Polish Toledo

This blog is associated with www.polishtoledo.com

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Polish Moonshine

In America, we have a distillate called “White Lightning” made down south where homemade pot stills are hidden in the woods so the “revenuers” can’t find them.

Usually made from corn mash, the hooch is strong stuff, burns the throat and usually tastes awfully bad. It’s clear colored and not aged – you could, I guess, call it hillbilly vodka.

Ah, but when you’re in Poland try sampling the highlander’s kind of bootleg nectar because it’s a smooth and tasty brandy. Although illegal, it’s known and praised far and wide across Europe.

In the wee little village of Łącko a stone’s throw from Poland’s southern border, Śliwowica, the 140 proof plum brandy has a long and proud history with only about 4,000 gallons bottled per year. Though its manufacture and sale remain patently illegal, police have largely stopped pestering producers.

Śliwowica is the fourth strongest alcohol drink in the world, coming after Spiritus (the ancient Polish rectified spirit that is granddad to our Everclear at 180 proof), Absinthe (similarly high), and over-proof rum from the Caribbean.

So legendary is the plum brandy and so short in supply, counterfeiters have been making a knock off version that is sold mostly to tourists that visit the mountain resort town of Zakopane in the snow capped Tatras.

The forgery is made from cheap methanol spirit with added plum flavoring, which means it is potentially deadly. Trying to get your hands on genuine plum brandy requires time and effort since locals are reluctant to reveal their sources.

A good number of folks on the Continent seek plum brandy, and the variety produced in Łącko is the one that wins the international awards despite being illegal. Although the plum based moonshine is frowned upon by the authorities, it is impossible to stamp out.

Śliwowica łącka (meaning Śliwowica from Łącko) has been distilled and barrel aged in small batches by hundreds of home producers for generations. But, only recently has Śliwowica łącka been registered as a trademark by a local association of fruit farmers.

Growers are now allowed to apply to a board for permission to use the name, however at this writing the commission has not been set up. A legal limbo persists, but Śliwowica distillers are carrying on as normal in secret locations.

Polish authorities and local producers disagree about the future legitimization of their famed bootleg brandy. The government wants production at a single distillery in the region. This is a big no-no for local farmers – each one has their own secret recipe for Śliwowica and they want the government to approve individual homemade production.

There is only one man in the Łącko area that need not be afraid of making and selling the highlander tipple. Three months ago, local orchard owner Krzysztof Maurer was granted a permit to produce fruit distillates, including those from plums.

“I wanted to do everything legally, but the reluctance of the politicians has forced me to launch sales on general terms. Because I had to comply with strict regulations, my production is not as cost-effective,” said Maurer, who went through a complicated, three-year legalization procedure. A bottle of his plum brandy costs 70 złoty (about $25), because it is subject to 100 percent excise tax. Maurer’s product is called ‘Brandy from Łącko plums,’ since the trademark name ‘Śliwowica łącka cannot be granted for use until the commission is set up.

“My name is enough to guarantee the quality of the product,” said Maurer. “I’m a local man and my family has known the recipe for generations.”

Though Maurer is confident in the quality of his product, it’s a bit like the situation with bigos (hunter’s stew). Every family has its own recipe and claim for superiority. They are all a tad different but universally excellent.

I believe a sip of Śliwowica łącka would make any Appalachian moonshiner give up White Lightning and think he has died and gone to Heaven. As far as James Bond is concerned, he would abandon the “shaken not stirred” phrase for “straight pour from the bottle, please.”

There is an imported 80 proof Polish plum brandy available in the U.S. Alas, it’s not anything close to Śliwowica łącka. Like they say in Kentucky, “Ain’t the real McCoy.”

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Aid to Africa one cup at a time

A group of Capuchin friars in Poland is using the order's historical link to cappuccino to raise money to help Africans.

Coffee shops in six Polish cities have joined in the money raising campaign "Cappuccino for Africa" to fund missions the Kraków-based friars are running in the Central African Republic and Chad.

A project coordinator, Piotr Gajda, said a friar got the idea for the charity last year while drinking a coffee, and wondering how the order's association with the pleasurable drink could be used to help the missions.

The group says proceeds from selling one cappuccino in Poland can provide 10 hot meals for children in the Central African Republic.

Capuchin monks have been often credited with inspiring the name for the frothy coffee drink because of their coffee-colored habits.

But, the drink is Polish in origanation, and don’t let Italians tell you different. Franciszek Jerzy Kulczycki who acted as a spy against the Ottoman Empire prior to the Battle of Vienna opened the earliest coffeehouse in Europe in 1683.

