Gastronomy
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An Istrian still for making rakija / trapa. Photo courtesy of Klaudijo Lazarić.

Homemade Rakija - Trapa

trapa s.f. - grappa,  prodotto della distillazione della vinaccia. Attestato anche a Trieste, Pola, Rovigno, Grado, nel bis. e nel frl; nel ven. col senso di  «vinaccia». Dal tedesco Treber «vinacce», prob. incrociatosi con grappa. [dal Dizionario storico del dialetto di Capodistria di Giulio de Manzini (Trieste - Rovigno, 1995).]

Istrian rakija / trapa is made from the husks and seeds (dropini; must) that are left over from the wine-making process. In the days before superhighways and modern technology, this was done entirely by hand. Much of the ancient tradition and methodology still exist in Istria today.

Preparing the Must

After the wine is racked, the must (grape skins and seeds) are put into a separate container where they are kept for about 3-4 weeks so that the remaining sugar in the must is converted into alcohol. The must is usually preserved in big metal or tinned container (mastel), as it is called in certain areas of Istria.

On top of the must place a wooden cover and on top of it place a heavy weight so that during fermentation the must does not rise. If there is insufficient weight, the must rises and this can cause the must to dry up or even become vinegary and become unusable for the production of rakija. It is advisable to also include into the must the wine slurry (lees) that remains after racking the wine (carefully decanting the wine so as not to stir the bottom of the barrel where the lees settles).

Standard Rakija

When it comes to making standard (non-herbal) rakija the must is not spiked with herbs or herbal flowers during or after fermentation and before distillation. You use only grape skins, seeds and wine lees, if available. The distillation process for the standard and the herbal rakija is otherwise identical.

Herbal Rakija

When it comes to making herbal rakija the important thing is the proportion of different herbs so that all of them can be tasted and none of them is dominant over the others. Our elders did not have a precision scale to weigh these herbs but they knew from experience how to mix them to perfection.

Each person places in the rakija the types of herbs that are locally available. There are many others, but here is Klaudijo's list of preferred herbs that he adds to the rakija:

  • sage (kuš, salvia)
  • fennel (koromač)
  • caraway seeds (kimel)
  • peppermint (menta)
  • lemon balm (melisa
  • basil (bašelak)
  • marjoram (mažoran)
  • garden thyme (timijan)
  • wild thyme (majčina dušica)
  • rosemary (ružmarin)
  • lavender (lavanda)
  • everlasting (smilje)
  • laurel berries or leaves (javorove bobice)
  • juniper berries (smrikva krvava)
  • blue juniper leaves (smrikva plava)
  • common rue (ruda)
All the collected herbs are finely chopped and then thoroughly mixed. It is even better to collect the flowers of these herbs when they are in bloom. The flowers are prepared by stretching them on a cardboard or wooden board and dried in the shade. When dry, place them into a glass jar and cover it with rakija or zunta from last year and thus preserved wait for the rakija season: late autumn.

The prepared flowers can be placed directly on top of the must in the still just before distillation, or it can be mixed into the must while it is still fermenting.

As in the preparation of must for ordinary rakija, you start placing the must into the container (today these containers are mostly made of plastic). In the case of herbal rakija, however, you place the must in layers. For approximately every 20 centimeters (8 inches) of must which is properly leveled and slightly compressed to bring liquid to the surface, sprinkle in the prepared herbs. The amount of herbs on top of each layer is difficult to judge, because nothing is measured but sprinkled «by eye» and then the results show who is/isn't a true rakija wizard.

After sprinkling the herbs, it is good to add in 2-3 grated apples and as many quinces. And so we keep repeating, must and herbs with apples and quinces built up like a "torte" as long as there is must. On top of this "torte" place a wooden cover and on top of it a heavy weight (a couple of heavy stones). Over the container you should place nylon or plastic to protect it from dust. This preparation of must is then allowed to ferment for 3-4 weeks. Recently, people learned to place a heavy nylon on top of the container, and on top of it place water as a weight, and filling it to the top of the container. This way, the must has better protection from the air, and the water is a better-distributed weight over the entire surface of the must.

