Latvian Hare Trio, Part 1: Sautéed Loin, Blackcurrant Balsam, Barley

Black Balsam is a traditional Latvian herbal liqueur. Its recipe, created by a pharmacist living in Riga, is based on a composition of 24 different plants, flowers, buds, juices, roots, oils, and berries prepared in oak barrels. The drink itself is black and very bitter, but with a distinct sweetness to it. Admirers of chartreuse and the early novels of Poppy Z. Brite will love it. Others, maybe not so much.

Legend has it that Catherine the Great became ill during a visit to Latvia and was cured after drinking Black Balsam — one sure has to hope that such a harsh-tasting beverage has some medicinal virtues to justify consuming it. Nowadays, however, a smoother version is available, mixed with blackcurrant juice. If you have trouble finding it in the US, try mixing regular black balsam (check availability here) with crème de cassis instead.

Latvian Hare - Sautéed Loin, Blackcurrant Balzam, Barley

What does this all have to do with today’s recipe, you might ask. Well, balsam and hare have more in common than it seems: they’re both consumed in Latvia, and both can be acquired tastes. Because Latvian cuisine gravitates around a somewhat limited number of ingredients, it made sense to me to try to pair them together — and I think the association works quite well. Barley, another staple of the region, was a natural accompaniment.

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Vodkas from the Vanished Empire

During my recent trip to France, I spent some time unearthing forgotten vodka bottles scattered across my parents’ apartment in every possible cabinet and closet. Most of these bottles, acquired in the late 80’s and early 90’s, have been gathering dust ever since, quite often because of the dubious nature of the spirits they contained. Here’s a selection…

Let’s start with the most venerable member of today’s collection: a bottle of Russkaya vodka, purchased in the Soviet Union circa 1985 by my late great-aunt. Despite the level having dropped somewhere behind the neck label, this vodka was still surprisingly drinkable. It’s possible that at the time, the actual proof of alcoholic beverages matched the 40% announced on the label (by 1990, you were getting something closer to 35%). For a little history, the Russkaya brand was created in the 60’s, and by the early 80’s the production and sales rose to an impressive 1.68 billion liters, apparently making it the highest-selling hard liquor in the world.

Next up, here’s a pretty rare vodka that was one of my favorites, Krepkaya, which means “strong”. It contained 56% alcohol, and the bottle suffered some severe evaporation. In my opinion, 60% alcohol is about the limit that separates liquors that provide a pleasant, warming sensation from booze that burns your throat. The Krepkaya brand doesn’t seem to exist anymore, but bottles of unknown provenance can still be purchased from U.K. websites like this one or this one. Notice the Beriozka store price tag on the bottle cap, which seems to have been changed multiple times, maybe to cope with inflation. Depending on the year it was bought, the 6.50 price could have been in rubles or in dollars.

We’ll now enter the world of flavored vodkas — and serious food coloring. Zubrovka was (and still is) flavored with bison grass, and is famous for giving wicked headaches (granted, it’s not the only one). To be precise, the flavoring comes from an alcoholic extract of Hierochloe odorata. While the better-known Polish version is much lighter in color, the Russian one is a suspicious yellow. You can see on the picture the label’s transition from USSR to Russia. Both were still very drinkable.

As far as coloring goes, Limonnaya vodka is certainly the worst offender. The laughably yellow beverage is a complex mix of alcohol, lemon oil, lemon peel, lime alcoholic extract, sugar syrup, and water. I’ve never found that the result met the expectations of the recipe (regardless of whether the current recipe is the same as 20 years ago), so I preferred pouring the bottle down the drain. Notice that at the time the label was printed, inflation was already galloping, and the price exceeded 15 rubles.

I also found a couple of faux aged spirits. Starka is a curious blend of alcohol, water, sugar, port, and “cognac” (i.e. Soviet brandy), infused with apple and pear leaves. Not bad but not really worth the trouble. The Streletskaya was a sweeter beverage whose exact composition I couldn’t tell. This was a rather obscure brand, and although the name is still in use, I’m not sure the recipe’s the same.

And now for something completely different! Here’s a bottle of balsam. If you think chartreuse is vile / brilliant, try balsam, and imagine shooting the whole bottle with one or two friends. One old friend of mine probably still has cocktail recipes mixing balsam and brake fluid. There are so many wicked plants in this abomination that the resulting spirit is nearly pitch black. The most famous kind is Riga Black Balsam from Latvia, but various other regions also produce their own. This ones comes from Karelia, and the label represents the Church of the Transfiguration at Kizhi Pogost.

Finally, not quite from the Soviet Union but nearby, Orzechowka was an interesting Polish walnut cordial. Unlike many other Polish brands of the time, it is longer produced. The occasional bottles turn up, once again on U.K. websites like this one. But fear not! Former top-secret government courier Jack King has a recipe!

That’s all for now. If you’re looking for more Soviet paraphanelia of all kinds, check out this site, which has a very impressive collection of pictures!