Why we used fruit spirits as traditional Slavic medicine

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Rakia or Palenka are types of fruit brandies or fruit spirits made in the Slavic countries, and no decent household would welcome a guest without a bottle of the sharp-smelling, highly-alcoholic beverage on the table. All suggestions and recipes here are to be taken at your own risk. I was lucky enough to have grown up with two very different sets of grandparents. On one hand I had the more northern, and on the other more southern grandmammas, and of course each of them came with her own set of recipes and recommendations for any and all ailments one might encounter during childhood and beyond.  What they both had in common, however, was the firm belief that drafts are the number one cause of death, and that a good rakia can cure just about anything.

They did not always agree on the method of application for this folk panacea, but you could be sure that there were bottles of the stuff stashed in the pantry, for special guests as well any and all medical emergencies.

The Two Grandmothers 

Where my northern grandmamma got the stuff from I never found out, but I do know that there was a plum tree, and she would pick bags of them and then they would vanish, only to be replaced at some point with bottles of clear liquid topped with corks. The bottle would be taken out, as I already said, when a special guest would come, or there was a celebration, or she was making crepes, but also when someone got sick. She preferred to use it externally, and I cannot recall during my entire childhood that she suggested I ingest it in any way. I can still remember the sharp smell of it as she would spread it liberally on a rag and then place it on my chest to help with a fever, or applying it to an especially nasty looking scrape or bruise, to help with the healing process.  I have not seen wick’s or iodine until I was already a teenager and had moved away.

But perhaps, in a way, there was a special logic to treating scrapes with the smelly, stinging slivovitz- you’d sure be more careful next time, if only to avoid being subjected to such a remedy.

The other side of my family, however, had completely different ideas, and a wholly different approach to using aquavit as a medicine. With large orchards and a still of their own, pretty much anything would have been made into alcohol- plums, grape cake left over from wine-making (the northern grandparents made their wine as well, but the cake was thrown onto the compost heap for the birds), and my sturdy, widowed grandmother would even go out into the fields to pick fragrant herbs to add and make a special bottle or two of herb-infused rakia.

But such home-made brandies and remedies were mostly for internal use. When I began losing my primary teeth, or had any kind of toothache, the suggestion was to rub some rakia on my gums, as it was certain it would help. And while they did acknowledge that rakia could be used as a method of battling the cold, they were more likely to suggest adding it to my tea. In fact, “have a bit of rakia” was more or less the default reply to any kind of problem in that busy, farming household. Long night because a cow is giving birth? Strong coffee with a bit of rakia in it.  Going out on a cold winter morning? Hot rosehip tea with a bit of rakia in it. Belly ache? Rakia!

It was only years later that I realized that putting a thimbleful of rakia in the tea of a fussy, sick child was as much to their benefit as it was to the child’s, as it would give them all a peaceful night.

I admit to bringing shame to both sides of my family because their wise traditions of using the rakia never seemed to catch a foothold in my household. I have a small bottle in the pantry for some traditional Slavic recipes, but that’s about it. A special type of rakia with honey, the so called medica, did however prove to be instrumental in my meeting my husband, but that, perhaps, is a story for another time, perhaps over a small rakia!

Would you try my Rakia?

What do you think?

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