I’ve been looking forward to writing this blog post for weeks. At this point, most of you are probably familiar with my friend Krassy. Ever since our first couple of cooking sessions, Krassy has insisted I join him for an afternoon of preparing homemade rakia. For those of you who don’t know, rakia is a fruit brandy typically made with grapes or plums that is popular in the Balkans. Knowing how hilarious just a normal afternoon watching soccer with Krassy can be, I agreed without thinking twice.
One Saturday morning, I met up with Hannah, a German teacher at my school who is living in Silistra for about 6 months, to watch our school’s volleyball game. After the game, Hannah and I headed over to meet Krassy for an afternoon of rakia making.
After driving a couple of minutes West along the Danube, Krassy asked if I had my camera. Having come straight from the volleyball game, I had left it back in my apartment. I told him it was no problem, but he insisted I take photos to send to “Marilyn and John.” We whipped a quick 180, and after ten minutes, we were back at Krassy’s rakia stove, camera in hand (I would be incredibly thankful for this later).
At this point, I must introduce one other character who ultimately becomes our hero for the day. I had met Krassy’s friend Atanas one other time. The first things you notice about Atanas are his sideways ball cap and toothless grin. He’s probably about 5’6″, and maybe 80 pounds soaking wet. My first impression was that he was upbeat, jovial, and absolutely hilarious. These initial observations have endured each time I’ve hung out with him since. While I probably understand ~80% of what Krassy says at this point, I understand closer to 20% of what Atanas says.
Now it was time to get to work. Krassy and Atanas began cleaning out the enormous vat. The facility we were working in was communal, so it had to be cleaned out before each use. The building had four giant vats stacked side by side, and people pay a set fee to make a single batch of rakia. Several groups came and went as we were there throughout the course of the day.
Once the vat was cleaned to Krassy’s satisfaction (Atanas would have stopped 20 minutes earlier), we began dumping in the grape juice. It’s unclear to me where the juice came from (it was there when we arrived), but I like to think they are grapes from Krassy’s ranch, and that Atanas stomped them himself. We use buckets to empty three giant blue plastic barrels of grape juice into the vat, which was situated directly above a wood stove. Once the ingredients were loaded, the top was sealed with some sort of flour solution, and we added more firewood to get things cooking!
Hannah pointed out that the vat next to ours was made in 1947. It’s amazing to think that people have probably been making rakia here for over 60 years.
With things underway, we decided to start cooking some food for ourselves. Krassy explained to us all that he had wanted to cook steaks, but because Atanas didn’t have enough teeth, we had to have meatballs instead. I couldn’t believe how matter-of-fact Krassy was about the whole thing, but fortunately Atanas seemed to be a pretty good sport. I laid out the tablecloth while Atanas cooked our meatballs and potatoes in the wheelbarrow outside (yes, you read that correctly).
Sometime during lunch, the rakia started flowing! The steam works its way up through a pipe before passing through a cooling condenser, and finally emerging as rakia. Krassy consistently checked in on the alcohol content which was right around 60%–pretty potent! We were making a big batch, so the process took several hours.
Now that the rakia was flowing, it was time to taste it. I love science experiments. In elementary school, I used to geek out over our annual science fair. I remember winning honorable mention one year for testing which detergents were most effective at cleaning up after oil spills…pretty ground-breaking stuff for a 4th grader, right? I thought so too, until my youngest sister Emily won first place a few years later for planting her lost baby teeth to see if they would grow into flowers (spoiler alert: they don’t). Sometimes the world doesn’t seem fair (pun intended).
This particular Saturday, I witnessed an experiment searching to answer the question: How does rakia affect a 75 pound man? Atanas loves rakia. In the time it took me to polish off each small glass, I felt like Atanas had finished three. These pictures only begin to depict his absurdity. I wish I had brought a video camera…