A good friend of mine insists that having a nice meal while you're traveling is considered sightseeing. Since I've had the privileges of accompanying him at nice meals in places like Moscow, Prague and Budapest, I tend to agree: food's as important an entry point to any new place as art or architecture. As a corollary, though, I'd submit that another essential part of experiencing a foreign culture is getting drunk on the local hooch. Now, I don't want to come off all Anthony Bourdain-y here—hey, look at me! I travel! I drink!—especially since Bourdain is a huge wimp for claiming that hakarl was "the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing" he'd ever eaten (more on that later). Has he never eaten Guy Fieri's Cajun Chicken Alfredo? Still, I've been lucky to travel a bit, and stunt-drinking native booze is always high on the itinerary.
Sure, it's fun to bring Jameson back from Dublin, or Dolgoruki Vodka back from Moscow. Even the Lithuanians make their own vodka. But you can get those in the States. Some people collect snow globes or fridge magnets from their travels. I collect little bottles of booze.
I've enjoyed slivovice in Prague, as well as with a friend with Czech parents in California. It was equally awesome in both places. I brought palinka back from Budapest (along with bull's blood wine). These are strong drinks, brandies made from plums and pears, local moonshine. People offer them as a dare, I take them up on it.
In Croatia, the fruit-based brandy rakija comes in a wide variety of flavors, including the grappa-like travarica (grape brandy infused with herbs) and rogačica, which is infused with carob pods. I bought bottles of both from a garage on the side of the road in Pitve, on the island of Hvar. This was as local as it got: they were offered in recycled soda and Jana water bottles, homemade labels and all.
In terms of its uniqueness, nothing beats Latvia's Rīgas Melnais balzams ("Riga Black Balsam"). At a robust 90 proof, balzams offers "subtle hints of linden blossom, birch bud, valerian root, raspberry, bilberry, and ginger as well as touches of nutmeg and black peppercorn tease the palate and come alive in the glass." It is alleged to have cured Catherine the Great when she fell ill during a trip to Latvia and all else failed. Who could argue with that?
Apparently, most people. My father, who was born in Riga, Latvia, doesn't really like the stuff. Most people I've forced it on conclude that it's like drinking iodine. I love it. It's a part of my pre-Drynuary preparations on New Year's Day. Bonus: it comes in clay bottles, so you know it's authentic/dangerous.
Similarly, in the tradition where most local rotgut attempts to scare off the initiated with a spooky name like "Black Death," the Icelandic schnapps known as brennivín is actually a lovely, rich, almost sweet, caraway-flavored delight. The moniker "Black Death" was apparently bestowed by temperance advocates to scare people off: like most schnapps, brennivín is less potent than your standard 80-proof whiskey. It's got a warm, rye-bread aroma, is fantastic served ice cold with a beer, and is a famous accompaniment to the aforementioned infamous hakarl.
Ready to get your passport stamped? Here are some simple ideas for enjoying the black fruits of your fellow citizens of the world—pick these liquors up as you travel or follow the links in the recipes to order online.
RIGA BLACK BALSAM
To Drink: Most serving suggestions for balzams tend toward pairing it with something caffeinated, like Coca Cola or coffee. These are invariably great, but they aren't quite cocktails.
Dark and Windy
• 2 oz. Riga Black Balsam
•1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
• 4 oz. ginger ale
In a rocks glass, add lemon juice and balzams over ice, top with ginger ale. Garnish with lemon wedge and serve. The Wind was born in Liepaja, Latvia, you know.
To Eat: Latvian piragi, naturally. Doughy, bacon-y savory rolls chock full of eastern European goodness, a nice counterbalance to the bitterness of the balzams. Plus, you really need a nice base in your stomach if you're going to start mainlining balzams for the evening. Preferably while listening to Latvian pop sensations Tumsa or Prāta Vētra.
To Drink: Brennivín typically gets quaffed solo, ice cold, maybe with a beer back. Make no mistake, it's great that way, nice and simple. But I've also had it in an Icelandic coffee (self-explanatory), and tried it with eggnog during the holidays instead of bourbon or rum. The caraway flavor is perfect with dairy, like rye toast with cream cheese. Believe or not, it works.
Another Caucasian, Geir
• 2 oz. brennivín
• 1 oz. Kahlua liqueur
In a rocks glass, add brennivín and Kahlua over ice. Top with half-and-half, stir and serve. Your roll.
To Eat: I was "fortunate" enough to try hakarl in Reykjavik last Fall. Just as a favorite Ukrainian restaurant in Lithuania (I know, right?!?!?) suggests serving a boot-shaped shot glass of vodka with every beer ("Beer without vodka is a waste of money"), hakarl and brennivín go hand-in-glove. When I asked our waiter whether the brennivín was supposed to enhance or mask the flavor of rotten fermented shark, he replied "both." Right he was.
Hakarl is awesome, if nothing more than as an experience. Granted, I had it in a nice restaurant in Reykjavik—along with puffin—but methinks that Bourdain and Ramsey and others are just being dramatic for the sake of their personae (Ramsey is rumored to have puked after eating it, which is astonishing if you've ever seen him choke down bad Long Island Italian food on "Kitchen Nightmares"). The aroma is as advertised: ammonia and cat piss and wet hockey equipment. Soldiering on past that, if you're able, the cubes of Greenland shark meat were a bit spongy with a chewy core. The taste isn't that bad, not too fishy. The upsetting part is exhaling strong ammonia fumes out of your nostrils like a dragon as you chew: you really do get the strong sensation that you're deliberately poisoning yourself. Adding a sip of straight brennivín completes this sensation, although it mellows the aroma considerably. It pleases the elves.