Raki also known as “tsikoudia” is a strong distilled spirit containing approximately 37% alcohol per volume and is produced from the must-residue of the wine-press.
During the Turkish occupation of Crete the Turkish name “raki” was given to the local tsikoudia, since there were some similarities. Now both names are used in Crete equally.
Most alcoholic beverages have their roots in poverty. The grapes from which raki was once produced were grown in poor viniculture soil. Though today vines are nurtured. The remains from the wine-press or "patitiria", after most of the grape juice has been removed, is allowed to ferment and is then distilled. At this stage herbs or spices may be added for flavour.
A traditional distillery comprises of a large copper boiler “retort” that has a long copper funnel from the top through which the steam can escape. The funnel passes through a barrel filled with cold water or is connected to a copper coiled tube encased in a copper cylinder “condenser” through which cold water runs. The hot steam passes into the funnel and as it travels through the barrel of cold water or condenser, it condenses. In approximately half an hour, the warm raki begins to fall drop by drop, into containers.
The first and final distilled liquid contains the least amount of alcohol, whereas the actual raki is produced during the middle of the entire process. This lasts for about three hours, during which time the owners of the boiler must test for alcohol content, and increase or decrease the heat as required and finally stop distillation when it is complete. In Crete a Baumé hydrometer is used to determine the percentage of alcohol. From a scale the percentage of alcohol can be determined. Most usually though, a sample of the raki is tossed onto the flames the flame colour determining when too much water is coming through.
The entire process becomes a celebration in which friends and relatives take part by bringing food and sampling the drink as it is produced. Each step in the distillation process has a particular ritual and the presence of friends is a must.
The traditional name for this distilling vessel or retort is “kazani” which is basically a large saucepan. The use of this word has now become extended to include the whole process of raki making and the ensuing merriment.
Whilst walking on a hillside above Yannis' Taverna I was cordially invited to participate in a “bake in”, the bread being prepared was “dakos” a popular dry bread. The dough had already been kneaded (by machine) and was in the process of rising when I arrived, and the oven was being prepared.
The oven was a rather large stone structure about 2.5 mtrs x 1.5 mtrs occupying one corner of an out-building. It consisted basically of two parts, the upper oven and chimney and the lower hearth. A hole in the the oven floor in one corner about 0.5 mtr square connected through to the hearth below allowing the heat to travel through the oven and vent out through the chimney.
The fire in the hearth was well established and consisted more of glowing embers. A fire had been lit in the oven itself and was burning fiercely, the object of this was to raise the temperature of the concrete oven floor. After the fire had died down the ashes were scrapped through the connecting hole into the hearth. The floor of the oven was then mopped with a cloth attached to a long pole and soaked with water.
The floor of the oven was tested for temperature by being dusted with flour, when the flour browned rather than blackened, the correct temperature had been reached aided by the mopping. The bread was loaded directly onto the concrete oven floor. About 200 loaves in all were loaded along with a pan containing meat and potatoes for the ensuing feast. After about one hour the loaves were removed, divided lengthwise and returned to the oven for drying.
The whole process was a family affair and involved four generations of the same family although the youngest member spent most of the time in slumber. Raki and olives helped with the waiting process, overall some three hours. After the baking had finished we all retired to the home of the host where a meal had been prepared. More raki washed down with wine, and a good time was had by all.
Grape-gathering, wine-making and tsikoudia-making are activities enjoyed in the autumn every year. Wine-making involves crushing the grapes in special stone constructions called "patitiria", or wine presses. This can be done by feet or by a small machine.
Every year after the vines are pruned, the vineyard provides wood for the fireplace, grape leaves for cooking (the famous Greek "dolmades"), grapes as a fruit and, of course, wine. Some of the grape must is used to make molasses, which when combined with flour becomes must-jelly, must-rolls as well as other well-known Greek pastries. The stems and grape-peels aren't thrown away, rather they are distilled to produce raki.
Cretan village wine is a potent brew, characterised by its own very unique flavour, reminiscent of sherry, and is definitely an acquired taste.
The use of honey as a sweetener on Crete dates back to antiquity. To the Minoans it was the diet of gods and royalty, even the infant Zeus was said to have been nurtured on milk and honey.
There are several groups of beehives scattered around the perimeter of the plain, made of wood following the now familiar style, in antiquity they would have been made from clay in the form of pots. Bees are most active during the months of Feb-June when the wild flowers are most abundant, as these flowers die back the bees travel further afield and into the higher mountains, there they harvest the famed thyme which imparts its characteristic essence upon the honey.