Distilling the Rakija

Preparing for distillation

Before you start the distillation, you have to carefully examine the must and prepare good dried firewood, sterilize the bottles for the rakija, and the and prepare the still (distiller). The basic ingredients are the:

  • Must - the prepared leftover grape husks and seeds, kept in an open wooden wine barrel
  • Firewood - gathered, cut and set near the distiller
  • Wine bottles - thoroughly cleaned and ready for use
  • The distiller (a.k.a. still) - thoroughly cleaned prior to each use

The distiller (lambik, lambico, still in English) was usually rented by the individual farmers and it traveled from village to village. The owner of the distiller was paid by barter: a quantity of rakija or other agricultural products in exchange for the use of the distiller. The distiller is made of copper and consisted of six major components:

  1. four-legged fire stand,
  2. bottom part of the boiler,
  3. middle part of the boiler,
  4. head,
  5. pipes leading to the condenser, and
  6. condenser.

The condenser is a standing steel barrel filled with water which had a serpentine piping running inside of the barrel from the top to the bottom of the barrel, and as the vapours of the rakija pass through the serpentine pipe, the vapours condense and collect into the bottles as liquid rakija.

The distilling process

When ready to make rakija, there are some preliminary steps taken: the wood is prepared for the fire and the bottles and the distiller are thoroughly cleaned.

To start, one first set up up the wood for the fire and then come the setting up the distiller-boiler by placing rye straw on the bottom of the inside of the boiler. Alternately, if the pot (lambik) has a perforated cover that separates the bottom of the boiler and the must, do the following: at the bottom of the lambik, place the perforated cover and pour through a couple of bottles of old wine, zunta or the wine lees. If you do not have any of these liquids, use water. The important thing is that the bottom has some kind of liquid so that the must does not bake (rye straw plays this role when used in a lambik that do not have a perforated cover option). Then you loosely place the must into the pot up to the designated line, not to overload the still. After that you install the hood and the rest of the still. The boiler, the middle part, and the head of the boiler are then clamped together with bolt-anchors, and the pipe is connected between the boiler head and serpentine pipe condenser. Between the body and the hood of the still is an edge, which you fill with water. The water is also placed into the water reservoir where you immerse the spiral of copper so that water will cool the alcohol vapor into liquid as it emerges out of the tube into the bottle.

Everything is now ready to make rakija. The still (lambik) is ready to be lit. The flame cannot be very high; rather the must has to be gradually warmed up with an even heat. It takes about 45 minutes of gradual heating before rakija starts to run. Since copper is prone to oxidation, the first ¼ liter of rakija (called ram or head) should be set aside and only after the system is purged (cleaned) you start collecting real rakija (the "heart"). The first liter is very strong and usually has 80% alcohol.

We have to be careful to let the rakija run slowly down the thread, which should not shake but allow rakija to stream evenly into the glass. Every small change indicates changes in the still and possibly the quality of rakija. You can recognize it by the string of pearls it forms around the glass or bottle as it falls in. You can check the rakija by placing a couple of drops between hands and rub and then smell. According to the smell you can determine the quality of rakija. Some people throw a few drops of rakija into the fire and observe the flame. If it burns with a blue flame it means that it still has a high alcohol content.

Rakija, in the process of distillation is filtered as it drains through a fine strainer and through a double sterile cloth to remove possible impurities picked up while it is cooling in the system.

Rakija must always be transparent and clear and only towards the end of the batch does it start running cloudy. Even when cloudy it contains 45%-50% alcohol. At this point, however, the ethyl and methyl alcohol start separating. This type of rakija is called zunta (the tail), and together with ram, it is used for massaging rheumatic bones, but if we do not need it for such application, we put it at the bottom of the next batch of must and repeat the process.

The making of rakija normally lasts from one day to a week or even longer, depending on the quantity of the must. It takes forty minutes to one hour to get one liter of good rakija.

Aging and Storing

Rakija is a potent alcoholic beverage and it should be allowed to age for six months before being consumed. It is even better after one year, and it should be bottled and corked in a large glass bottles (bocon). After that, it should be strained one more time in a similar way as was done during the distillation process and filled into regular bottles for storage and gift giving. The rakija is now ready for enjoyment.

Enjoying

The standard or herbal rakija prepared can be used as the base for various drinks such as walnut liquor, honey liquor, and also variants of these by adding fruit to rakija - such as cherries, quince oskorusa drnjula, grapes, and other berries of fruit that is fresh or dried. You can also add some of our favorite herbs. In Krsan we most often use ruta.

The recipes.

 Sources:
  • Text - Bruno Clapci, Pino Golja and Klaudijo Lazarić
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This page compliments of Marisa Ciceran, Bruno Clapci, Pino Golja and Klaudijo Lazarić

Created: Sunday, December 19, 2004; Last updated: Friday, December 07, 2012
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