SUMMER WINE AND FOOD
Pain, pleasure, gloom and angst
That is the difficulty with vodka: because it affects different nations in different ways, there are no objective standards by which to judge it. The best Russian vodka is strong and oily, hitting you in the back of the throat and causing as much pain as pleasure. It is an asset to an evening of Russian gloom and existential angst. Polish vodka, on the other hand, is much subtler, smoother and spicier, and can happily accompany caviar and polit- ical jokes. Swedish and Finnish vodkas are icy and pure, perfect for an afternoon spent silently contemplating the snow, preferably on one of those northern days when the sun never rises.
Until recently, most vodka was unspeak- able. It is a drink that can be made from just about anything — wheat, rye, molasses, rotten potatoes — and was mostly brewed at home for centuries. But even though modern distilling techniques have improved it tremendously, Central European gentry still rather look down on vodka drinkers, who are invariably peasants or Russians. Judging this attitude to be closest in spirit to the attitude of the average Spectator reader, I set off for Wodka — the restau- rant keeps a wide selection of vodkas behind its bar — with the scions of two old Polish families, both of whom insisted they never touched the stuff.
In fact, both proved to be quite knowl- edgeable, and were perfectly capable of explaining that the clear vodkas, served in chilled glasses, were the most appropriate to a first course of smoked salmon and her- ring. Lining up a row of them, it was actual- ly quite easy to taste the difference. Smirnoff stood out right away: with its unpleasant, medicinal flavour, we immedi- ately judged it good for nothing except mix- ing with tonic water. Wyborowa, the stan- dard Polish vodka, brewed from wheat, is an improvement. But although it has a wood-tinged flavour beyond the pure alco- hol, it is still unremarkable.
Zytnia, on the other hand, is brewed from lye, and has a far superior taste: creamy and terribly smooth, it neither burns the throat nor offends one's sense of smell. Jarzembiak, brewed from rowan berries, is the most unusual. It has a strong but not sickly touch of sweetness, and went very well with the herring.
For fun, we also tried Kozakska, a Ukrainian vodka, and found it quite similar to the Russian Stolichnaya: both are strong and harsh, with that kick that is so appeal- ing to those afflicted by Dostoevskian depression. Kozakska and Stolichnaya real- ly should not be sipped, however: they must be downed with a flick of the wrist or not bothered with at all.
One cannot, of course, drink vodka while eating a main course, so we drank beer with our sucking-pig before having a go at flavoured vodkas over dessert. These are best made at home: the idea is to put fruit, or peppers, or just about anything, into a bottle of plain Wyborowa or Stolichnaya, and then leave the flavour to seep into the alcohol over a month or so. One of my Pol- ish companions reminisced about a bitter- sweet vodka he had once tasted, made from lime and quinces. The other had an excel- lent solution to the problem of what to do with the sediment found at the bottom of 30-year old vintage wine bottles: just pour clear vodka into the empty bottle, put the cork back on, let the alcohol soak up the flavour of the vintage and then drink chilled, of course.
Flavoured vodkas really do have to be made naturally, however. We had a go at commercially packaged Cytrynowka, lemon vodka, as well as Pieprzowka, vodka made with red peppers, and found both undrink- able, tasting of nothing but chemical flavourings. Seeing our distress, Johnny Woroniecki offered us a taste of his own, home-made Wisniowka — cherry vodka. It was very different, fresher and cleaner, really tasting strongly of fruit. Lemon Absolut, a Swedish vodka, is really the only flavoured lemon vodka which it is possible to recommend. No flavoured vodkas can be happily mixed with anything: it is hard to imagine anything more horrific than a cher- ry-flavoured Bloody Mary.
By the time we had dispensed with the fruit vodkas, we were ready for Starka, Krupnik and Goldwasser, the after-dinner vodkas which most closely approximate liqueurs. Goldwasser, a drink which origi- nated in Gdansk, has, if made properly, bits of gold dust floating in it. The preferred drink of wealthy shipping merchants and Baltic traders, it actually has the flavour of aniseed and is excellent for clearing the palate. Starka is spicier and more complex, and very similar to brandy; it would be excellent with cheese. But, in the end, Krupnik, the only vodka which is served hot instead of chilled, proved to be my favourite. As we left, one of the Poles agreed to reveal to me his family's cen- turies-old recipe:
Pour clear vodka into a saucepan.
Add honey, cinnamon, cloves and (this is the secret ingredient) lots of lemon.
Pepper can be added to taste.
Heat up long enough to let the cloves infuse the mixture, but do not boil, or you risk losing the alcohol.
Serve while hot.
Only the uncouth set the glass on fire.
Wodka, 12 St Alban's Grove, London W8, tel. 071-937 6513, serves most of the vodkas mentioned here, and is planning to market some naturally flavoured vodkas, under its own W6dk,2 label, very soon. Zytnia and Wyborowa can already be purchased in most good off-licences, as can Stolichnaya, Smirnoff and Absolut.