The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

She said, I guess it’s not too horrible…Posted on 24th March, 2009.

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It’s still snowing in Warsaw and Lublin. It seems the spring has forgotten to arrive. Take a few steps outside into the cold, the alcohol still warming your bloodstream and breathe in the night. The city is quiet, though it is not that late. There are a few forlorn tracks in the snow. No-one is out and about, intent on violence or lunacy. I have learned that the last trams, while having a destination, may not be the destination I have in mind. They can deviate, swing away to the left when in the day they surely veer to the right. They can proceed north to Park Kaskada when I expect them to proceed east across Most Gdanski to Nowa Praga. Regardless, the tram rattles along with its drunkards and would be lovers locked in a late-night embrace, taking them somewhere. They look as confused as I am. Brows furrowed, we depart unsteadily at the next available stop and stand on the platform in the whirling snow, trying to make out a familiar landmark. Here are two skinny latte American women, dressed in business suits and not prepared for this weather, wavering on the platform and discussing whether to go to a club or find a taxi home to Żoliborz. Tonight, I distrust the direction of trams and trust to an inner compass.

Leaving the outskirts of Wola behind, a complex of railway junctions below me and in the shadow of a vast flyover, I pass by an old-fashioned vodka bar at the foot of a block of flats, still open for business, smoky and dark, a floodlight church opposite. Further on, old crumbling walls coloured by a yellow light, a splash of illegible graffiti here and there and bizarrely, a crude picture of a washing machine spray-painted onto the plaster.

I trudge on through the snow. The trees are black, patches of open derelict ground are fenced in with advertising hoardings promising new apartments. There are fragments of the older city here and there, a machine shop, a faded sign for a car repair yard, below it a brama, a stygian tunnel leading to a darker back yard. Huge illuminated billboards hang like guiding stars above me. The only human presence now, a lonely security guard one floor up, sealed in a glass box, in silhouette against a bank of computer monitors, surveying empty corridors, closed doorways and underground car parks. Or perhaps asleep – as the figure is unmoving, captured in a frozen chairbound pose. And so I head to the centre of the city. Tonight I drink to the mirror.

Strzemiennego!Posted on 28th February, 2009.

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The kissing clarinet player got a little too close for comfort. Admittedly, the room was small and there was a crowd. He darted in and out of the tight-packed audience, charming the women, and this was a cellar like venue, but not cavernous. He caught her by surprise, leaning into her with a sinuous and practiced ease as he passed. His lips clung to the reed yet somehow seemed to run over her earlobe and across her cheek, the notes still ringing out – none were missed – and they were precariously balanced for a moment, on a precipice of intimacy, she leaning further away as he leaned closer into her body. She later said that he was her physical type until this moment of physical contact and that she preferred a serious man, the very opposite of a showman. He had a theatricality he clearly enjoyed demonstrating throughout each and every song. Perhaps he is a frustrated actor, she commented. She fixed her eyes on me. Why didn’t I take his hat off? And why didn’t you kick over a chair and punch him? Why didn’t you defend my honour?

She was, I think, now demonstrating her own talent for melodrama, and the atmosphere of the evening allowed for it. The snow lay outside the window, the room was candlelit, the food and wine – ordered in between performances – were delicious. There were drinking songs of course. The Hassids are drinking, they sang. The audience sang along.

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She knew the accordion player. Our tickets were reserved, with a table at the front with the band half a metre distant. Their vodka glasses sat on the table alongside the wine, Krupnik and small jars of Slivovitz. After the show – and what a show – we continued to drink more Krupnik.  The accordian player joined us. He said he hadn’t drunk Krupnik in years, but he has good memories of it. When he was 19 and he first joined a band, they played for a documentary film, over five hours in studio and there was a bottle of Krupnik drunk for every hour, at the very least. He enjoyed that experience.

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The hours slipped away into the dark of morning. Come on, one last drink or two. Strzemiennego! (Which seems to translate as, Jump on the horse!) We walked through the bone chilling empty streets to a gallery in another deep and warm basement. Ukrainian cognac made an appearance. At least, that’s what they called it. By the time we got back to her Grandfather’s flat, uncomfortably close to dawn, I was so cold and shivering I needed to defrost under the shower in the tiny too small to stretch out PRL era bathtub. There would be, for sure, a hangover the next day, to be ameliorated by a walk through the snow and bright sunshine in Park Saski, and a deeply appreciated fresh carrot and apple juice in small bar. She said, I was very restrained and well-behaved, not a wild gypsy woman, but knowing me I knew this would break. And it did. Alcohol melted me.

