What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger or, in the case of Hungarian Palinka, leaves you feeling scorched on the inside and craving more.
From the hard labour of picking the ripe fruit when autumn sets in to the explosion of flavours upon taking the first sip of this feisty fruit brandy, Palinka is a very physical, yet highly rewarding experience.
Dezso Boros, 44, knows a thing or two about the pleasure and pain that comes with good Palinka.
He runs a small distillery in Egerszog, a tiny village 230 km northeast of Budapest, tucked away in the western foothills of the Carpathian mountains.
Scores of people from surrounding villages throng to this subtle, unassuming building, one of about 500 licensed distilleries in Hungary, to have their homemade mash, a fizzy stew of fermented fruit pulp, boiled down into fiery Palinka.
Boros, a soft-spoken, humble craftsman in charge of the distillery since the death of the previous stillman in 1991, has retained memories of his childhood years when townsfolk used to carry mash to that same place on horse carts.
And while the technology has improved over the years, the essence remains unchanged.
“Fruit is fundamental,” he said. “The main thing is that it has to be natural, untreated.
“Quince makes very good Palinka, as well as elder, although it has something of an unpleasant scent. But it’s very healthy.”
For a man his age, almost two decades of manning the cauldron, have carved a few lines into his face. Yet Boros remains philosophical about his untimely wrinkles.
“Stillmen don’t live long, that’s for sure. It’s written in the stillman’s law: taste less, live longer.”
Distilling Palinka is a bring your own bottle, own mash and own firewood process, which, depending on the amount and the sugar content of the fruit pulp, can take anything from a few hours to a dazed vigil that lasts well into the morning.
“The bottom line is that if you bring your own material and you watch over it, you know what’s cooking, what’s in it and what you drink,” Boros said.
After spending about three hours in the volcanic heat of a 500-litre copper cauldron, the first few drops of Palinka trickle down at a tantalizing pace from a tall cooling tank, filling the old distillery with an embracing, heady steam.
“The longer the big cauldron works, the more fruity the Palinka becomes,” Boros said.
The origins of Palinka in Hungary can be traced back to the 14th century, when King Charles Robert I of Hungary had its medieval precursor, aqua vitae, or “water of life,” brought to court from Italy to treat the queen consort’s gout.
Adherents to folk culture still relish Palinka’s healing powers. For lack of other medicine, a piece of bread dipped into Palinka was long considered the best anesthetic to treat childhood teething pains.
Over the years, Palinka has grown from a gastronomic treat into a cultural phenomenon. From childbirth to funerals, there is always a reason to have another snort of the strong stuff, lovingly called witchfart, or whistler in the vernacular.
After lengthy legal wrangling, Hungary won the exclusive right from the European Union to use the name Palinka in 2004.
Hungarian lawmakers earlier last month voted overwhelmingly to enshrine Palinka in law as a unique “national treasure,” which can be made only from fruit grown in Hungary without any artificial additives.
No wonder, then, Boros said, that the ages-old rural custom of starting the day with a shot of Palinka is alive and well.
“Of course it is. We drink it morning, noon and night.”