Quite often in my days as a real estate agent, my clients were young couples looking for a holiday home. Many chose to search in the busy towns, a few chose to look in the surrounding villages. Some of these holiday home hunters were ill-equipped to handle the lifestyle here in Crete. Many of course were, and went on to buy their home and live the dream we Cretaholics all know and love.
It was late afternoon as I wandered through the shady alleyways with my clients. The heat was overbearing, the breeze non-existent. After viewing two old properties for renovation, I knew instinctively that my clients weren`t “sold” on any of the viewings. As we wandered back up the path to the car, I detected a hint of smoke in the air. A light shower of condensation breezed across our upturned faces, giving a lovely sense of refreshing cool in the oppressive heat.
Although I suspected the source of this unexpected shower, I wasn`t 100 % sure.
Reaching the peak of the path, a craggy faced, smiling Cretan gentleman was occupied with something at the path side. Spying me with my two clients, automatically, his hand raised in welcome and then flowed down into the characteristic Cretan beckoning (a downward hand stroke with open palm). “Ela, elate”. I smiled a knowing smile and explained to my clients that we were taking a little detour. I led them towards the open door, where the heady, grapey aroma invaded my every sense.
Inside, suspicions confirmed a fully fledged raki distillation in progress.
I have to admit it was one of the better organised distilleries. The “hot spot”, ie. the place where the cauldron (καζάνι) was housed, was separated off in a side room. This room had only three walls. Quite a blessing, as the wood burning fire was fierce. The wall-less side, yawned down over the mountain, where the spent pomace was unceremoniously dumped over the edge after each boiling.
From the hilt of the cauldron, the pipe containing the condensating raki, coiled through a deep barrel of cold water, was then fed through a small hole in the wall into the room next door, where it dripped it`s liquid fire onto a pad of cotton wool to catch impurities, and into the bucket below.
The seating area cum kitchen, was large enough to seat about a dozen or so visitors.
Very often, a group of people possessing the much sought after pomace, would accumulate their efforts (and of course their pomace), in making the year`s raki supply. Taking turns at the hot spot, but each sharing the various duties involved in distilling. This could often take several days, and even run into weeks, depending on how many were in the group and how much pomace was available.
Of course, like many things here in Crete, the distillery is always an excuse to celebrate. Friends and family would accumulate, evenings would always liven up, when more visitors would arrive, each bringing their contributions, either to the cauldron, or the table. The wives would work their magic and provide the never-ending supply of traditional Cretan fare in an effortless blink of an eye. The men would rake out hot jacket potatoes from the fire below the cauldron. Youngsters would oft bring their lyres to entertain the guests, simultaneously testing their musical abilities.
But I digress………..
Being mid afternoon, there were no visitors, just us. I needed no encouragement to take a seat, assuring my “non clients” that this was fine and the Cretan thing to do. They were totally unsure of what was happening. I reassured them once more, as the stumpy little raki glasses were plonked down in front of us, along with a small carafe of fresh from the still, slightly warm, liquid fire.
There was an aged lady sat at a table. The enormous pile of greens (χόρτα) piled before her, was so impressive, it could seemingly feed a small herd of sheep for a day or so. I greeted γιαγιά (grannie) and we exchanged light banter, all the while she worked the plastic handled knife on the horta, her grimed hand occasionally diving into her apron pocket, she`d pull out a small clutch of almonds and pop them into her toothless mouth, where she would shatter them with her gums, chatting simultaneously, oblivious to the fact that she was showering us with almond crumbs as she chattered. I felt my “non clients” cringe.
The normal accompaniments of fresh tomatoes, olives and rusks, a plate of snails and buck wheat with tomato sauce quickly appeared, along with other bits and bobs so readily available in every Cretan kitchen. My “non clients`” eyes popped wide at the snails. The smoke blackened face of our Cretan host creased into a smile with each “yamas!”
The better side of three glasses of raki, and seeing my “non clients`” unease, I decided it was time to depart.
This brief encounter with the raki distillery was a complete coincidence. In hindsight, I consider the event a vital procedure in separating the men from the boys. In other words: If you aren`t willing to embrace every single inch of the way Cretans live, grimy hands, snails `n all, then perhaps Crete is not the place for you.
Note (In reality, this post is a protest, a great big, fat protestation !)
I consider many Cretan traditions to be the back bone of today`s society. One of the many traditions, is of course, the raki distillery. Certain powers that be, perhaps without fully acknowledging the consequences of their laws, (or perhaps they do acknowledge the consequences, who knows?) are speeding this country into the 21st century, and as a result, stamping on every traditional past time, one by one.
To have a raki distillery at home, now demands a permit, which is not cheap. Any and all produce from said distillery is taxed at a whopping 0.59 cents per litre! (Source: http://www.agronews.gr/?pid=186&aid=102490&la=1), August 2016.
The home distillery permit comes with a huge array of restrictions and regulations, where the distillery is officially sealed by the Customs Authority, and subsequently unsealed, again, by the Customs Authority, to allow the distillery to operate, on the stated date of the permit, only.
The consequences: Many of our distilling friends and acquaintances, have decided to “hang up their hat”, declining to fire up their stills.
Sad, so sad! More to the point, unacceptable !