Enjoying eating out in Crete is easy. Taverna's almost invariably serve good food. They also almost invariably attempt to give you a warm welcome; a final drink; or maybe both.... When the 'garcon' arrives beaming with that small decanter of clear liquid or simply tiny glasses already filled - you are about to enjoy a Tsipouro! A Rakis! A Tsikouthia!
A celebration of the grape. An ancient Greek firewater. If you haven't had it before you may be in for a surprise. Whether the surprise is good or bad depends on many things. The Greek music in the background; good company; a little laughter; maybe a little Greek dancing or maybe just the smiling waiter. Whether it arrives before you meal, after it or... Or both! Whatever, try to enjoy a warm experience.
On the Island of Crete this often fiery spirit is known as 'Tsikouthia' or less commonly as 'Rakis'. The general Greek name is 'Tsipouro' though I haven't heard it used here. The taste is somewhere between Gin and Vodka flavoured with a faint grape aroma. Because of the spirit content it can be a little hot, and here on Crete the addition of spices such as Safran produce a smooth, well rounded though somewhat warm tipple. Strength varies but an average of 40% Vol alcohol content is a safe guess, though some tavernas I know stock a 37% Vol variety so as not to lead tourists in the direction of disaster.
The making of Tsikouthia is an annual celebration of the grape harvest. 'Harvest' is the only way to describe the products of the grape ('Staphylia') vine. At the start of the growing season the prunings provide a little wood for the stove ('Somba') or for starting the barbeque. The ash is rich in potash which can be returned to the land as fertilizer. The grapes themselves provide fruit for both eating and wine making. The leaves are used to make the Greek 'Dolmades' also called 'Dolmadakia' - rice packets rolled in the leaves and cooked in oil and an everyday fayre here. After the wine treading - done mostly by feet (but sometimes the feet are enclosed in Wellington boots!) most of the must is barreled and allowed to ferment into wine, but a little is made into a sweet Jelly by mixing it with flour.
The remains of the treading - grape skins; seeds and stems provide the bounty! Tsikouthia!!
|Here in the villages, where each farmer has a legal right to manufacture (distill) Tsikouthia on set dates of the year, often in a communal village still, 45 Gallon ex-oil drums (clean I would add) are lined with a polythene sheet and the remains of the treading are packed inside and the top tied. Like a huge polythene bag inside the drum - with sometimes a tube stuck in the middle to help allow gasses from subsequent fermentation to escape! The drums are placed in the hot sunlight for maybe a month, often standing by roadsides venting their aroma to passing motorists, before been taken to the still for 'Rakizio' - distilling into Tsikouthia.|
Locally, the remains from the stilling, looking like golden brown garden compost, are returned to the land - though I have seen it used to feed the sheep and goats...
And so the vines stand dormant, awaiting the pruning next year...the cycle repeating.
|Commercially made Tsikouthia can be purchased from shops mini-markets and supermarkets in exactly the same way as other spirits. It makes an interesting change, as do Greek brandies and ouzo's, from the usual northern European spirits. Cretan versions of these Greek spirits are probably not generally available outside Greece.|