‘Firewater’ was what my family called my Russian grandfather’s homemade vodka. It burnt as it slid down the throat, which is why the best way to drink the stuff was to throw back the whole shot glass rather than sip it.
I learnt this from experience in my early teens. The French and Italians let their children drink diluted wine. In my family, a shot of vodka at the start of Sunday lunch was mandatory. For everyone.
My Papa (grandfather) had a vodka distillery under the house – a lot of potatoes disappeared into that void! – which my Baboushka (grandmother) would constantly complain about. The stench would waft from outside up into the bathroom window, down the corridor, and permeate throughout the breezy brick veneer house Papa built with his own hands.
Papa would spend a lot of time tending to his ‘firewater’ beneath the house, in between weeding the vegetable garden, feeding his chickens, and jogging in circles around the Hills Hoist (rotary clothesline). All of which he did into his late seventies.
After Papa finished his morning duties, he’d head inside for the ‘breakfast’ he boasted – along with the exercise – kept him trim and healthy. This might take the form of a boiled egg, a crunchy fresh cucumber or vine-ripened tomato (all from his own garden), a couple of dill pickles (gherkins or pickled cucumbers), maybe some rollmops, a couple of slices of black bread, and shot of vodka. Yes, that was breakfast, generally enjoyed around 9am.
Baboushka would pickle her own cucumbers with dill in colossal jars, or friends would bring over jars of dill pickles as gifts when they came for lunch. At worst, she would buy big jars of Polish gherkins from the deli. I found the same brand in Kraków that my grandmother used to buy in Blacktown in the western suburbs of Sydney where they lived.
“The only reason they’re making wines in these other countries is because they don’t know how to make decent vodka,” the father said. “Vodka is far better suited to this climate. And it has medicinal qualities.” My grandfather would have agreed with him – and probably would have pulled out a bottle to celebrate the point.
The Polish do make the smoothest vodkas – vodkas that can be sipped if you choose – including our favourite, the herbaceous Żubrówka or Bison Grass vodka, which comes with a blade of buffalo grass from the Białowieża Forest. It’s great on its own or followed by a sip of the excellent local beer.
In our quest to live like locals here in Poland we’ve kept a bottle or two of Żubrówka in the freezer and jar of dill pickles in the fridge. Now we couldn’t do that in a hotel room.
So here’s to the simple pleasure of a potent vodka poured straight out of hibernation in the freezer and a pickle or two to give the stomach a little lining before a big night out. Na zdrowie!