Moonshining is something of a national sport in Hungary, strictly part of the private sphere, into which the state has no right to intrude. The mere idea of being fined for distilling a few litres for personal consumption is greeted with indignation, outrage even.
Walking to my friend Karcsi Bácsi's terraced house, I had to take care not to slip on the squashed cherries that covered the pavements. Every garden was full of fruit trees, branches laden down with a plentiful harvest. Karcsi Bácsi was delighted to see me, eager to impart his wisdom on the noble pursuit of pálinka distillation. His eyes gleamed as he recounted the history of the clear nectar with the childlike enthusiasm of a true connoisseur and expert:
Karcsi Bácsi: Distilling pálinka has been a tradition here for several centuries. It would not be true to say that pálinka is a Hungarian invention; rather that it was a conscious invention of humanity as a whole. From what I have heard, it was a matter of pure coincidence that our ancestors made the discovery that strong alcoholic drinks could be made from fruit.
Several elderly people have told me that primitive man and medieval man alike cultivated grapes for purposes of producing wine. They pressed the grapes and ended up with a pile of leftovers. They did not bother about these leftovers and so they lay around until they started to ferment. They did not destroy it. They kept it for feeding to their small domestic animals, such as chickens and ducks.
To their astonishment, they noticed that the ducks became drunk on the alcohol content, wandering around in a complete stupor, rolling about on the ground, quacking uncontrollably, swaying in ridiculous movements. Then it dawned on them that this concentrate must have a powerful effect. It did not take long for them to give it a taste, and they soon latched on to just how pleasant it was.
I believe that the first invention was to use grape pomace, the leftovers from pressing the grapes, and this is why the type of pálinka produced from this matter is referred to as grape skin pálinka. They did not have to buy anything else for producing this kind of pálinka. Beyond the grape skins, all that they needed was water and sugar.
The sugar is required for the fermentation process and, as the alcoholic strength increases, you can calculate how much you should use, determining the best state in which to blend the grape skins with the sugar. You also have to take care over finding the correct temperature - the ideal is around ten degrees [Celsius].
That was what they were able to figure out. They also cottoned on to the fact that the pálinka has to be produced in a closed system. Otherwise the alcohol evaporates, leaving behind a taste, but no alcoholic strength.
The way that our ancestors solved this problem was to create a closed covering - of course even in those days there were coopers, so they were perfectly capable of making barrels - which they did by trampling on mud or clay - I actually saw this with my own eyes during my childhood - out on the farmstead.
There was no covering, so they trampled mud to create a covering for the vessel, thereby creating a perfect closed system and ensuring that the pálinka, or the crush as it still was at that stage, would have an alcohol content. It is one of the interesting features of the process that the sugar has to be added during pálinka distillation, because fruit already has a high natural sugar content.
That is certainly true of grapes. For every one hundred litres of pálinka you need about four or five kilos of sugar. That is the advised amount, but you have to learn from experience to develop a feel for how much should be added.
The sugar is indispensable, as it makes sure that the proper fungi are present as well as starting off the fermentation process. You must avoid putting in too much sugar, though, as it ruins the quality of the finished product, making it so strong that you can no longer taste the original fruit.
In the past, the amount of sugar added to pálinka was subject to some variation, because if we used apricots, for example, they have a very limited dry matter content compared to, say, pears or apples or grape skins in particular. For the latter, considerably smaller amounts are called for: up to seven or eight kilos for pears and the rest.
Now, where was I?
The distillation process. After an appropriate period of time has elapsed for ripening, the crush becomes a dense mass, and when this mass ripens further, it settles on the bottom and releases its entire moisture content, so that you can see a watery-like liquid if you look at it from above.
It is not a clear liquid yet, but takes its colour from whatever fruit it consisted of: if apricots were used then it will be yellow, if plums were used then it has a brownish colour similar to the flesh of the fruit. The colour, then, depends entirely on the variety of fruit.
Once the fruit itself sinks to the bottom, then you may proceed to the actual distillation, which takes place in a closed container. The liquid is boiled, producing an alcoholic vapour, which condenses and collects on the inside lining of the container before dripping down out of a tube due to being kept under pressure.
