I’ve heard that there are a number of things that can be used to typify cultural differences: attitudes towards death and sex, the physical distance people set when speaking to each other… things like that. But there is another differentiating factor that may be less academic, but is much easier to identify, and that’s what people drink while clinking glasses.
I’m not talking about generalities, such as the French tending to drink wine and Germans tending to drink beer, I’m talking about specific, often obscure alcoholic beverages that typify a given culture or subculture or place and are often imbibed while intoning some cheery word that goes with such occasions. While every culture has its own favorite foodstuffs, these drinks somehow seem to cut deeper to the cultural core, they are the kinds of things that everyone from that particular culture knows about and that foreigners often ignore. For example…
Unicum. You’d think the label would be warning enough, since Unicum comes in a bottle with a red cross on it, but it’s surprisingly easy to overdo it. Unicum is Hungarian, and I first came into contact with it in Budapest. Ah, Budapest. I had the great pleasure of spending a lot of time there a few years ago, but fortune has conspired against me for the past few years to prevent my return. Budapest is really two cities; Buda, with its ancient ramparts and Pest, with its vibrancy. Both serve Unicum. The night I discovered it, I was with a colleague, a Frenchman, and the Hungarians we were working with suggested that if we were to go out that night, we had to make sure to try Unicum. Notably, they did not accompany us.
We tried it all right, and found it to be pleasant, so we had a few more. Then we had some good, heavy Hungarian food, with beer. I don’t remember much more, but the next morning I felt as though a tractor had run over my head. Upon seeing me, our Hungarian friends said “you didn’t have beer after the Unicum, did you? You should never do that.”
Raki / Arak / Ouzo. Depending on whether you’re in Greece, Turkey or Lebanon, this stuff can have any one of three names, and for all I know there might be slight differences between them, but in all cases it’s much like French Pastis: a clear, frightfully strong alcohol that tastes of black licorice. You dilute it with water, upon which it turns milky white.
Whereas the French drink Pastis as an aperitif, in the Eastern Mediterranean, rake, ark and ouzo tend to be drunk with a meal. It must be said that it has the property of cutting through the typically strong flavors of Middle-Eastern cuisine (note that the cuisines of Greece and Turkey are very similar, just with different names, so I’ll treat them together despite the undoubtedly vociferous protests of both Greeks and Turks, each of which maintain that their food is better… and the cuisine in Lebanon, which is among the best in the world, isn’t far off. But I digress…). As such, I’ve often opted for this as a dinner accompaniment.
The problem is, if you drink this stuff while eating, a little bit of it turns into a little more and you can get blindsided before you know it. In a country like Lebanon, this leads to saying yes to the hundred little dishes that the locals will try to convince you to eat, meaning that before your body can complain, you’ll have eaten your weight in minced meats and chick peas as well as being too drunk to pronounce anything with more than two syllables (one, if it includes an S). This has happened to me in Istanbul, Beirut and Amman. You don’t want to wander around drunk in Amman. Luckily, Eastern-Mediterraneans are just as fiercely proud of their hospitality as of their food and drink, so they’ll generally take care of you.
Aquavit is really a whole family of spirits, I think… although I may be wrong. Anyway, they give it to you in Scandinavia. I don’t know if there’s really a difference between the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian varieties.
Once, in Stockholm, while dining at a very nice restaurant on the water with six or seven Swedes, I was taught the right way to drink aquavit… which is to do so while singing. They tried to teach me a number of aquavit songs, but all I could do was to sing about my hedgehog. This was just fine, after a few aquavits, so I sang about my smart hedgehog to the tune of their songs while they sang about whatever it was they were singing about (they translated, but after all that aquavit I didn’t remember the details). We then had bright red crayfish that you’re supposed to eat in a very specific way (break, slurp, open, chew, or something). Delicious.
