakija insists that not only is theirs the best rakija, but you have to try it so that you can agree.

Not all of them are correct in their claims.

In fact, almost none of them are.

My experience has been that once the rakija bottle comes out, you might as well write off the rest of the day. Polite appreciation of home-made rakija only encourages them and leads to your glass being topped up. Again and again, and now you realise why those Russian talk about life under the table when they say Cheers!

Saying no is hard! You can try to say that you have to drive, but this is a tough sell if you live across the street. Although I have not taken antibiotics for about 30 years, I seem to be constantly taking them in Croatia. It is a perfect excuse.

The other option is to check for house plants and show them a little love when nobody is watching.

Biska, Croatian kissing under the mistletoe

rakija-rose

Croatians make rakija out of just about anything they can lay their hands on. One of the most fragrant I have tried was rose petal rakija at the Olive Garden Resort in Jadrija near Sibenik.

One of the most sought-after, however, is biska. Among its four ingredients is mistletoe. An Istrian speciality from the village of Vrh, biska shines at the Istrian Grappa Festival each October. It is held in Hum, which is officially the world’s smallest town.

Rakija festival in Slavonia: what could possibly go wrong?

Slavonia is without doubt the heartland of Croatian rakija. If you think you have a chance of escaping some brandy appreciation on the coast, you have no chance in the eastern heartlands. There are times when I feel that rakija is more ubiquitous than water there.

And what would Croatia be without a rakija festival? And where better to hold it than in Slavonia? As you can see from the video above, the village of Vardarac was the proud host of a Slavonian festival celebrating the hard stuff, but it sadly closed down in 2015 ‘for bureaucratic reasons’.

Pelinkovac

One of the more famous international faces of rakija is Pelinkovac. With more than 150 years of tradition, there are various versions of Pelinkovac, whose base is from wormwood. It is not dissimilar to Jagermeister, if that is your thing. Its history is fascinating, and you can learn all about it in the video above.

Sljivovica

But is there is one fruit which symbolises rakija, it is surely the plum. Sljivovica is synonymous with rakija is some places, especially in eastern Croatia.

Travarica, Smokvica, and Medica

Joking aside, Croatia has some wonderful and very flavoursome rakijas, which I do encourage you to try. Travarica is one of the most ubiquitous, literally herb liqueur, which has a variety of herbs including sage. Smokvica pays alcoholic homage to the humble fig, while Medica (or Medovica) takes your appreciation of honey to the next level.

rakija snake

And the winner is…

There are many, many more types of rakija all over the country to be enjoyed. I fondly (well actually not so fondly) recall one make from olives by the local priest on Hvar many years ago.

Last year, for a bit of fun, I asked my Facebook friends for their most extreme rakija experiences for an article I subsequently wrote.

The winner was undoubtedly this gentleman, whose poison (possibily literally in this case) is shown above and below.

And you thought there were no snakes in Croatia…

See you under the table!

rakija snake slavonia

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