I stopped off in Poland this summer – I knew I would love it (I’ve got some good Polish friends, as well as ancestors) and indeed I did.
A factor that contributed to this was that in both the cities I visited I took an Eat Polska tour – in Warsaw it was a vodka tour, and in Krakow it was a foodies’ tour. Both were excellent, and in the process I got into email correspondence with Eat Polska’s founder, Michal Sobieszuk. It was clear from both the Eat Polska website, and our conversation, that, as well as being very knowledgable on all things culinary, Michal has a particular knowledge of vodka, and I thought that the concept of the Eat Polska business itself, the way the tours are put together, is also an interesting one.
Accordingly I invited Michal to be a Guest Contributor, with a particular focus on vodka, and I am delighted that he has accepted.
MS: My name is Michał and I’m the founder of Eat Polska culinary tours. I studied Italian Philology, and then worked as a teacher of English, but what I really liked most was travelling. I was lucky, my parents had itchy feet so by the time I was 18, I had visited most of Europe and as an adult I was able to continue getting to know some of the less obvious parts of the world.
SD: How did you came to set up Eat Polska
MS: When travelling I noticed differences between some of the places I visited and Warsaw, my home town, especially when it came to offer for individual travellers. There were really very few tours one could sign up for. With my love for the city and a little bit of understanding of what a tourist might need,
I decided to sign up to become officially trained as a city guide, I completed the training, and I started organising bike tours and free walking tours. Right from the beginning it seemed obvious to me that the ‘historical’ input in the tours needed to be balanced by some ‘culture’ elements so, together with the guides who worked with me, I started including some simple stories about Polish drinking culture into our tours.
I soon realised that this is what our guests are particularly interested in as it brings them closer to the ‘real life’ of the local people and, at the same time, enables them to understand some aspects of the Polish soul that no story about a king, or an architect or an uprising could explain. This is how the idea to make food and drink the centre of the story about Poland was born. And with it, Eat Polska.
SD: Where did your interest in vodka begin?
MS: Everybody in Poland feels like an expert in vodka. This is how I felt too, until I had the idea to tell foreigners something about it. We, the Poles, believe vodka is our national drink. At the same time, when you ask a random local about why they like a particular vodka, the will say ‘well, I just like it! It’s good to drink, it doesn’t give you hangover’. I thought this was not enough and that there must be more to it, especially if the kind of message you want to get across is ‘we should be proud of our vodka’. I started reading more and drinking more (‘more’ understood as the number of tastings, of course!) and this is how I started discovering the complexity of the vodka world.
SD: Can you tell us why so many people in western Europe and north America have the wrong idea about vodka?
MS: I guess this is because of what the concept of vodka has become in the Western world. In both European and US legislation it is described as “tasteless”, “odourless”, “neutral”, which is a certain industry standard that had led to vodka being perceived basically as ABV for your cocktail (or a quick and cheap way to get drunk when you’re a student). Originally, vodka had much more flavour, but the process of working on the liquor’s purity eventually led to not only depriving it of unwanted substances (like methanol), but also anything that actually has taste. On the other hand, many people outside Eastern Europe don’t realise how vodka functions in our (Polish, Russian, Ukrainian etc.) societies, hence questions like ‘do you drink vodka with your dinner?’ or attempts to convince everybody that vodka is traditionally served as a digestive after a meal.
Let’s explain: vodka in Eastern Europe is predominantly an element of celebration. In 99% of cases one doesn’t drink it like a glass of wine with dinner or to help one’s stomach better deal with a hearty meal. We put a bottle on the table to celebrate a birthday, a wedding (that’s when we actually put a couple dozens of bottles) or meeting a friend we haven’t seen a long time. And we actually eat a lot of fatty stuff when drinking to help the stomach better deal with alcohol, not vice versa.
SD: What about the taste and smell of vodka– is it flavourless?
MS: In many cases the smell and taste in vodkas is hard to appreciate by a non-experienced vodka drinker, however even the vodkas advertised as the purest will have certain basic differences between each other, as it is not a very difficult thing to be able to spot the difference between potato or grain vodkas, for instance.
Other than this, there’s a whole category of flavoured vodkas (and I’m not talking about quirky ideas like skittles or bacon-infused vodkas) with tiny additions of fruit distillates, single distilled vodkas that retain many more features of the base product used in distillation and, last but not least, the whole category of nalewka, which are traditional Polish fruit or herb-infused vodkas that can vary in alcohol content, hence don’t always meet legal requirements of being vodkas, but which are treated and drunk as vodkas by the Poles regardless of that.