PurityPosted on 20th August, 2008.

There are what we might call pure vodkas, and there are others. The conflict is between purity and character. Vodka is filtered through charcoal to remove impurities and, of course, the purity increases with the number of times it is filtered. This rectification process removes those unwanted byproducts – solvents, fusil oil, methanol. They say that Żołądkowa Gorzka was ‘discovered’ by accident, that it was a sublime combination of leftover dregs in the bottom of a distillation unit with a distinct aromatic aura that drew some unknown worker to taste and think, ‘Hey, this has some possibilities…’ It was originally classed as a ‘bitter vodka digestive’ – or a flavoured vodka – made from a combination of herbal, spice and dried fruit nalewki (an infusion of herbs or plants steeped in alcohol).

Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka was first concocted in the early 1950‘s. It is possibly my favourite vodka. It’s literal translation is ‘stomach vodka’ – as it believed to be a remedy for indigestion problems after a lavish meal. It’s colour comes from an addition of caramel to the mix. There are no artificial flavours or aromas. Today, it has a slightly more sweet flavour (though you can get a special edition of the original recipe).

I have had occasion to visit Lourdes, where I was first conceived, and to go to Monserrat to kiss the feet of the Black Madonna. I have climbed with pilgrims to the top of Crough Patrick (but not barefoot) and often lit candles in memory for lost ones at the shrine of Jeanne D’Arc, but this is a different kind of homage.

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We take the long straight road from the railway station to the Polmos factory, past low walls, no high rise buildings, and a smattering of trees. Vodka has been produced here since 1906, when Lublin was part of a Kingdom of Poland under the sovereignty of the Russian Tsar.

We are met by Ireneusz Cymbala, a manager in charge of export, who takes us on a tour of the factory, which is clearly busy. Business is booming. This single factory, which has 500 employees, produced 3 million litres of vodka over the last 12 months. The production lines are running 24/7 and a new product – Czysta de Luxe Żołądkowa Gorzka, a clear vodka with six-phase distillation process and with the use of natural charcoal filters -  is selling one million a month. In terms of production, the factory is now third in the country. He tells us that Wódka źoładkwa gorska is now available in Asda. (I am particularly pleased to hear this and intend to email all my friends at the first opportunity.)

This factory, along with all the others in Poland, was nationalised in 1948 by the Communists. One big company with 25 factories, and all decisions – good or bad – made centrally in Warsaw. The Lublin factory then concentrated on spirits made from molasses. After the fall of communism, the factories became independent and it was at this time that Ireneusz worked on the shop floor for 10 years – the old assembly lines then produced 6000 bottles an hours, whereas the new ones can produce 18000 bottles an hour. If we could have done this then, he said, we would have been very happy workers. There are six bottling lines in operation, including two of the old ones.

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Business was chaotic back then – trademarks were not established, so different factories could produce their own version of wódka źoładkowa gorska, and distributors could take a shipment from one producer, default on payment, and get a shipment of the same product (more or less) from another factory. It wasn’t until 1999 that Polmos Lublin was able to purchase the ‘brand rights’ to źoładkowa gorska. The factory itself was only privatised in 2001 – a number of the distilleries are still state-owned – and in 2002 they purchased the sole rights to the name.

There are two other versions of Żołądkowa Gorzka, one made with honey, and one with mint. I confess I am not fond of the latter. I say it tastes like mouthwash. Ah, we recommend you try it with a lot of ice and apple juice, he says, this make it a very refreshing drink. I will give it a try, but not today. Tonight, I will stay with tradition. With purity of thought, you might say, though I am not sure Saint Augustine would approve.

Ludwig’s Nalewki RecipePosted on 3rd August, 2008.

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Go to the woods and pick one hundred flowers of lilac. Add eight or nine lemons and boil in four litres of water. Let the mixture settle for 48 hours, then squeeze it through a sieve. Add three and a half litres of sugar, 20 decagrammes of lemon acid, spiritus and leave for 10 days. The mix should be 40% spiritus and 60% essence. For stronger you put more, but I prefer this perfect mix.

When I was younger, my Mother made a syrup which could be used for a sore throat, but if you added alcohol it made a very fine drink. It was made from the upper branches of a fir tree, the Christmas tree.

The trees are not now in blossom, but we collect some leaves…

More on nalewki here…

heat, thunder, lightning… all we need is fireworksPosted on 22nd July, 2008.