He discovered many bags of coffee in the abandoned Turkish encampments. Using this captured stock, Kulczycki added milk and honey to sweeten the bitter coffee, thereby inventing cappuccino.

Kulczycki remains a popular folk hero and the patron of all Viennese café owners. Until recently, every year in October a special Kolschitzky feast was organized by the café owners of Vienna, who decorated their shop windows with Kulczycki's portrait. Kulczycki is also memorialized with a statue on Vienna's Kolschitzky Street.

Boże, coś Polskę

Boże, coś Polskę (God save Poland)

It’s amazing how many people turn to God, when disaster strikes like in the case of Hurricane Sandy, when terror falls upon us like the school shooting in Connecticut or in the fevered pitch of battle. Sometimes just when it’s convenient for mortal man to pay homage to his Creator.

Historically, in Poland it was completely commonplace for her indigenous people to reverently acknowledge and pay homage to God, Christ and Matka Boska Częstochowska on a regular basis.

While this was true through the millennia during triumphant times as well as the partitions, atrocious Nazi occupation and the bondage of Soviet dominated communism, change is afoot since the faith of liberation led by native son Pope John Paul II came to fruition.

Now, atheists are mounting a billboard challenge to the Catholic Church, which for centuries provided an important role and influence that for most Poles was sacrosanct and a totally inseparable aspect of Polish identity.

Billboards that were first erected in Lublin back in October are mushrooming across the country and have generated a large amount of publicity in a nation where 90 percent of the population still categorizes itself as Catholic.

Jacek Tabisz is the head of one of the organizations putting up the billboards. He says, “In a country considered to be Catholic, it’s very hard to be an atheist. There are many of us although not all of us that let our beliefs be known.”

The president of the Polish Association of Rationalists went on to say that the billboard action is not aimed at believers; it’s to show people that in a country where the stereotypical Pole is a Catholic there is a large group of atheists.

Trying to advance the argument that morality need not be based in religion, some of the billboards show a series of boxes labeled “Do Not Kill, Do Not Steal, Do Not Believe”. Each box is ticked. Then again, it could be argued that morality was codified in the tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai, which include 8 more items. Other billboards ask the question “Don’t believe in God? - You are not alone.“

As you might expect resistance to the message is fairly significant. Many Poles, particularly those over the age of 40, remain grateful to the Church for the role it played in the eradication of the faithless Communist government in 1989.

Traditionally revered as the bastion of Polish culture and mores, after the fall of communism the state granted a number of privileges to the Church. Technically, Poland has a secular government, but the state instituted a "church fund" which benefits the Catholics in pension assistance and other types of assistance.

But, the advertising campaign has led to an extraordinary debate in Poland over the status and power of the Catholic Church. Until now not much was said about priests giving classes in “religion” from kindergarten age upwards or supportive financial measures from tax relief to state funding for ecclesiastical property.

While for years privileges have gone virtually unchallenged, last month the third largest political party and the one with a clear anti-clerical agenda, called for an end to religious instruction in schools, claiming it to be in breach of articles in the Polish constitution ensuring equality of all faiths.

Some experts dismiss talk of an anti-clerical revolution in Poland, pointing out that despite the challenges to the Church’s position the country remains robustly Catholic.

But, as Poles travel, work abroad and are exposed to a more cosmopolitan and more secular lifestyle the once significant influence of the Church has begun to wane as church attendance and those entering service to the Church decline.

Throughout history Poland has exhibited exceptional religious tolerance. From accepting Jews driven from so many anti-Semitic nations to the Muslim Tartars who after the failed Mongol invasion turned their allegiance to the White Eagle. Groups of various faiths sought and found peace and prosperity without persecution for their beliefs in Poland.

Therefore, it shouldn’t be too hard for anyone of any viewpoint to live in Poland.

Maybe Jacek Tabisz and his Association of Rationalists should thank God they live in Poland and not some Muslim country. Maybe someone should erect billboards to suggest it to them.

Side Bar

Boże, coś Polskę (God save Poland) is a solemn prayer for the nation, included in all Catholic Church songbooks, and sung in Polish churches. Since its 1828 publication, the revised hymn, known also as "The Prayer of the Polish Army," gradually increased in popularity in Poland and abroad, especially in France - with its strongly pro-Polish popular sentiments.

Words to the refrain have changed over the years.

To your altars we carry a prayer:

· Save our King, Lord ! (1816)

· Return our Homeland to us, Lord ! (1830)

· Bless our Homeland and freedom, Lord ! (1989)