Let us first clarify a few technical terms. Rakia in the area of Lika, in Plitvice Lakes is not just a drink, rakia is a magical drink, elixir, sedative, massage oil and a cure for all diseases from toothache to a sore stomach or swollen joints. Rakia here is not just another alcoholic beverage, it is a drink which is used for collecting the best memories. Today, you can find rakia in every cafe and restaurant in the area of Lika and Plitvice Lakes, or bring a few rakia souvenirs to your friends and loved ones.
Now that we have clarified these essential characteristics, we are now moving seriously.
Every house in Lika knows what a good plum rakia („šljivovica“) is. Rakia is a tradition in Lika, and roasting rakia is a custom that is still carried out in many households (maybe because the winters are long and cold, and maybe because we are social or want to show our knowledge and skills, I don’t know). When guests come to Lika house, rakia is the first thing that is put on the table, even before juice, coffee, water… It is very important to bring “the best” rakia in front of the guest, so that the guest is impressed by the skill and knowledge of the person in charge roasting rakia (usually the oldest male member, and his son… or similar combinations).
The process of roasting rakia itself begins in the fall with the ripening of plums. The plums are shaken, picked and placed in large barrels in which they are left to ferment. The term “when the plums ripen” is very questionable for the reason that it does not refer to the moment when the plums are ripe, sweet and easily torn from the stalk, but it means the moment when the first neighbor or anyone in the village picked plums to make brandy. This is the moment when the plums of everyone else are ripe.
The plums in the barrels are stirred occasionally to encourage fermentation. With the arrival of colder weather, when the days are cold enough for your exhalation to look like a white mist, it is time to roast rakia. A brandy roasting machine (colloquially “Happy Machine”) is placed in the middle of the yard. It is very important to place the machine right in the middle of the yard, so that neighbors and passers-by can see what is happening and so that they can stop by, taste and evaluate the quality of the product. By cooking fermented plums, alcohol vapors are collected at the other end of the boiler and brandy droplets come out through a thin metal tube. The first decilitres of brandy are always the strongest, but they also show how good the brandy is or not.
The process itself lasts until long into the night. The men were mostly in charge of this job, and the women took care of the children or were in charge of a few delicious snacks that would make every job easier, even the coldest ones.
If you find yourself in the area of Plitvice Lakes, be sure to try rakia. Plum rakia (šljivovica) is a specific brandy for this area, but pear and vine brandies and liqueurs made from walnuts, cherries and honey are also produced. You don’t even have to be a brandy lover to try it at all, but by drinking brandy in this area you become part of the community. By drinking brandy, new acquaintances, new friendships are made, old stories are told and loud laughter is heard until late into the night. A bottle of the best brandy is even kept in the darkest closet as a gift to a son or daughter for marriage. Roasting brandy is a wonderful tradition that we sincerely hope will not go out and that the stories that emerged from the day it is roasted will be told for generations and generations.