The tube is generally made of copper, since this gives a pleasant aroma to the pálinka. The liquid, as I say, makes an exit through this tube and you are free to collect it, but more recent experience has taught us that it needs to be cooled straight away.
Normally speaking, it passes through a water-cooling system, in other words the boiling distillate is on the inside of the tube and coolant water is on the outside, and then the end product drips into a separate vessel. The pálinka is not drinkable after this initial distillation because it is very strong indeed and still fairly wild (vad). The condensed liquid has to be thoroughly redistilled and purified.
You have to be very careful when tasting this initial distillate because it has an amazingly high alcohol content. It is almost like drinking pure alcohol with all the dangers to the human organism that this implies. As it undergoes the further distillations, however, it becomes more diluted and is eventually drinkable.
A good quality distillate should be around 40 to 45% proof, the alcoholic strength can be measured with appropriate instruments. Keeping distillates over 45% proof is not a good idea as all you can taste is the alcohol rather than the fruit. After all we do not produce pálinka just for the sake of inducing a dazed state of alcoholic intoxication, but in order to enjoy the aromas and flavours of the fruit.
The final distillates have to be allowed to rest for a minimum of five to six months. During this period, they have to be poured into another vessel twice. This procedure is known as airing the pálinka. With a view to ensuring that unnecessary gases are removed from the distillate, it has to be kept at a low temperature of around ten degrees. That is the optimum sort of temperature. The longer the pálinka is left to stand, the better it tastes, the more the flavour of the original fruit comes to the fore.
At the present moment, we prepare the so-called "crush" in a 120-litre plastic barrel, which means that we fill it with round about 100 litres of raw materials. Of course, we dilute it immediately. If we feel like speeding up the maturation process we mill the fruit base.
Another very important point to take note of is that with any fruit - well, maybe this does not apply to apples - whether you are talking about plums or apricots, you must make certain that none of the stones are mixed in with the distilling matter. Not only do the stones give rise to a bitterish taste, but they also give off cyanide gas...
CER: Another instance of cyanide poisoning on the Tisza!
Karcsi Bácsi: ...that's a good one! You have to be quite meticulous about keeping stones out at all costs.
Pálinka distillation is, as you know, an activity that the state has appropriated unto itself. This means that private individuals are not supposed to distil at home. What am I supposed to do, though, when I go out into my garden and there are ten or twenty kilos of apricots that have fallen off the tree because of strong winds, heavy rainfall or storms and they are no good for making jam and I can't sell them as marketable produce?
I would feel bad about throwing them out and so I try to derive some benefit from them for myself. I don't have a guilty conscience about it because I don't sell the pálinka I distil. What I make is just for me. If there isn't any pálinka, then too bad, there isn't any and that's all there is to it! Making pálinka is, you see, quite a changeable undertaking. Let me give you an example. This year, whilst the trees were in blossom, we had an unexpected frost followed by a foggy period and this totally ruined the apricot harvest. There are only about three or four apricots on the entire tree...
CER: That's nothing!
Karcsi Bácsi: ...nothing at all. This is by no means an unusual occurrence. The apricot is a highly sensitive plant anyway. If conditions are absolutely right, apricots are capable of incredible results, but if conditions are less than ideal, everything goes to the dogs.
Of all the fruits, the plum is perhaps the hardiest, the most resistant. You might get 10 to 20% less in a bad year, or more in a good one depending on your luck, but with plums there is no such thing as a complete failure in production. Although it is the most reliable fruit, plum pálinka is not nearly as delicious as apricot.
Kecskemét and district, in the central part of Hungary, is the most renouned area for producing apricots and apricot pálinka . A few decades ago, the Prince of Wales visited the region and the first Hungarian word that he learned, after having been made to taste pálinka , was "the apeecot" [instead of "a barack", the pronunciation was garbled to "a bahack"]. The following morning when he woke up, his first words were "the apeecot".
Personally speaking, I appreciate pálinka more than any other variety of spirits, whether we be talking about whisky, brandy or whatever. The reason why is that only pálinka is a pure, perfect extract from fruit, a taste of unspoilt, unadulterated nature, made from entirely natural products.