We take a bus from Lublin to Nałęczów, when a bus finally arrives (three of four or maybe five don’t bother to stop at our particular bus stop). We are standing in the heat on the side of a dual carriageway named after General Sikorski for a very long time and I think I am hallucinating and imagining I am in Kabul again. I didn’t bring a hat and she is ready to faint and getting more and more angry at the non-stopping buses (which are clearly not full). Finally, we are on the bus and she is feeling unwell and asks me to stop talking. Last night, after the visit to Polmos, we wandered towards the Old Town, stopping to eat grilled vegetables, bruschetta and chicken salad in a quiet café on ul. Kościuszki that had a large plasma screen of Jamie Oliver running around London buying vegetables and hugging people (sound turned off). Then the drinking began in earnest under the parasols that ring the market square and the town hall that squats in the centre. The square is small and compact, lit by various coloured floodlights. There is a stage in one corner, with a trio of accordionists, who are followed by a ubiquitous reggae band. If you ever wondered what happened to Shaggy or Black Uhuru, you are likely to find them performing on a summer stage in the rynek of one Polish town or other. Old friends are meeting here. Excuse me, but I will speak English to you after two beers. I have not spoken English for two years, so it will be better then. And far better than my Polish.

A fine powerpoint presentation at the Polmos factory informed me that Poles actually prefer beer to vodka. 88% of the total alcohol consumed here is beer, with vodka at only 7.5% and wine with a 3.2% share. Whiskey, liqueurs and brandy account for the rest. So first, the traditional beers, then a tour of the old town down alleyways and through ancient courtyards up to the castle overlooking Plac Zamkowy.

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Then via a small shop to buy bottles of wódka żołądkowa gorzka to rest awhile on an unlit wooded terrace behind the cathedral. This was the tradition of my youth, we had the small bottles and we walked around the town taking small sips and talking about life. Wiśniówka is another local brand, made from cherries, which I am also quite fond of. She then says, I was not drinking Wiśniówka because of local patriotism. I drank it only after I left Lublin and it was long after this I had this raised consciousness about it being locally produced. I just liked the taste. Then we go to another late night drinking place (and another 24 hour alcohol shop) in a square near the Catholic University. I have to lie down in the bushes for a while. I can’t keep up with the others. There was some staggering home at dawn after that, but I can’t quite recall how.

We can rest in peaceful Nałęczów, a spa town and health resort due to its micro-climate, set amongst gently rolling hills and woods. Only 25 kilometres away from Lublin, the intense heat we felt earlier in the day has disappeared. We sit in the garden and eat pierogi and borsch, the perfect antidote. A rain storm passes quickly over, throwing down a heavy burst of rain, but the air remains pleasantly warm and fragrant. After dinner, she says with a sigh, Life is so short, so here is a taste of life. A pause, and then: Of course, forbidden fruit tastes the best… (I am finding that most Polish have a certain poetic flair with our English words. I must ask my colleague, the good Doctor, to extrapolate on the tradition of romanticism in Central Europe…)

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We take a long walk in the splendid park at the heart of Nałęczów, with the restored sanatorium, a lake and river, and a palm house where you can taste different types of mineral water, variations on the Nałęczówianka brand which is produced here. Next to the palm house is a Wedel, if a hot chocolate is more your cup of tea (as this cafe specialises in divinely flavoured hot chocolate…) It is a fine place to recover the wits one lost the night before. From within one of the neo-classical buildings a pianist with the light touch of Debussy accompanies a woman singing an old Ukrainian melody. Another storm approaches with dramatic lightning and we scurry to hide under an arch, escaping a soaking. Later, there is another terrific thunderstorm in the night, drowning the flowers on the balcony and drumming hard on the roof.

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One way to spend saturday in Poland…Posted on 20th July, 2008.

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Some days you regret waking up. It is the day of the Holy Hangover. We are late for breakfast with Babcia, two hours late at the very least. We stand on the balcony, to catch our breath in the hot morning air, drinking water. It will be a stifling 32 degrees today. We look down at the foot of the tree where her Aunt’s favourite cat is buried. It died in the middle of winter and the ground was too hard to dig, so she had to hide the body in the basement of the flats until the thaw, when she finally snuck out into the middle of the night to bury the body. Red flowers grow on the grave.

We arrive suitably apologetic. I am in a daze. Her Grandmother greeting: You stink of vodka! Why must you drink so much? Who is this strange man with you? Is he responsible? I am reminded of what Mike Summerbee, a player on the wing for Manchester City, once said when recalling his late nights drinking with George Best, of rival team Manchester United: We flitted from club to club. They tended to become more downmarket as the night wore on. George didn’t drink pints, he drank vodka and lemonade. It doesn’t smell and there’s no real taste, but it’s a dangerous drink.

