The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

Text Message from BerlinPosted on 21st September, 2008.

I have found a bar selling Żubrówka and cloudy apple juice. 
All is good.

Helena

As autumn leaves fall…Posted on 20th September, 2008.

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Use milled rye. Pour hot  water over it to make it really sweet. Cool it to 27 degrees. Add yeast. Let it ferment for three or four days. Distill it. It is very easy to burn it, so distill it using steam. Get the water boiling hot and steam it through a pipe. The most important thing is what you distill and ferment it in. If you use a metal container, you can get iron particles. My Dad used glass, and stainless steel sometimes. Charcoal filters remove the impurities and carbon filters remove any smells.

This is his recipe:
1 kilo of sugar
3 litres of water
10 decagrammes of fresh yeast
26/27 degrees
7-9 days to ferment it
Cool it for a day or two
Distill it
Add fruit or jam for taste

You can use tomato puree because tomatoes have lots of potassium and yeast likes potassium.

The best one is when you just use rye, or the yeast for making wine. The wine yeast takes longer because it requires longer temperature.

don’t try this at home, kidsPosted on 19th September, 2008.

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Like to flavour your vodka? Put sugar onto a thin slice of bread skin, burn it and drip into the glass. (I have a bad memory of my daughter lighting a glass of absinthe and her friend burning her lip.)

Notes from the heart of conservative Poland: 1Posted on 18th September, 2008.

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The old manor house is crumbling into the earth. No-one has seen the owners, who are believed to live in America if they exist at all. The aristocrats sold up in the 1920’s, fled, left behind their debts. We climb through the brambles and overgrown foliage, like in a fairy tale. There is a chill in the air. There is hardly a sound. A carpet of plums lies undisturbed at our feet. There used to be an orchard here with apple, pear and cherry trees. Edible berries on the bushes remain untouched. You can still make out the shape of the grounds,  planted with Canadian redwood, spruce and pine, linden and czarny bez (black elder). The roof is collapsing, the once solid floors cracking apart. I hesitate to descend to the basement. Bits of wooden furniture are strewn about, some rusting keys, parts of a spinning loom. There are hardly any white tiles left in place on the floor to ceiling stove at the centre of the house. As a child she was scared to come here, thinking it was haunted. It is beyond repair, but must have been a fine home once upon a time.

Once upon a time, war came to these parts. There was a wooden house, built by her Grandfather. This was occupied by the Polish army, then the German Army, then the Red Army. Why, no-one knows. It does not seem a strategically important place. It is not like the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte at the battle of Waterloo.  It is not even the highest point, this being some ways away and despite being called the Big Hill, it looks like a small mound with a scattering of trees. Woods obscure some of the views. Perhaps it was just comfortable, this farmhouse of shaved logs, and that may have been sufficient reason for weary soldiers far from their own hearth. 

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We drank vodka, his home made recipe. The Germans shot people like dogs, he said, they had no mercy. Not all Germans, you understand, to be more specific, I mean the SS troops. For a time we had to run away into the woods and we ate boiled flour with water, and boiled swede. The Russians were more friendly. They weren’t so bad. You know, they were sad to leave, singing an old song, “Why did we have to get to know each other, oh why did we part…?” They went back to Moscow and sent letters to the family, but this was a time when partisans were still active in the countryside and it was best not to reply. My Mother was killed in the yard in 1944 during an artillery bombardment, Russian shells or German shells, no-one really knew. I was ten years old. Two years prevously, I saw vodka being made for the first time by my Father and Uncle. I didn’t touch a drop until I was eighteen. Or smoke a cigarette.

This current house dates from 1972. You can still see the old foundation stones in a corner of the basement, alongside a store of local wine, coal, potatoes and the ancient accoutrements to make bimber. The essential equipment came from a man near Gdansk. They look like parts of a rusted car to me. These are dairy farms, producing milk for one of the biggest producers in Poland, and in particular for serek wiejski, a local cottage cheese. (I am not a fan of cottage cheese, but this is delicious at breakfast.) And, as is tradition, they produce their own vodka for home consumption.

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She is drinking crème źołądkowa gorzka. Children’s vodka, her Father says quietly, though later she proves to be quite capable of matching him, homemade glass for glass. There is a bottle of Orzechówka Lubelska on the table at the beginning of the evening. I have to say this walnut vodka is one of my least favourite drinks, a little too smoky and like cough medicine for my palate.

We talk about how to make vodka. I feel like I am falling into the past, of my childhood visits to family in Ireland, to the bars in the back rooms and the potcheen stills. And something about the landscape reminds me of this too.

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He tells me he used to make vodka without yeast, just with rye and some herbs and honey, and how it tasted just like cognac. But it was hard to make he said, it often failed.

In communist times there were great efforts made to stamp out home production.
I have seen numerous propaganda films about the evils of bimber.  I ask, What’s the situation like now?

He shrugs: It is not illegal to make it for your own consumption at home. It is not advertised that you make your own vodka, but since 1989 I don’t think people pay attention. There was a guy in the next village that died. Police came and investigated and asked, What were you drinking? Home-made of course. They took away a sample to the lab to test and the alcohol was fine. He was 27 years old and had a heart attack and cracked his head open on the ground, but it was not the quality of the alcohol that caused the problem. He concludes that alcohol is good for your heart. He says that most heart medicines are based on alcohol. (I resolve to invite Dr. Middleton for a drink to discuss this matter in further detail).

