THE UNIVERSAL SPIRIT OF CRETE – AND THEN SOME

THE UNIVERSAL SPIRIT OF CRETE – AND THEN SOME

Cretans hate wasting things we grow, especially when we can turn them into alcohol! So that’s the reason why, around 40 days after we press our grapes to make wine, we make a drink called ‘tsikoudia’ or ‘raki’ and start to party all over again. The word ‘raki’ is a legacy from the years when Turkey occupied Crete. Turkish raki is flavoured with aniseed and is more like our ouzo.

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Cretan tsikoudia, which is what we call it in Western Crete, is a clear sprit made from all the left-overs from the wine pressing, called the ‘pomace’ – in includes the skins and stalks of the grapes which have been left to ferment for 40 days. It’s then distilled in a ‘kazani’ (like a pot still), and since time immemorial mountain communities in Crete have been allowed a village kazani. Each community also has two or three people licensed to produce what we sometimes refer to as ‘the water that burns’ – in effect a brandy with an alcohol content of between 37% and 65%.

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IT’S SO MUCH MORE THAN JUST A DRINK

Raki is a cornerstone of Cretan culture. Visit a friend’s house and you’ll be offered a glass of raki as an ice-breaker in welcome. Dine out in any taverna and you’ll be offered a free glass or flask of raki at the end of the meal as a ‘thank you and please come again’ digestif. Friendships in Crete are made and celebrated with raki. Weddings and births are toasted in raki.

But raki is important for many uses other than just being hospitable and social. It has important medical properties. Taken internally it cures colds and fevers, it settles stomachs, remedies headaches and lowers blood pressure. Used externally we rub it on old joints and tired muscles. Most Cretans only ever go to see a doctor if they have a problem raki cannot cure.

Raki is integral to of our way of life.

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NOVEMBER IS THE SEASON OF RAKOKAZANAS AND KAZANANEMAS

Whilst autumn is a quiet time of year for tourists on Crete it’s the festival season for locals. By now we’ll have had the grape harvest festival, the chestnut festival, and the olive oil festival. The final one we squeeze in before the end of the year is variously called the rakokazana or kazananema – it’s the raki festival.

These are generally local village events. Once the fires have been stoked and the pomace is simmering, villagers, guests and even random passers-by alike, gather around the stills and wait for the clear liquid to trickle, then pour, from the taps. First to appear is what we call ‘proto-raki’ – actually it’s rocket fuel with an alcohol content around 65%, not for the faint of heart. But it also fuels the music and gaiety for what are essentially ‘open house’ parties.

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GOTTA LOTTA BOTTLE

Whilst you’ll find a bottle of raki in just about any corner shop in Crete you probably won’t find it in England. All the more reason to come to visit and take a bottle of our Universal Spirit home with you.

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