During the only period of sustained snowfall this winter, I was out for a stroll with Our Dog and a compass (on account of the reduced visibility) when I got a call from Psycho Pete, a good friend and owner of a fine sense of humour.  A psychiatrist rather than a psychopath, he was in a village about 5km away called Krásné Pole (‘A Beautiful Field’) in a small distillery and wondered if I cared to join him.  Well, why not?  I mean, if you’re going to walk 5km through a snowstorm, you might as well end up in a distillery.

I’d never been in a distillery before, so the smell was a bit of a shock.  Something like the smell around a kitchen where jam is being prepared but a lot stronger and laced with a sharp edge of industrial-strength alcohol.

Pete introduced me to the owner, whose name I didn’t catch due to Pete’s prior consumption of meruňkovice, but whom I think of as The Chemist. The Chemist gave me a step-by-step guided tour of the infernal collection of pipes, valves, boilers and thermometers that filled half of the small building.  An immensely fat man, who I was told to ignore if he made rude comments to me, sat on a creaking chair, poking bits of wood into the fire which powered everything and making rude comments to me.  I ignored him.

During all of this, I was offered a drink.  A small drink, to be precise.  I wasn’t sure if I could handle it on account of the lethal fumes leaking from the still but The Chemist assured me that if I couldn’t smell them it would mean that he hadn’t distilled the lethal stuff off and I’d be drinking it instead of just breathing it, which is considered safe by Czechs.

I needn’t have worried about lethal fumes though, because in these villages ‘a small glass’ of dangerous alcohol is what most city-dwellers would class as ‘a large glass’ and non-Slavs like me would call ‘more than any sane man would even THINK about drinking!’  So soon I sat between Pete and The Chemist, quietly choking on lethal fumes and supposedly non-lethal distilled apricot-juice, with the fixed grin of a grateful guest on my face and quietly burning to death from the inside out.

The Steam-punk pizza oven.

All the while, The Chemist had been inspecting various parts of the still, wiping gauges, comparing readings and sniffing the various noxious substances which occasionally belched forth without warning. From the boiler, which looked like some kind of Steam-punk pizza oven, over the assorted arrangements of tanks and condensers he prowled, like a grease-monkey in an ethanol-powered engine room. Suddenly all the readings and smells seemed to be of the correct sort and he gave a triumphant laugh, pulled a lever and released a flood liquid so clear it even looked dangerous into a bucket at the bottom of the still.

An expectant hush settled on everyone as he decanted the contents of the bucket through a gauze and into a heavy glass jar like the ones mad scientists store unspeakable pickled things in and produced a hydrometer.  Years of lethal fumes seemed to have affected his eyes because I had to read the result of the sample to him…   53% alcohol, which he pronounced as ‘not too bad’.

‘Anything above 60% loses its taste,’ he explained. OK, does that mean you can’t feel it dissolving your innards?  The Czech words for ‘taste’ and ‘feel’ are the same and maybe this stuff is the reason why.  I actually have no idea if Pete bought anything or not, although various villagers came and went during the time I was there, all assuring me that The Chemist was a master of his craft.  For myself, I had worked my way through a ‘small’ 10dl glass of something that would strip paint and having got over the initial shock, my system actually seemed to be in better working order than before.

On the walk home, free of snowstorm, I felt rather refreshed.  Once the lethal fumes had been filtered out of my system, the meruňkovice was free to work its magic.  It certainly did a good job of keeping the cold out and the blocked nose and headache I’d been suffering from all morning were gone.  Not for nothing do the mountain folk of Wallachia refer to it as ‘Wallachian penicillin’!

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