I text Iwona and ask her what are the rules about making home-made vodka. She replies, enigmatic as usual: Only one rule, when it is proposed one should not refuse.

What else did I learn from my evening? In these parts, the definition of an alcoholic is a man who drinks alone. And though he tells me that sleep is the best cure for a hangover, he rises every day at 5 am to milk the cows. I will try to milk the cows, but later in the day.

As I drift off to sleep, all I can hear is a gentle wind, rain and cows, cows, cows.

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hint of first frost…Posted on 13th September, 2008.

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The last summer day had now passed. It was getting colder. A frost was promised for the morning but has not yet materialised. Maybe tomorrow. We walk to the fields to dig up red-skinned potatoes in a chill wind. The land is flat and open. Later, we go back to the house with a basket full of mushrooms from the woods. She tells me she doesn’t often get a cold, maybe once a year, and she never takes vitamins but today she isn’t feeling so well.

She speaks to her Mother, who has peeled the potatoes and is now carefully trimming the mushrooms for drying. She asks, Mamo, when is Dad putting on the central heating? Her Mother replies: Are you mad? It’s still only September! Drink vodka and you’ll feel warmer. Vodka is cheaper than central heating!

Can you stop time?Posted on 10th September, 2008.

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Travel a few hundred kilometres out of Warsaw in any direction and the landscape of the Mazovian plain seems much the same. At the end of the summer, it has something of the American mid-west about it, small towns sitting astride railway tracks and road junctions, flatlands with scrub-like trees, seemingly deserted, a sense of quiet rural impoverishment as the nearby capital grows in power and wealth.  I half expect to see Gary Cooper striding down the dusty Polish street (as he once did, when the character he played in High Noon, Marshall Will Kane, was featured on an emblematic 1989 Solidarność election poster). Big and bigger new roads are being constructed for the 2012 European Football Championships, slicing through these hamlets in the straightest line possible from city to city. Large flyovers rise out of mountains of dirt, elaborate pedestrian bridges span solitary unused carriageways, on the one side an unkempt field and on the other an overgrown field. They lay plans for some possible future when these half a dozen old farm houses are razed and an another estate of apartment blocks will rise up on the fringe of the ravening megapolis.

Today, on the east bank of the Vistula, the bus station at Stadium is crowded as usual, hemmed in by hundreds of market stalls under their plastic canvases, a muddy haven in the heavy rain, a bazaar to easily get lost within. Buses, coaches and VW vans compete for space between the cramped avenues. Exhaust fumes fill the air. I search for the buses whose final destination is Suwałki, as I am heading towards a region with leisure-strewn Mazurian lakes to the North and industrial city of Białystok due East.

As the bus works its way out of the city, along waterlogged Radzyminkska and Piłsudskiego, past a huge retail park with Ikea, I notice a whole series of billboards inviting the inhabitants of Warsaw to visit other exciting parts of the country. Like Gdańsk , where you will find a lot of things to surprise you, involving gargoyles and pitchforks. Or Lublin, which is bidding to be a European City of Culture and has some scary face-painted folk on their poster which makes me think of New Zealand.  And there is even a poster promoting poor Kielce, which apparently no-one ever wanted to go to.

There is a poem by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz that Iwona directs me to,  called ‘To my snotty-nosed friends/Do przyjaciół gówniarzy‘, in which he writes:

Przeglądam w myśli wszystkich mych przyjaciół twarze
I myślę sobie, och, psiakrew! czyż wszyscy są gówniarze?
Ach, nie! Jest kilku wiernych, z tymi pojechałbym nawet do Kielc.

I looked through all my friends faces in my thoughts
And think to myself, Oh, sod it! Can they all be snots?
Yet no! Some of them are faithful, with those I would even go to Kielce.

As the journey progresses, I receive a text from Iwona: Welcome to the heart of conservative Poland, welcome to the heart of darkness. No billboard can be seem promoting this particular region, enticing me to visit the Heart of Darkness.

The woman next to me on the bus lived in New York from the early 80’s and only returned to Warsaw a few years ago, before 9/11, to be nearer her Grandchildren, whom she is going to visit today. We talk about how it was in America for her – hard work is the only way to sum up her life experience. She has only one recommendation for this region we are travelling towards – the gothic cathedral in Łomźa, which itself barely finds a mention in most guidebooks. That‘s about it, she says, it’s not like Brooklyn. She nods sadly as we pass through the pine woods near Brok, where the road is lined with lonely prostitutes with orange skin colour, smoking cigarettes under umbrellas. On the other side, teenagers and old people huddle around baskets piled high with freshly picked mushrooms. A spluttering camp fire gives off blue smoke, and bicycles are propped against tree trunks. The people of the woods. Capitalism or communism, what’s changed here, eh? We can’t stop time, she says.

A couple of hours later, I find myself in a village of less than a dozen houses. The sun is shining here. There seem to be more cows than people. No sign of any flyovers here though, only thin unpaved roads.  We are really off the map.