The Many Flavours of Poland’s Artisanal Alcohol
Can you flavour alcohol with amber? Or goat milk? Sure you can, if you’re making a traditional Polish nalewka.
Making nalewka (pronounced: nah-leh-vka, plural form: nalewki) isn’t very complicated, but it requires time. First the flavouring ingredients ‒ fruit, roots, flowers, nuts, everything goes ‒ are macerated in strong alcohol, preferably vodka or spirit. The maceration process for these gourmet moonshines can take anywhere from two weeks to a few months depending on the choice of ingredients. The alcohol is then bottled. Some ingredients require a long maturation while some others can be consumed right away. Preparing the beverage often includes sweetening and filtration, which can occur at different stages. Even slight variations in the process or ingredient selection can create an entirely new taste.
While many European nations claim to have invented vodka, nalewka belongs to Poland and Poland alone. In the old days this strong alcoholic extract used to be made in every noble household. Recipes were carefully guarded secrets passed on from generation to generation. It was common to pair certain nalewki with a given type of dish, for example blackcurrant nalewka with duck or cherry nalewka with wild boar. Herbal nalewki were thought to have medicinal properties and were used to treat colds, fevers and other ailments. To give an overview of the wondrous range of flavours available, seven regional recipes are described below, but the possibilities are truly endless.
Naleweczka gruszkówka z Kraśnika
The Polish equivalent to Poire Williams, this stunning beverage is made by putting a bottle over a small pear still growing on the branch. The bottle then acts like a greenhouse for the pear. Once it has ripened, the bottle is taken down and filled with vodka. After 2 months of maturing in a dark place the naleweczka gruszkówka is ready to be served. The recipe originates from the fruit-growing area near the town of Kraśnik in the South East.
Prepared from fresh lime tree flowers and honey, lipówka kornicka is a traditionally manufactured in the eastern commune of Stara Kornica, where it has been made for over a 100 years. In order to produce its specific flavour, flowers have to be harvested on a sunny day, when they’re in full bloom. Otherwise the lack of pollen affects the taste. A proper lipówka kornicka is sweet with a touch of bitterness. A good choice for impatient brewers, it only needs to macerate for 10 days and doesn’t require maturing.
In the days of old walnut nalewka was used to soothe upset stomachs after overabundant meals, and many a grandmother will still offer it as a remedy for indigestion. This walnut tincture is made in the agrarian area near the southern town of Grodków. Nalewka enthusiasts value it not only for its medicinal qualities but also for its unique taste. Made from unripe nuts harvested two weeks after St. John’s Eve, it is pleasantly bitter and has a spicy aroma. It needs to mature from 6 to 18 months.
This unusual concoction is made with fruit and goat milk. For centuries goat milk has been mixed into different sour fruit tinctures ‒ like lemon or quince ‒ to mellow the taste. Deptucha, a speciality of the woody Siedlisko commune in western Poland, is made from squashed and sweetened fruit macerated in spirit and goat milk. It matures for half a year.
This distilled beverage is prepared according to a recipe leaked from the manor of the aristocratic Potocki family, who once had its quarters in Moskorzew, south-central Poland. Kamcia is a regional product based on fresh mint harvested from the local park, where the herb has been growing since the times of the Potockis. Its preparation is straightforward: mint leaves are macerated in spirit and sugar for three days. However, just as in the days of old, it is only occasionally available.
Kaszubska nalewka bursztynowa
An alcoholic beverage prepared with amber sounds unreasonably lavish, but the fossilised resin is plentiful in the Polish regions bordering the Baltic Sea. Mostly drunk as a home remedy, Kashubian amber tincture is used to treat the flu, arrhythmia and headaches. Apart from amber, this speciality contains spirit, lime tree honey and lime tree infusion. Unlike most kinds of nalewki, it has to be stored in a warm place. It should only be drunk in very small amounts, for instance by drinking a cup of tea with a few drops of it, or rubbed on the skin.
Łzy świętej Eufemii
The liquor called Łzy świętej Eufemii, or St. Euphemia’s Tears in English, alludes to the martyrdom of the Christian saint who was killed in the Roman Colosseum in the 4th century BCE. She is the patron saint of Eufeminów in central Poland, where they prepare a nalewka from lemons, ginger, spirit, water, honey, sugar and cardamom according to a recipe that dates back to the 19th century. It takes from one to two years for this bittersweet specialty to mature.
Author: Marek Kępa, July 2016