SD: Are expensive vodkas worth the extra, and if so, why?
MS: Yes, they are. And no, they aren’t. As usual, much depends on a broader context. Let’s take fantastic single distilled new potato vodkas from Poland like Młody Ziemniak or Vestal. They cost 4-5 times more than a regular, good quality vodka, but they’re totally worth the price. The producers are making a big effort to bring the idea of terroir to vodka making, which basically means connecting a particular batch of product to a particular ingredient, location or climate by means of a single distillation, which allows retention of a vast range of aromas from the original ingredient in the end product.
There are also vodkas that may be aged (for as long as 50 years!), like Polish Starka, so quite naturally, this long maturing period needs to be reflected in price and, to a certain extent, justifies it. On the other hand, there are plenty vodkas belonging to super-premium categories where the price is mostly a consequence of heavy advertising, which might include engaging a celebrity to become a brand ambassador, a fancy bottle design, or using not-necessarily-indispensable production methods like diamond dust filtration, which of course sounds fancy, but doesn’t do a better job in purifying the vodka than, say, popular charcoal filters. All in all, if the high price equates to an unusual, rare taste of vodka, I’d go for it. If, on the other hand, it equals ‘exclusive feel’, I’d rather spend that money on something else.
SD: Why do so many people think vodka only comes from Russia?
MS: Russia is the biggest vodka market in the world, this is where the most vodka per capita in the world is consumed, this is where some well known vodka brands originate from, so no surprise many people connect the birthplace of vodka with Russia. The truth is, despite a long dispute, there are no conclusive arguments pointing to Russia being home of vodka. It’s only fair to add, that there are no such arguments supporting the Polish claim to be the place where vodka comes from either. To me, it doesn’t really matter, because what is important, is that vodka is definitely an Eastern European thing and deciding who was first to produce it doesn’t really bother me much. Both Russia and Poland make great vodkas, so I guess we would both be better off dedicating the energy we spend trying to find out who was first to actually promoting our vodka better – and making better vodka!
SD: Why do some people freeze vodka and is this a good idea?
MS: Freezing vodka is a pretty new concept. Exactly as new as freezers are. The quality of vodka in the countries that drink the most (i.e. Eastern Europe) during the time when freezers started becoming popular household appliances was not the best. Freezing anything dramatically lowers the potential of any sensory analysis (for some reason no sensible person would drink cognac frozen), so it was a way to get rid of the bed smell and taste. Because many people liked the concept of vodka as tasteless and flavourless, they happily followed (and still follow) the myth about the need of freezing vodka. Is this a good idea? In some instances, sure, why not! As mentioned before, in Poland vodka is an important part of the culture of celebration. During a wedding, glasses are raised dozens of times and, let’s be honest, in such situations we don’t drink to admire complexity of flavour notes, so it’s ok if the vodka is neutral, which is what a low serving temperature helps achieve. On the other hand, when you want to really feel the flavour of a vodka, just serve it chilled (5-10 degrees C. is going to be ok), or even drink it at room temperature. It is only then that the beautiful taste of vodka can be fully appreciated.
For a post about the best vodka brands follow this link.
Below, Michal gives his recipe for making nalewka – a good use of a bottle of not-that-good vodka. This version uses strawberries but you can experiment with other fruit.
Recipe for making nalewka
• 2 kg strawberries
• 0.5 kg white sugar
• 1 litre rectified spirit (or Everclear, or vodka)
• 200 ml water
• 2 limes
• 2-3 empty vodka bottles
• big jar
• coffee filters
1. Wash strawberries, remove stems and cut the fruits in halves.
2. Put the strawberries in a jar and sprinkle with sugar. Leave for 8-12 hours in warm place.
3. After that time they should have released the juices. Pourthe alcohol and water over the strawberries and sugar and leave in a dark place for 6 weeks. Wait. Be patient. Don’t drink it yet!
4. After 6 weeks the fruits will become more pale and the alcohol is go to absorb the aroma and colour. Now take the strawberries out of the jar and strain them over a sieve for a couple of hours. Throw the fruit away (or eat them!), but don’t get rid of the strained liquid! This goes back inside the jar, along with limes zest and squeezed lime juice. Wait another two weeks.
5. Now the part requiring the most patience begins. Strain the infused alcohol and filter it through coffee filters. This will take time. Stir the liquid in the filter every now and again. Change the filters every couple of hours. If you do it slow, you will be rewarded with a beautiful clear, ruby red vodka that is ready to serve!
For a post on how to make damson gin (very similar process to nalewka) follow this link.