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Medicinal qualities

Much to say, but for now: We are sick with some uncivil stomach-bug, which first attacked our friend Grigo after a night of drinking in Sibiel, a little Carpathian village known for its glass icon museum and its local spirits, and has now moved to Aimee and I.

Grigo’s family friend Valerica, who serves as a guide at the museum, is the daughter of a family described by Grigo’s father as the “Johnny Walkers of Transylvania” — orchard-owners, who at one point made a prodigious amount of spirits. She does not drink herself, but as we stopped by the museum for directions to another village distiller’s home, she saw how pale Grigo had become, and told him that if he was sick, the best thing he could do for himself was to take a medicinal dose of plum brandy.

I am on my way to do this now.

A nation of hazy memories

The essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things.

-Ernest Renan, “What is a nation”

Can we draw inspiration from this? We are heading to Romania and Hungary, to drink and study ţuică and pálinka, spirits which though different in the eyes of Hungarians and Romanians are all but indistinguishable from the perspective of outsiders and chemists.

This shared love is of course not enough to define  a nation in any geopolitical sense, particularly across languages and borders that remain controversial. These are two very different countries, with very different histories, and the things they have forgotten are correspondingly varied, perhaps even mirror-images of one another.

But we are seeking the borderless nation of brandy-drinkers and brandy-makers, people who do have these spirits in common, and who perhaps have all forgotten a bit of last night, or their own pain, or, for a few hours, the fact that friends and lovers and beautiful moments are all as transient as the perfect shape of a September plum.

Wake up and smell the plum brandy

In Southern German regions, it’s not uncommon to see people drinking beer for breakfast. In parts of Hungary, pálinka is, or has been, the breakfast of the dawning day – the “coffee of the poor,” as it was evidently termed by some in the early 1900s.

You see this retained in language, in the expression: Pálinkás jó reggelt!, which translates variously as “A pálinka good morning,” or “Good morning with pálinka!”

Naturally, there are explanations for this early, to American palates nearly inconceivable practice. Balázs quotes a handful of folk sayings:

In the morning, wine sleeps and shouldn’t be woken, so pálinka must be drunk.

or alternately:

Before wine, pálinka, then a bit of sausage, just so the coffee won’t hurt later.

A confession: When visiting a friend for a Transylvanian wedding, we were on hand for the arrival of a close Hungarian friend of the groom and groom’s brother. Maybe 10 in the morning. We gathered underneath the shade of the walnut tree to welcome him, and the bottle of brandy came out, glasses were filled, and the friend’s arrival was toasted. We smiled, and I surreptitiously poured the spirits into the grass.

But I was young. Today I would have wished them a Pálinkás jó reggelt! and let the wine sleep in a little longer.

The ghost of America’s 51st state

Unexpected links to the familiar, exhumed from the past. According to Claudio Magris’ Danube, a prominent Hungarian diplomat telegrammed Béla Kun, the newly installed Communist leader of a newly independent Hungary, on May 15, 1919, with the following suggestion:

“Propose requesting American Protectorate of Hungary and if possible declare Hungary a State of the American Union stop.”

Kun’s reply, two days later, in French: “Nous avons reçu votre dépêche,” which Magris translates as a laconic “Communication noted.”

The socialist Kun was never likely to take his aristocratic negotiator’s advice. He was rather desperate for support from Lenin’s Russia, which was itself bogged down in civil war. To win public support for his then two-month-old government, Kun turned instead to winning back lost territory.

A key focus was Transylvania, previously a province of Hungary, but which held a Romanian ethnic majority. The Romanian army had already occupied much of the territory, leading in part to the resignation of Hungary’s government and Kun’s rise to power. On June 28, a few days after Baron Szilassy pleaded with Kun to cast his lot with the Americans, the Western powers officially awarded Transylvania to Romania as a part of the Treaty of Versailles.

Romanian troops enter Budapest

In reality, the treaty was premature. Hungarian and Romanian forces were still at war. But not for long – Kun’s military collapsed after only few months, and by early August, Romanian forces had occupied Budapest, and Kun himself had fled to the young Soviet Union (where he would ultimately be killed in a Stalinist purge).

Better to have sought American statehood? In a region where political certainties were collapsing along with an empire rooted far deeper in history than were America’s own 150 years of statehood, crazier ideas were being floated.

A vocal segment of today’s right-wing revival in Hungary wants Transylvania and the rest of the former “Greater Hungary” back. It isn’t likely to happen, but it will make relations with Romania and Slovakia tense as long as the right wing is in power.

It’s worth noting that common ground does exist, however. A scholar of pálinka in Hungary, Géza Balázs, notes that the word for the country’s national liquor actually comes from the Slovakian language. And in Romania too, or at least Transylvania, plum spirits are sometimes called pălincă as well as tuica.

Transylvanian proverb

From the father of a good friend: “Two things will never cross the Carpathians: Honor and plum brandy.”

The pigs are stumbling again…

University of Leicester Emeritus Professor of Human Geography David Turnock has spent more time than any other English-speaking academic we’ve yet found studying plum brandy in Romania. With Bucharest colleague Nicolae Muica, he’s written extensively about patterns of rural tuica production, and the economic potential of the industry.

That means he comes across good stories, as well as numbers. Like the waste problem. When local distillers dump out the spent mash (and perhaps the unused heads/tails), the residual alcohol doesn’t always disappear without consequence. Animals pick over the trash, for one thing, and Turnock says stories of cows collapsing, or flocks of geese falling asleep for hours in the middle of a village, are common.

Or there’s the town where the dregs were dumped too close to the village water supply, and for a little while the tap water tasted like tuica.

In an interview, Turnock said he was cautious about actually drinking the local product. “You could injure yourself, if it’s really a crude spirit,” he told me. “I’m not sure what the consequences could be to health.”

We’ll have to keep that in mind…

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Plum Crazy is...

A chronicle of travels through Central and Eastern Europe collecting stories and sampling plum brandy, and of our own beginnings as distillers.