Using fruit for pálinka distillation is something that dates back to the days of our ancestors. I do not know exactly when this tradition began, but I do know that it was always primarily a village tradition. I think it is fairly easy to understand why this should be the case. pálinka is fruit-based, and fruit was grown in the villages.
Another interesting aspect is that pálinka is an extremely healthy beverage. In the old days, farming was not mechanised. From dawn to dusk the harvest was brought in by hand; the wheat was scythed by hand. The pálinka they partook of was known as "harvester's pálinka ". It is also worthwhile noting why they drank "harvester's pálinka ."
As you know, harvesting took place in the heat of summer. Every morning they would drink a small tot of pálinka , which has a fairly high alcohol content. They breathed out the alcohol, it evaporated through their pores if you like. Evaporation involves a drop in temperature, and so they did not feel nearly as hot having drunk the pálinka as they would otherwise have felt without it.
Naturally, they had to be careful about the quantities they consumed, because if they drank two tots, it had the opposite effect. They were very attentive to the kind of pálinka they wanted to produce. They deliberately manufactured a weaker distillate of around 35 to 40% proof, not table pálinka , in other words, which is suitable for consumption in winter as well.
Under the old regime, the state monopoly was particularly pronounced and was manufactured on a large scale in industrial plants. Because of the mass-production methods, the quality of the pálinka suffered. They did not bother about treating the raw materials with proper care, the fruit base turned sour and the bottled pálinka that graced the shelves was of truly inferior quality.
Very often it had an unpleasant taste and smell, and many people used to refer to this by saying that "this pálinka is too loud". Its odour was so unpleasant that it virtually yelled out loud when the lid of the bottle was unscrewed. The lesson to be learned is that pálinka should not be mass-produced, but lovingly distilled in small batches with due care and attention.
This approach has become more widespread recently and we can now be proud of our pálinka , we can offer a glass of it to anyone and everyone would drink it with pleasure. If someone is not familiar with its properties he will soon figure out that it represents a marvellous way of whetting the appetite, that it lowers high blood pressure and aids digestion, but all this only holds true if it is drunk in moderation. If it is consumed greedily or in excess, if we imbibe a bit more than we ought to, we might suffer serious problems such as cirrhosis of the liver and alcoholism. I don't need to explain what that can lead to.
|Travelling to Hungary soon? Choose Hotels Central at HotelsHungary.com to reserve a hotel online at a great price.|
From pleasure to harm
After such an eloquent tribute to the wondrous medicinal effects of the home-distilled pálinka, a sampling session was in order. Firstly, we tasted the apricot of which Karcsi Bácsi is so fond, and I must admit that, although I have tasted many home-made tipple (one particularly memorable such dram being a 75% proofer at a garden party in Debrecen), none could beat Karcsi's. As he uncorked the unlabelled bottle, the warm fragrance of a perfect summer afternoon wafted gently through the living room. We sipped at it, allowing it to wash slowly down to the back of the throat to appreciate it to the full.
Karcsi was slightly more reticent about the second, a young pear distillate, which he feared would be too raw and untamed for consumption. Never fear, Karcsi! It may be slightly juvenile, but I have a glass of it next to me now as I write!
We whiled away the early evening with further talk of washing the fruit thoroughly before use, removing any pests such as tiny maggots and debating whether it is better to pick the fruit from the tree when it is fairly ripe or to go the whole hog and wait for it to fall to guarantee maximum sugar content.
Slightly merrier than I had been on arrival, I took my leave of Karcsi Bácsi. Not everyone has the strength of will to drink in moderation, as my friend Karcsi had been so keen to emphasise. Alcohol can become a prop in adversity, an escape from impossible circumstances, destroying both individuals and families. Dedicated professionals are left to pick up the pieces. In order to investigate what facilities are on offer to help the less fortunate, who become dependent on alcohol, I made my way to the teaching hospital (Szent-Györgyi Albert Orvostudományi Egyetem Oktató Kórháza), where I had the honour of meeting Dr Judit Honti, Co-ordinator of the Central-Eastern European Harm Reduction Network, member of the organisation's Steering Committee.
