DESTINATION: ROMANIA/Palinka, the brand of Oas Land (Satu Mare)

 •  Destination: Romania

Palinka is the first thing springing to people's mind when the name Satu Mare is said out loud. While in the recent past some would look amusingly and ironically upon the concerns and hard work of the locals in preparing the magic elixir that help them overcome hardships and boost their joy at much happier times in their lives, the topic today is dealt with seriously, as studies are being conducted, books are being written about palinka and handsome amounts are being invested in creating national brands. In order to really feel the spirit of the place, tourists should taste a shot of genuine palinka.

Photo credit: (c) Gil PIETRAR / AGERPRES ARCHIVE

It is a known fact that palinka has been made since times immemorial, with the preparation methods handed down from generation to generation like a ritual, but only in the 16th century was palinka mentioned in official documents of Satu Mare. Today, specialists know all about the making of palinka, to its smallest details, which they describe in books. One of the book is titled 'Producerea bauturilor alcoolice traditionale in Tara Palincii' (The making of traditional spirits in the land of palinka) coordinated by Ph.D. Nicolai Pomohaci, in which the author, Ioan Cioltean, the recipient of a doctor's degree in Oenology, describes methods used by palinka makers of Satu Mare. Director of the Satu Mare County Centre for Traditional Culture Preservation and Promotion Felician Pop has also tried to find the secrets of palinka and explain the part paid by the drink in the county's communities by writing 'Povestea Palincii' (Palinka's story).

We thus find out that specialists agree that the Oas Land is home to the best plum trees for palinka because of the place's geographical location as well as its soil and climate conditions. Felician Pop argues that Romanians should mandatorily define themselves by their traditional product palinka, the same as Russians are defined by vodka, Greeks by ouzo and Scots by whiskey.

The Zetea de Transilvania palinka, made in Mediesu Aurit by incumbent Mayor Silviu Zetea, who learned the secrets of palinka making from his father, has won many national and international awards, including a silver medal at the 2001 Concours Mondial de Bruxelles. Zetea has started making a premium range fit for embassy and high-level parties.

There are nearly 5,000 hectares of plum plantations in Satu Mare County, more than the other entire fruit trees taken together, including the peneghei, albute, caiesti, marghite and coucine varieties. One of the best known palinka, particularly under the communist regime, is the 100 proof palinka of Turt, made by double distilling peneghei plums. In the early 2000s, Satu Mare County failed to keep pace with the development of the market and marketing novelties, and because of a legislative vacuum, the Turt palinka started being med in the county of Maramures. Some producers of the neighbour county took advantage of the brand that won national recognition under the communist regime thanks to the small producers of Turt. They made the name into a registered trademark and sold Turt palinka at a handsome profit.

The Oas Land's palinka have some distinguishing traits: it is strong, harsh and with a particular aroma. Any consumer knows it has to be tasted moderately. It is still a mystery today how humans got to distil fruit to make such drinks. The author of 'Povestea Palincii' argues that distilling must have been invented by early Middle Ages monks to get elixirs and medicinal potions and the alembics must be the creation of the unfatigued alchemists in their quest for gold-making installations.

Photo credit: (c) Gil PIETRAR / AGERPRES ARCHIVE

Plum palinka is the best and most easily recognisable, but over the past years palinka has been made of a large assortment of fruits. Very successful locally is the palinka made of European wild pear (Pyrus pyraster ), which is nonetheless hard to find. Small quantities of quench, sour cherry, peach, apricot, cherry, apple, dog rose palinka are also made and walnut palinka is the latest addition.

Nevertheless, the plum palinka is still the best, according to specialists, as the soil and climate conditions of the county impart to the local plums a particular tastiness, the result of a rich content of vitamins needed by the human body. 'Palinka quality is first of all given by plum quality. The local soil, its aridity, the more or less sunny slopes and humidity, all play an important part in the development of plums, the raw material for palinka. One theory says that the palinka made in this area is the best in the world because of the soil and climate conditions as well as of the archaic varieties of plums. The northern part of Romania is also the northern border of the area where plum trees grow. The plums are picked 100 days after starting to reap, when they are fully ripen. That gives unmatched tastiness and colour,' says Felician Pop.

And yet, fruit quality is not enough for a quality product. Distillation has to be performed after the traditional method devised by a specialist who knows how the plums are boiled and what wood to use. Traditionally, palinka strength would be determined by the number of small beads forming on the edge of the glass. 'In the small palinka distilleries, there is hardly the possibility of measuring strength accurately, of measuring the quantity of water that is added during boiling. The palinka makers know that boiling nears completion when after shaking palinka in a glass many small beads form that swirl to the edge. The beads have to stay on for at least one minute in a stirred glass of palinka,' Pop explains.

It is worth noticing that palinka in the countryside was used and is still used for ritualistic purposes, playing an important part in socialising, in the life of local communities. Such aspect is more visible in the Oas Land, where the life of the entire community is marked by palinka consumption. Palinka is being served at baptism and engagement parties, birthday parties, feasts and funeral parties. It is also drunk upon concluding transactions, upon completing household works and daily workers are being served it. It is mandatory for all workers of Oas to be treated to a glass of palinka, in addition to food.

Inside the local communities, things are seen a bit differently, and there are divergent opinions. Generally speaking, men drink palinka as a natural, normal product, but women generally frown upon it because excessive palinka consumption has many times led to tragedies, families breaking up and dependence forming. 'Palinka serves ritualistic purposes in the Oas Land, unlike in other places where alcohol consumption is held in contempt. Palinka is not meant to be turned into a vice, and a glass of palinka would be used to seal deals. It is drunk in small glasses to underscore its essence role, and there is an old custom followed even today of men sharing the same glass, with the host being the first to drink of it. Everybody would drink palinka, but moderately, and those falling prey to excessive drinking would end up the butt of everybody's jokes,' says Felician Pop.

The author believes that, beyond the problems of daily life and what is said about alcohol consumption, now and then it is worth tasting a small glass of genuine palinka, because it has an essential trait: 'it loosens tongues and ignites passions.' 'People generally feel good and are happy when they have palinka on their tables. Moderately taken in, a shot of palinka is one of the little joys in life, argues Felician Pop.

Local women would not say no to palinka and folk culture has preserved the witty shouts at village gatherings that mention the cherry palinka that get all women, even the virtuous ones, drunk when immoderately consumed. AGERPRES

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