I was sitting in a barroom, eating Greek salad and was finishing my second mastika. It was one of the last days of this long warm summer. While I was thinking of starting this text, a friend of mine, Tino, a well known and frequent visitor to Skopje’s barrooms, as well as a dedicated lover of good drink, dropped by.
– What you’re doing at the barroom so early, he asked.
– I’m on assignment, I replied. I need to write an article about macedonian mastika, the greek ouzo and the turkish raki, so I came here in search of inspiration.
– Do buy me one ouzo and we’ll solve the problem, said Tino, and sat on one of the chairs.
“Now look my friend. The only universal thing that unites the people of the Balkans, regardless if they are Macedonians, Bulgarians, Greeks or Turkish, is that we all enjoy the fruits of this climate in the same manner. Beside many things, certainly I’m thinking of alcohol. Mastika, ouzo, raki. These are drinks that only exist in this part of the world, and they are very similar, yet are so distinct. Everyone is jealously keeping the secret of the recipe. Too many myths and legends are told regarding its real ingredients that are used in the making of this aperitif. I was told that it is made of mulberries, while others say that the secret is in daubing the kessel with honey. I’m not interested in that at all, but I like it. And regardless what I drink, it is all the same to me. I don’t want to insult anyone, as I know everyone has different tastes, and no one should argue about it. The philosophy of this drink is very simple. I think, actually I don’t think at all, but I claim that it is the only drink that goes with all kinds of snacks, usually depending on the mood of the company.
Tino said those words in one breath, as a pupil that has learned its lesson by heart. We drank, while I drank mastika, he took several shots of ouzo and we parted ways in a friendly manner. Tino is right when he says that these three drinks have many things in common. All of them are drank with ice, they have a long tradition behind, and people ascribe them curative properties. Still, the people from the Balkans are particularly patriotically inclined when it comes to national dishes and beverages. Therefore, it is difficult to make someone admit that the neighbor’s beverage is better. But, let’s start from the beginning.
The mastika has a long tradition in Macedonia, and by some people’s testimonials, this drink has been made for the last 3 centuries. The best mastika is produced in the region of city of Strumica. The people of Strumica claim that it is made exclusively of natural ingredients, aka a distilled wine, anise and locust honey. In the past, several researches were conducted, that showed that drinking mastika in normal quantities helps fighting heliobacteria. Since 1990, the mastika from Strumica was proclaimed to be a national brand. And after all, in many parts of the country, still, the Greek ouzo is a more popular drink than the mastika. In a number of barrooms, one cannot find mastika, while you will be offered several types of ouzo. I spoke to Darko once about this, my friend since childhood, and with whom I have tested the alcohol’s curative features. As usually, he gave the conversation a political tone: “Ouzo or mastika, with Greek or shopska salad, tzatziki or taratur. It seems that only the ice does not hold a dispute about the name. But, in the end, the only thing that mattered was that the glass was brought by a kind and pretty waitress, a Greek or Macedonian – all the same to me.”
The ouzo is the most popular drink in Greece. No tourist leaves the country without at least one bottle of the magical aperitif. One old Greek proverb says: Ouzo elevates the spirit” and there are no Greeks that wouldn’t agree that icy cold ouzo is a perfect companion for a good snack and conversation with friends. The classic Greek ouzo is a grape distillate to which a precise combination of plants and fruits, like anise, mint, berries and nuts is added. Mostly, an alcohol of 40 degrees is added. It is usually diluted with a few ice cubes, when the ouzo gets a milky white color, and on the surface of the drink, crystals are formed, which is better known as “the ouzo effect.” The island of Lesvos holds the title of “centre for ouzo production” in Greece. This was also confirmed to me by my friend Sofia from Athens: “I admit that the best ouzo that I have ever tasted was at Lesvos. They don’t export it, but they keep it for local consumption, so no one knows that it exists unless you visit this place. The ouzo production recipes on this island are kept as a family secret.”
Sophia told me that the ouzo in Greece is used as a medicine for stomach ache or headache whereas on Cyprus, maybe it will sound insane, but it is also used for alleviating morning hangover.
Raki is Turkey’s unofficial national drink. During the times of the Ottoman Empire, the favorite alcohol drink was the wine, but during the end of the XIX century, the rakia took over the primacy. It is produced through double distillation of the grape and anis is added. It is traditionally drank in a way by placing the glass in special metal containers with ice, and water is put in the rakia. During the process of dilution, a milky white color is achieved, a mixture that is popularly called “the lion’s milk.” A friend of mine from Istanbul told me that raki is drank with a airan, as an “antidote” for hangover, but it also has many other sweeter features.
“It is a very good drink in the accompaniment of fish, snacks and friendly chatter.”Raki is a legend that does not fade away. In Turkey it is known as an efficient “antidote for love” It is the best drink to forget sadness and melancholy. The feeling when drinking raki is wonderful, but it is even more beautiful when you get drunk by it. It is a kind of drink that one wishes to flow in his veins instead of blood. It is most tasteful when is drank with white cheese and melon, and without raki the conversation is not really a conversation.“
In the end, we will recommend a recipe, for which you will need half a liter of mastika, ouzo or yeni raki, as one would prefer, and a watermelon with weight from 3 to 5 kg. It is cut from the top of the watermelon and is filled with the chosen drink. It is left in the refrigerator until the alcohol and the watermelon don’t fuse into a wonderful icy desert.
Enjoy it and I’ll see you for a cold drink and a good snack.