One of my best mates is a Serbian fella I met when we worked together when we got our first jobs down in London. I think we first started to get to know each other well battling on after-work football pitches (he’s very good and I’m very competitive!), but over the years we became really good mates, and a couple of years ago he invited me out to his family’s house in Novi Sad in Serbia, to celebrate Slava. This is a big honour, cos if you get invited one year, the invite lasts for the rest of your life!
Slava is the biggest family celebration in the Serbian family calendar. Every family has a patron saint, and on the day of the patron saint, they get together with close friends and family, eat an absolute shed load of food (mostly meat based), and obviously have a few drinks along the way.
Now I couldn’t make it last year, but this year, coupled with my mate’s recent move to New York to be with his gorgeous new wife, I couldn’t miss it. Now don’t get me wrong the chance to catch up with the happy couple is a highlight, and also the amazing food cooked by the expert hand of his mum is a highlight. But what kind of wine blogger would I be if I didn’t wax lyrical a bit about the booze on offer?
Eastern Europe is a funny place in terms of the wine and spirit culture. Not that the stuff they drink is funny, more that as a set of businesses in terms of investment, production techniques, marketing, and export, most of the areas are still trying to recover from the communist regimes of only 20 odd years ago.
In a great way though, the fact that the production isn’t as standard as elsewhere in the world, you get some really unique flavours and tastes. And wines. And spirits. And the customs are set around a few of these unique bevvies.
So when you walk through the door on your first day of the visit, chances are you’ll have a glass of Rakija thrust into your hand. You toast to your visit, to your hosts, and to your health. You can keep toasting to whatever you want really, but it’s strong stuff and it’s pretty easy to get toasted fairly quickly!
Rakija is a Balkan speciality, and in Serbia it’s a big part of the society. There are a couple of thousand registered distilleries, but there’s plenty of homebrew kicking around, and that’s what we’re drinking here at my mate’s house. His dad’s got some game! This stuff is like rocket fuel, but much like brandy, it’s made by distilling the full grape, skin and pulp, so the flavours either side of the alcohol kick are very varietal (they taste like the grape).
The one I’m drinking here are made from Smederevka, a local white grape making acidic (refreshing) dry (not sweet) wines with slight floral smells. When made into rakija the flowery smell stays around, and the acidity helps the alcohol not rip the roof off your mouth. For a spirit that’s knocking on 50% alcohol, it’s actually really smooth!
I’ll be honest though, it gets smoother as you do more toasts. The dog even gets a mention! By that time the smile is ear to ear, and the visit is in full swing :)