Yes, it’s legal. And a popular pastime in Polish households for all ages. OK, not for the under-aged. Surplus fruits are used not only to be converted into preserves, but also for making nalewki. It’s not creating alcohol, but transforming it into a different tipple. If you’re producing moonshine, e.g. converting potatoes to spirit (said to be a common in-the-basement clandestine activity in Polish countryside), then, yes, you have to watch it that you don’t slip onto the wrong side of the law.
I am quite fond of cherry nalewka. Traditional Polish restaurants sometimes slip you a complimentary shot with the bill. Below is a piece on the gist of nalewka.
The How’s and W’s of Nalewki (August 2005, Warsaw Insider)
“It’s a way to enjoy the quince from our garden,” Sławek explains. And Jerzy sees it as an excellent method for using up the abundant summer and autumn fruits. Potting jams, you think. No, it’s something just as traditional but more intoxicating.
What is nalewka (singular)? For ‘home-brewers’ like Jerzy and Sławek, nalewka is a liquor made by steeping fruits in a mixture of vodka and rectified alcohol. With time, the fruits surrender their true nature to the spirits. There’s no fermentation. No further distillation. Just a waiting game. Then filter out the dregs and you have a traditional Polish tipple that is exalted for its taste, aroma and healing powers.
Who started it? In Poland, the blaming or complimentary finger is pointed at the 16th century monks.
Who makes them now? Just about anybody. Who has patience. “My grandfather’s fond of his drink. He could never wait long enough for the nalewka to mature,” smiles Jerzy. Wojtek, a cherry nalewka devotee, agrees, “Macerate the cherries for three months. After removing the fruit, the alcohol mellows for another two months. That’s patience.”
What can you dunk in? Just about anything. Jerzy likes blackcurrants for its taste and color. Many have family recipes for cherry nalewka. Other common choices are plums and green walnuts. But there’s recipes for fresh and dried fruits, berries with exotic names, nuts, herbs, spices, honey and even flower petals and garlic.
What first time nalewka-makers should know?
Sławek: “Make lots of it. You’ll like it. Your friends will like it. The stock won’t last.”
Jerzy: “Keep the work-in-progress under lock and key.”
When to make nalewki? Whenever. There’s nothing to stop you from making tangerine nalewka right smack in the middle of winter. But the stress is on capturing the freshness, so timing is key. The same recipe can yield a different concoction for the fruits’ basking time in the sun dictates their flavors and juiciness.
Walnuts: in July, two weeks after the night of St. John’s day to be precise. Harvest the green, unripe walnuts, still soft enough to be diced to bits.
Cherries: in July. “Wait till they are very ripe and dark before plucking them from the tree,” says Wojtek.
Quince: between September and October. “The fruits have turned yellow and about to fall off the bush,” says Sławek.
Plums: in early autumn. Mix the well-ripen plums with prunes.
Rowanberries: in October when the berries ripen and harvested after the first frost.
Blackthorn berries: also after the first frost when the fruit has lost its bitterness.
What equipment do you need? “Glass containers are best,” says Jerzy, “Transparent too, so that you can observe the progress. And some gauze or cork as covers.”
How long to leave the ingredients in the alcohol? Jerzy’s verdict on blackcurrants and walnuts: “The longer the better.”
Sławek’s insight: “Once you mixed the quince juice with the alcohol, you can drink it immediately.”
Wojtek’s tip: “You’ve to remove the bag with the cherry pits after three months, otherwise they introduce an unpleasant acidic taste.”
What do you do with the fruits after the maceration process? Monika, Wojtek’s daughter, creatively incorporated the alcohol-laden cherries into her chocolate gâteaux. Which I blithely served to my 6-year-old. Magda’s friend chucked the drunken blackcurrants into the garden’s bin. She later found her hens, having nibbled on the forbidden fruits, perched on the fence, doing a strip-tease of plumage-plucking.
How well does nalewki age? Sławek’s batches never last more than two years so he is amused and stumped by the question. In commercial production, after the solids are removed, the spirits is poured into oak casks and kept in cool cellars for some months.
How potent is the drink? Generally from 30% – 45%. “Mine are at least 60%,” Wojtek chuckles.
How does it taste and look like? The hues, mostly in various shades of amber and burgundy, are richer and more intense than flavored vodka. The liquid has a viscosity similar to vodka’s. My taste buds register all the essence of cherry when I sipped Wojtek’s nalewka. The mirabelle nalewka brings memories of the preserved Chinese sour plums I used to snack on in my formative years. The pepper version warms me up immediately with its spiciness though it has added honey. Walnut is mildly bitter, with a scent reminiscent of the Chinese herbal and roots liquors in my mother’s larder. The rowanberry and cranberry’s sweetness is tempered with tartness. Like my sample of sweet-toothed home-brewers, the dry nalewki, such as herbs, chokeberry and blackthorn, do not go down well with me. I must abstain now least I join the ranks of Nalewka Anonymous.
What good can nalewki do? Once upon a time, before they knew better, nalewki were kept in medicine cabinets strictly for pharmaceutical purposes. When I imbibe mine, I am comforted by the thoughts that my health is rosier by the minute. There are claims that cranberry liquor is teeming with vitamins. And I can eat all I want and count on walnut nalewka to expunge the ills of over-indulgence. But let’s hear it from the aficionados:
Wojtek: “It’s a good preventive medicine in autumn. It warms you up and stops you from catching a cold.”
Sławek: “When I have a small amount every evening in autumn and winter, I don’t catch a cold.”
Jerzy: “My good health comes from maintaining an active lifestyle.”
How to serve nalewki? Dunk it in the freezer next to your vodka. Don’t. Serve nalewki at room temperature. Slightly chill the dry ones. Nalewki are traditionally rolled out in the evenings in oval decanters and poured into cordial glasses (approx. 30ml). The sweet ones are good as desserts. My head spins, not from drink, but from the school of what fruit case goes with duck, pheasant or wild boar.
How to drink nalewki? Blurt “na zdrowie”, tip the glass back and gulp it in one go. Don’t. “Sip it slowly,” says Jerzy. And in moderation – sober ways to savor the effort nature and traditions have instilled into nalewki.
TRIED & TESTED RECIPES
Wojtek’s Cherry Nalewka (total time – 5 months): 3kg of cleaned, de-pitted cherries, 10g of cherry pits in a gauze bag (for easy removal later), 1 liter rectified alcohol (95%), 1 liter vodka (± 40%), 1 kg sugar or 1 liter honey. Put all the ingredients in a glass container. Cover. Leave for 3 months in a warm and bright place. Remove the pits and cherries. Move to a dark cool place for 2 months. First tasting at Christmas.
Sławek’s Quince Nalewka (total time – 2-3 days): Remove the pits. In a glass container, alternate a layer of fruits (about 2 cm) with a layer of sugar. The amount of sugar is up to you. Continue and end with a layer of sugar. Allow space for the pulps to float up as juice is drawn from the fruits. This takes 1-2 days. Filter. For 4 liters of juice, add 2 liters of rectified alcohol (95%). Ready for bottling or immediate consumption.
Jerzy’s Blackcurrant Nalewka (total time – 3 months): To draw the juice, add 1kg sugar to 1 kg of fruit. Cover the container with gauze, keep away from direct sunlight. Remove the juice. Add 0.5liter vodka (40%) to the fruits. Leave for 2 weeks. Add 0.5 liter of rectified alcohol (90%). Leave for 2.5months. Remove the fruits. Ready for bottling or immediate consumption.