Limoncello is pretty much the perfect way to end a fish dinner in Italy. It is originally from the south, but despite my mother’s family being Sicilian, I only discovered it in Florence, albeit thanks to a Sicilian who was living there. I had gone to try to sell something to his company. At first he was skeptical, but when he realized that my maternal grandparents were from Sicily, our relationship changed entirely. He invited me back on two or three occasions to make presentations to his management, each time insisting that I arrive the evening before so we could go to a nice restaurant on the Arno, eat fish, talk about Sicily, and tie off a couple of limoncellos afterwards. After a few meetings like this, I pointed out that since I wasn’t actually succeeding in selling anything to his company, I was going to have to stop my visits. He then offered to pay my expenses for me to come by again, which I happily accepted. His company never did buy anything, and he ended up quitting his nationwide post to take up a regional job in Palermo. Maybe all that limoncello had heightened his nostalgia for the south.
Schnapps, Calvados, Cap Corse. As is the case with many European countries, there are as many different alcoholic beverages in France as there are regions. Three that stand out for me include:
Cap Corse. Unless you’re very new to this column, you know about my love affair with Corsica. There are a number of drinks specific to Corsica, but Cap Corse is special. It’s made in the north of the island, and it’s a sweet, “cooked wine”. It is served with ice, which helps in the Corsican heat. Perhaps part of my fondness for Cap Corse is tied up with memories; with a long stock of summer evenings on the terrace, ice tinkling in a glass, the earthy smell of a glass beneath my nose, the sea in the distance.
Schnapps. Yes, I know, it’s German, but it’s also Alsatian. I’ll have to tell you about Alsace soon—it’s a region of France that has been booted back and forth between France and Germany for… well forever, really. My first experience with schnapps was years ago, when I visited Alsace with a few friends, one of whom had family there, including an ancient uncle who had one farm and zero teeth and who made his own schnapps. It’s not easy to have a license to make distilled alcohol in France, and individuals who do have that privilege can only do so for their own consumption, and only if they’re really old (at least it seems that way). Anyway, we stopped off to see my friend’s uncle at his farm and he sat us around a table and poured each of us a healthy little glass of his homemade schnapps. Or maybe it was sweetened paint remover; hard to tell. He sat there and drank two for every one of ours, giggling the whole time and speaking Alsatian (a dialect of German, really) to my friend. After a few minutes I leaned over and whispered to the woman next to me, asking if she could look at my teeth and tell me if she saw anything strange. I was worried, you see, because I couldn’t feel my gums any more at all.
Calvados. Calvados is known as “the Norman Hole”. It is made from apples, which are abundant in Normandy, which is perhaps best known by Americans as the site of the D-day invasion, but which also happens to be a beautiful region in Northern France that abounds in apples and cows. Calvados, or “calva” to the locals, is reputed to have the property of allowing you to eat more: you gorge yourself, then have a shot of “the Norman hole” and it clears your stomach in some strange way so that you can gorge some more. I think it just makes you so drunk that you don’t protest any more, like Arak.
Normans have a reputation of being hard drinkers, and what they drink is calva. I was actually injured by calvados once. I had gone off with my girlfriend at the time and another couple to visit the family of the other man, in Normandy. After an evening featuring fair amounts of calvados, my girlfriend and I retired to our room for the night. I then pulled a muscle in my leg. I won’t go into details, I’ll just say that the calvados undoubtedly dulled both my sense of pain and my inhibitions (not to mention common sense). The next morning, barely able to walk, I went to see my friend’s father, who was a physician, and who asked, with a French glint in his eye, what exactly I had been doing in my bedroom the previous evening that could have caused me to tear a muscle in my leg. When I tried to stutter a response he shushed me, said it didn’t matter, and gave me a cane and some pain relievers.
In the end, though, it was his fault—he had been the one who had given me all the calvados!
So, you see, while it can be a very interesting and culturally fascinating experience to try these different alcohols, be sure to use moderation, for drinking can be dangerous for your health. Then again, what the hell… cheers!