I doubt he ever met a formidable Polish Grandmother and therefore had his vodka habit outed. George – one of the most exquisite football players ever, a handsome Irish rover – was often quoted as saying: I spent 90% of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted.

We sit down to eat porridge. I ask for a small portion. Small is large in Babcia land. I hate porridge since a regrettable incident with nuns in primary school. Eat it all, she says, or Babcia will be offended. Somehow I manage to politely eat most of it, with an awful lot of sugar and jam to kill the taste. This is followed by a selection of home cured meat and bread. Grandmother says, See, I told you porridge is not enough for a man!

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Eat it all, she says again, more sternly, please! I say nothing and thoroughly stuff my face. The meat is delicious and I remove none of the fat. There are also fresh gooseberries and a raspberry compote. I wonder when I will faint. I quietly eat, while she is interrogated about her life and loves. We are given a package of food to take with us. We walk out into the heat. I am proud of you, she says. The wrath of Grandmother was avoided. You know, after all last nights drinking I really want to puke but I will not. Instead of this I will show you my old school and where I used to live. This is on the other side of the dual carriageway and an impressively large concrete Catholic church. The heat is oppressive and I feel unusually faint.

To LublinPosted on 18th July, 2008.

The train from Warsawa Centralna first crosses the Vistula river through Praga district and then swings south past the village suburbs of Swider and Srodborow, slowly moving across the flat plain of Mazovia that surrounds the capital. ‘Not the most attractive of landscapes’ is how many guide books describe it. A few hours later, on the other side of the Kampinoska forest, after dark we arrive in Lublin. A city of over 350,000 inhabitants, centuries old, site of the Union of Poland and Lithuania in 1569, which many contemporary observers cite as the medieval model of the contemporary European Economic Union, proposing as it did a ‘cooperation based on respecting the identity of those peoples and nations and preserving their ethic, cultural and religious features.’

The pungent smell in the air outside the station comes from the beet factory nearby. Further along the road is the Polmos vodka factory, which we will visit. We stay in a block of flats near the Avenue of the Legionnaires, not far from the Catholic University. These blocks are four or five stories tall, constructed during the post-war communist building programmes, laid out in rectangles with large inner courtyards, an oasis of flowers and trees, with a playground and sandpit. This is a typical family flat of the time, two rooms, with a kitchen and small bathroom. Personal social space was limited in Soviet times. It seems rather cosy now. The floors are parquet, the walls are plain, decorated with small reproductions of popular pastoral and romantic paintings. The kitchen overlooks the inner courtyard and outside the window is a chestnut tree, planted by her Grandfather and her Father, some fifty years ago. Imagine what it is like to be in one place for such a long time, and see something grow, she says. We are so transient and fluid now, moving on, dissatisfied, restless.

The living room (which also doubles as bedroom) looks out onto the road and newer higher curvaceous apartment blocks. There is a small balcony, usually bedecked with flower pots. Here Grandmother grew parsley in the summer and in winter she moved the plants into the warmth of the kitchen. Here Grandfather came home from work in the car factory. Here there used to be an orchard, now built upon, an orchard of yellow fruit the name of which she cannot say in English, too bitter to eat from the tree but which made good jam. Grandmother used to say, “Let’s go visit the drunkards…” because this is where you would find people drinking all day long. And here her Aunt would take her for secret ice creams, because Grandmother said ice cream gave her a sore throat. It is the funeral of this Aunt today, an actress of some note who visited the capitals of Europe. Tears are shed, memories are shared. She is not forgotten.

This Aunt is buried in the wooded cemetery on Ulica Lipowa. Here is also the resting place of both her Grandmother and Father. The names of her Grandfather and her Mother and their birth dates are already inscribed on the tomb, awaiting final reckoning. The cemetery offers a particular historical portrait. Some gravestones have Cyrillic lettering dating from Tsarist times and there is an Orthodox section with a Byzantine chapel undergoing restoration (as are many parts of the graveyard). There are wartime graves from the First World War, of unknown Polish and Austrian soldiers, and Polish and Russian soldiers from 1939-45. I notice that many of the Russian ‘liberators’ were not so young, many on their late thirties and early forties. To one side is a section of plain headstones, those of Party members who wanted an atheist burial. There is a modern shopping centre by the graveyard, the air conditioning units breaking our contemplative silence.