Dr Honti works at the Addiktológiai Klinika, commonly known (incorrectly) in the local vernacular as "the detoxification centre". It is located in a side wing to the main part of the building, and, like many another hospital ward in the beleaguered Hungarian health service, looks slightly the worse for wear. Patients wandered around the neon-illuminated corridors, and relatives waited next to the treatment rooms. The atmosphere was not oppressive but peaceful and orderly, the staff obviously highly efficient.
CER: Thank you for agreeing to meet me, Dr Honti. Could you perhaps say a few words about the age profile of hard drinkers in Hungary and Csongrád County in particular? Have you noticed any striking changes since the collapse of Communism?
Dr Honti: First of all, concerning the age profile: the age at which young people start drinking has dropped somewhat, but it would be incorrect to maintain that there has been an explosive growth in the numbers of young people hitting the bottle regularly. Many middle-aged people fall prey to alcohol addiction, and after 10 to 15 years of regular bouts of heavy drinking they are ripe for admission to hospital. It is difficult to persuade them to change their habits by that stage, however.
Turning to the social situation in general since the changeover to democracy. In the latter half of the 1990s, homeless people have become increasingly conspicuous. Although I have no precise statistical data to back up what I am saying, I would maintain nevertheless that there have been no drastic changes since the collapse of Communism. The most vulnerable groups are worse off in terms of their living conditions, however. Their general social situation has deteriorated. They have a poor diet and lifestyle with all the accompanying complications these imply.
CER: Could you tell me about the detoxification clinic? Is it unique to Szeged?
Dr Honti: It is not a detoxification clinic, since we treat other illnesses as well. We do not, in other words, exclusively devote our efforts to treating alcoholics, but we are a general psychiatric unit for age-related illnesses such as dementia, for diseases such as schizophrenia, which covers far more than simply tackling dependency. Six or seven years ago, drugs started to make their presence felt in Hungary, adding a further dimension to our work. There are similar units elsewhere in the country, but alcoholics tend to receive treatment in general psychiatric wards.
There are one or two exceptions with separate alcohological departments. As a general rule, however, there has not been any shift towards separating alcoholics from psychiatric patients. We have a uniform health insurance system in Hungary: each individual is entitled to health care. The treatment provided is more or less the same nationwide.
I mentioned the drugs phenomenon earlier. Drugs are not the biggest problem we face. Alcoholism is far and away the worst; in fact there is no justification for mentioning the drug problem in the same breath as the alcohol problem. We have 105 beds to provide care for Szeged and the surrounding towns and villages, covering a population of some 450,000, roughly 200,000 of whom belong to Szeged city.
We also cover the southern part of Csongrád County, representing the only treatment centre for alcoholism and alcohol-related problems for this entire area. Just to give you a rough idea of the scale of the problem: out of 150 admissions, 45% will be alcohol-related and 55% for all other psychiatric disorders, including senile dementia. In certain months, there is a degree of variation, with alcohol-related problems accounting for around 60% of the total.
CER: Is alcoholism primarily a problem in the city or in the surrounding villages?
Dr Honti: In the villages and on the farmsteads. We have diagrams to illustrate this. The problem is more pronounced in the villages because of the tradition of home distilling. In the Alföld, both wine and pálinka are produced. Wine production is in some cases semi-legal, whereas pálinka distillation is completely outlawed. Virtually everyone around the farmsteads grows fruit or grapes to make their own alcohol, whereas in the city, alcohol is available from small and large retailers and from pubs. In the villages, the home produced alcohol is consumed on festive occasions. Easter is a particularly bad time for excessive consumption, as are Christmas and the New Year. Alcohol is drunk in large quantities on special family occasions such as weddings, birthdays and name days; five or six times a year on average.
Drinking also forms an integral part of farmer's lifestyles. Some farmers working the land may drink up to two litres of wine a day or half a litre of pálinka. They spread this out carefully over the day as a whole, so that they never actually get drunk. Every two or three hour they take a sip, so they do not regard their habit as a problem, they do not, as I say, end up drunk and they are not admitted to hospital.
Clearly, after 10 to 15 years of this type of consumption very serious problems arise, ranging from liver disorders to diseases of the nervous system. When they do finally turn to a doctor, it is not in conjunction with alcoholism but with the other problems caused by overindulgence in alcohol.
