02 June 2012

The Sârbi Țuică Still

Just off the pothole-riddled road in the center of the little hamlet of Sârbi, under a ramshackle wooden roof next to a stream, we found this old woman turning a crank slowly, her eyes glazed over, her mouth set in a slight smile.  She was making ţuică, a traditional plum brandy that Romanians can’t exist without.
Ţuică is firewater, moonshine - a 100 proof, scald-the-tongue tradition that isn’t exactly legal but is still the national drink.  Accompanied by the rushing burble of the water beside her, the woman seemed an unlikely outlaw distiller, but there she was.
We took a small detour to Sârbi because there's an interesting brook laundry whirlpool there - a kind of sluice-fed, foaming vortex of rotting boards where the village women wash their rugs and other sturdy cloth.  Nobody was doing their washing, but there was a group of people tasting and buying ţuică.  In the same complex was a sawmill and fulling mill, plus a turn-off in the road where men stood around and watched the passing traffic (which consisted of at least as many horse carts as cars).
The cooling bath was fed with a pipe that ran directly from the stream, and was hung with the cups and buckets of the tasters.
The still was hand-pounded copper, with a long, swan-necked top that looked particularly unstable.  A woodfire was hissing in the brick beneath the still, the crank turned a scraper that kept the mash from sticking.  An enameled bucket caught the intermittent spurts of alcohol that emerged from a low spigot. With one's nose close to the collected, clear ţuică, the effect was eye watering - the fumes were enough to get drunk on.
Ţuică is served before every respectable dinner in Romania, usually just a small amount in a shot glass to clear the palate and prime the stomach.  The man who was giving tastes of ţuică seemed – because of his ruddiness, tilt and excitement  – to be a lifelong connoisseur.  A few bottles of differently aged liquids sat on a table with a plate of bread.  Everyone partook, including our host.
The mash sat uncovered in plastic barrels, smelling strongly under the midday sun.  It was not, as one might say in America, “safely stored,” but it doesn’t matter; any bacteria will get killed in the still.
Plums are the most commonly grown fruit tree in Romania, and are used almost exclusively for making brandy.  As with 19th century American apples, the breeds aren’t developed for eating, but instead for their fermenting properties.  The "Prun Tuleu gras" is the king of Romanian plums, but isn't much by itself - the flesh is very firm and apple like, it doesn't have the liquidity that Americans are used to. Every country house has at least one tree.
Operations like the one in Sârbi aren’t entirely legal, but they’re tolerated.  Traditions run strong in Romania, and the thought of enforcing the ban on home distillation is particularly loathsome to peasant communities who couldn’t afford store bought liquors or the permits needed to make their alcohol comply with the law.  The effect of the ban is limited - ţuică is sold everywhere, in plain sight, on roadsides and in little stores, often in repurposed wine or soda bottles.  But the majority of the stuff is made at home or at a communal still for a family’s own use – it would be impossible and mean to enforce the ban.
At our homestay in Ieud, we were presented with a bottle of the host’s own ţuică every night before dinner.  We had a few tiny glasses, then let it be.  The bottle had been reused a number of times, the threads of the cap had worn out.  The family had grown a pear inside the glass themselves, which initially caused some confusion.  Eventually we got it straightened out; the pear was for flavoring (minimal) and decoration (very pretty), the alcohol was one hundred percent plum.
Perhaps worried about our taste (or tolerance) for the stuff, our host mother also brought out a bottle of cherry liquor and a precious decanter of black-currant alcohol, deep purple, that she wanted Rebecca especially to try.  It was all very tasty, but the ţuică was our favorite - it considerably loosened up the table conversation.

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