RULE ONE: AVOID THE FOOD | November 30th 2007
Bottle-scarred Economist correspondent Edward Lucas breakfasts on plum brandy, lunches on balsams and dines on bison-grass vodka, but draws the line at a side-dish of Hungarian lung stew ...
The ex-communist world has a deserved reputation as a culinary wasteland (see box, below right), but the drinks are something else. Travellers to Prague find that the "real" Budweiser from Ceske Budejovice (no relation to its rice-based American counterpart) makes even the national dish of dumplings in gravy go down without protest. Winemaking has been transformed since the Soviet era—when bottles had to be inspected for wasps and snails, the former merely a nuisance, the latter stomach-turning (at least for foreigners).
But the real treat is the hard stuff. Every country from the Baltic to the Black sea has a national tipple, usually served in both industrialised and home-made versions. In Romania, tuica (also spelled tzuika, tsuika, tsuica, or tzuica) is the traditional start to any meal. It is made with plums, and bears a startling resemblence to the sljivovica of neighbouring Serbia. Both drinks are part of a delightful family of fruit brandies popular from the far corners of the Balkans up to modern Poland (an area that bears a coincidental resemblance to the Ottoman empire in Europe at its height). For the adventurous, visnjevaca (sour cherry) dunjevaca (quince) and smokvovaca (fig) are well worth a try. You may find these in shops, but you are better off finding a peasant farmer somewhere in what used to be Yugoslavia.
Westerners may think that hard liquor is for after dinner, but these drinks are usually apertifs. To help you digest, the best drink in the region is Unicum. Anyone who likes Italy's Fernet Branca, or German's Underberg, will feel that they have graduated into elysium when they try it. The flavours are an intense mix of liquorice, ginger, coriander and cinnamon (that's guesswork: the recipe is secret). It brings tranquility to even the most overburdened stomach. Latvia's balsams is a close rival—and a neck ahead for those who like its flexibility. It has a stronger tinge of burnt oranges; Latvians put it in their coffee or in fruit salad. With Champagne (or any old sparkling wine) it creates a terrific cocktail.
Any offer of absinthe in eastern Europe, by contrast, should be shunned as firmly as any suggestion of a return to the planned economy or the one-party state.
Having accustomed your liver to the demands of life in "new Europe", it is time to move north. Poland and Russia tussle for the right to be the "real" home of vodka (an argument that the Swedes and Finns regard with bemused disdain: how can anybody take these Slavic squabbles seriously?). Having sorted out the national question, the serious drinker has to decide between vodkas made with different feedstuffs (barley, rye, wheat and so forth). The nasty stuff produced in western Europe is made from farm surplus products, disgracefully subsidised by the taxpayer. The cheapest of all is synthetic alcohol, produced in factories by a chemical process. If you think all vodka tastes the same, just try drinking a cheap one.
If your palate finds little difference amid the clear vodkas, you can ring the changes with the flavoured kind (for example with chili peppers, ginger, fruit, vanilla, chocolate or cinnamon). Best of all-in your correspondent's view-is Zubrowka, a Polish (or Belarussian) rye vodka flavoured with bison grass, a stalk of which can be found in the bottle.
Sadly, the scent of newly mown hay that makes Zubrowka so seductive comes from the presence (in tiny quantities) of coumarin, a toxin that can be legally used in perfumes, but is prohibited for use in foodstuffs in America. The version sold in America now is coumarin-free.
On the whole, though, the names of vodkas vary more than the contents. Lithuania used to have one called "Dar po viena" (roughly "Let's have another one"). Romania, astonishingly, has a vodka called "Stalinskaya"; Russia's favourite Stolichnaya (Capital) brand, disgracefully, uses Soviet kitsch in its advertisements, including pictures of the murderous founder of Soviet communism, Vladimir Lenin, who is described as a "visionary". That is something to discuss over a Zubrowka or six.
(Edward Lucas is deputy international editor, and correspondent for central and eastern Europe, at The Economist. His book, "The New Cold War—How the Kremlin menaces both Russia and the West", will be published in February 2008 by Bloomsbury in Britain, and Palgrave in America.)