There is also social pressure to drink, particularly in the villages and on the farms. From early adulthood onwards, from the age of 16 or 17, when youngsters take part fully in the life of the family farm, they acquire the habits of their elders. Other social factors, such as level of education, also have a part to play.
Alcoholism is more prevalent amongst the low-schooled, such as unskilled labourers, painters and decorators and construction workers where having a pint with the lads is part of the daily ritual. Amongst teenagers at secondary schools, there is more pressure to smoke or experiment with drugs than there is to drink. When they set off on school trips, only legal substances are permitted [alcohol being a legal substance].
CER: What about women and drink? Has there been an increase in the numbers of women seeking solace from alcohol?
Dr Honti: Alcoholism continues to be a male problem in the main. It is very difficult to prove this with figures, as we are not required to pass on statistical information to any Ministry. Drugs are a different story: every single case has to be notified to the appropriate authorities, including information on what kind of drug was taken and when as well as whether it was taken intravenously or orally.
Records must also be kept of all cases of HIV. What this boils down to is that it is far easier to keep tabs on these problems and discern trends there. There is a lot of grey data on alcohol. Regional chief medical officers may compile information on an informal basis, but there is not exactly an oversupply of written documents. All I can do is give you my impressions about developments.
CER: What do you think about the government's attitude to alcoholism? Could something more be done? Are there problems of under funding?
Dr Honti: There is a difference depending on whether someone's life is destroyed by alcohol or whether the mafia or some other monopoly enters into the picture as well. This is not an easy matter for the government, because if it receives information about a problem, it has no choice but to react and this can be a very costly exercise indeed. Although the alcohol problem cries out for attention in terms of its sheer scale, the government has been forced to develop a drugs strategy with serious amounts of funding.
If you take any time to think seriously about the problems, alcoholism assumes terrifying proportions and tackling it would cost infinitely more than combating drug addiction. At international level, there are not such great expectations about combating alcoholism as there are about combating drugs. Moreover, alcoholism is not linked to the mafia or money laundering, it wreaks havoc and destruction quietly, but with far more devastating results. There is a political dimension. In a nutshell: alcohol is a legal drug.
CER: I have heard that the village of Makó near Szeged has the dubious distinction for holding the world record for suicides per head of population. Is there a link between alcohol consumption and suicide?
Dr Honti: Once again, I do not have any figures for Southeast Hungary or Hungary in general. At one stage some 5,000 successful attempts were officially reported, but the numbers are beginning to decline. The statistics have been massaged anyway due to the introduction of a new, code-based insurance system. Illnesses are allocated certain codes reflecting differences in funding.
A few years ago, there were certain pathologies that were virtually unknown, but which now crop up with ever-greater regularity. At the same time, the number of officially recorded suicides or suicide attempts has fallen. When an attempted suicide is admitted to hospital, they are not recorded as attempted suicides, but as sufferers of chronic depression, social stress or personality disorders, or as persons in a state of acute crisis. All because this entitles the hospital to a bigger refund from the insurer.
I realise this is cynical, but the code-based system has seriously damaged the validity of statistics compiled. Alcohol-related problems form a very important part of our day-to-day dealings, but we do not compile statistics routinely. I could do so for purposes of research. As for funding, the main problem is the lack of decent remuneration for the staff. We do not have any equipment shortages; we do not need to purchase an operating theatre or anything like that. Any money to provide us with nicer surroundings would be more than welcome, of course, and psychiatric medication is expensive.
The medication needed to combat alcoholism is, by contrast, very cheap indeed. Low pay places limits on the number of staff available. We have 30 nurses fewer than what would be required in order to comply with minimum standards. The situation is deteriorating. There are plans afoot to privatise health care. I do not know whether this is a good idea or not, I leave it up to the economic experts to decide. You could take the example of factories and other companies that constantly made a loss. It might be cheaper in the long run if such companies are privatised.
CER: But would privatisation mean that the homeless would be turned away at the door instead of given proper treatment?
Dr Honti: No, since any patient automatically generates income for the hospital. As I pointed out earlier, everyone is fully entitled to health care.
CER: Dr Honti, thank you very much for sacrificing your valuable time.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 5 June 2000
Photo Credit: Emil-Nicolaie Perhinschi