To spit or not to spit, that is the question

Last weekend saw a rakiya festival at the Architects’ Club in Sofia.

‘Twas not the best of weeks. A combination of not exactly scintillating news and totally toilet-flushing weather had dampened – or should that be ‘drenched’? – my spirits.

Therefore, on a Friday night, what better way of uplifting one’s spirits than sampling some of the finest offerings of Bulgaria’s most celebrated . . . well . . . spirit? Yes, I know, I know.

The thing about rakiya (grape brandy) is that it should not be drunk on an empty stomach. We have a friend who scrupulously avoids it because it engenders serious stomach-churning. Hence, even at this gathering, there were plenty of little canapés, including lukanka (traditional Bulgarian spicy salami), kashkaval (yellow cheese) gherkins and hot rolls. Organisers also included a little bottle of water. Ideally, you see, the rakiya should be accompanied by simultaneous intake of food.

Yes, rakiya can be dangerous. Many years ago I attended a lunch at a Sofian restaurant hosted by a celebrated Serbian proprietor and chef. He is one of these ultra-nationalist types whose phone resounded to Serbian marching songs. Anyway he kindly served us lunch, kicking off (and, in this case, I mean the ‘kick’ of an angry Karadzic-supporting Serbian mule) with some homemade rakiya. I have never returned, mainly because I can’t face eating the monumentally generous portions and also because of the possibility of being tempted again by the firewater.

Back to the tasting at the Architects’ Club. Non-members of the press were asked to pay a 15 leva entrance fee. Some dishevelled-looking pensioners crept in, a few of whom looked as if 15 leva would have been a bit of a stretch. Everyone was given a glass and a free pass to partake of the wide range of rakiyas on offer. A ‘civilised tasting’ is supposed to run like this. You take the glass and, just like a fine wine, shake it a little before having a good whiff. You then comment on the ‘robustness’ of the vintage – without, of course, knowing what the hell you’re talking about. You then imbibe, circulating it around like a mouthwash, before expelling it into a spittoon.

But … I noticed that some of the pensioners were doing no such thing. Instead they lurched from table to table, imbibing like Eric von Stroheim in the movies, a rapid reclining of the neck –  and then down in one fell swoop! I emulated this and carried on likewise for an hour as the rain continued beating down outside. No point leaving when it’s raining too heavily, after all . . .  Was there?

Each rakiya seemed to improve on the last. One of the most interesting brands was Isperih, which offers the widest range of the spirit. There are varieties made from apples, apricots, cherries, quinces and Mirabelle plum – as well as the more commonplace plums and grapes. Another was Kulturna rakiya from the Karabunar winery with Originalna (yes, that means original) Lyuta (Spicy) and Otlezhala (Vintage).

Rakiya or liqueur?

Anyway, an hour in and I was vaguely contemplating withdrawing. Time for dinner? Just then, however, a band started up and a rotund Bulgarian gentleman, whose florid features testified to a lifelong appreciation of his country’s favourite tipple, took to the stage. (I couldn’t work out if he was part of the set-up or just tagging along for the fun.) Sweating conspicuously, his drenched locks lashing against his forehead in time with the music, his belly gyrated. Ah, this was too good to miss!

Several more ‘tastings’ ensued, including further exquisite fruit rakiyas, culminating in one laced with honey. But … when I bought a bottle and examined it I realised it wasn’t rakiya at all but a liqueur from Isperih made out of apricot and honey!

By then my head was spinning. Around this time someone asked me: ‘Where are you from?’ Soaked to the skin, exhausted, the deafening noise overwhelming me – and, yes, the rotund gentleman was still dancing exuberantly – I was rendered temporarily speechless. I couldn’t work out whether to say ‘Mladost’ or ‘London’, your writer being a Mladost-based Brit. Nothing much came out and my questioner looked as me as though I were a retard.

Ah, the evening must have gone well!