Ouzo, Tsipouro and the Spring Sunshine
Today is one of those days that you feel lucky to be living in Greece. Despite the misery, the financial crisis, the politics, and the irritability that seems to be going around, you wake up on a day like this and it seems as if everything is wiped away. A beautiful blue sky, with the temperature rising to a maximum of about 18-20oC is my definition of a lovely day. I can’t stand the heat of the summer, and the darkness of rainy days make me melancholic. There, you have it. The tiny remnants of my British upbringing in South Africa compel me to talk about the weather.
The problem is that on days like this your mind doesn’t focus on work. You usually find yourself staring out of the window instead, and day-dreaming. You think of yourself on a beach, basking in the sun and dipping in and out of the beautiful sea (which at this time is still quite cool – more at temperatures that give your skin a good lifting) and probably a little taverna, by the sea side, where you will be sitting for your ouzo or tsipouro. In my mind ouzo is summer. A glass of ouzo, ice and a tiny bit of water, to make it milky looking, and off you go. All set for the ‘mezes’ or ‘mezedaki’. The ending -aki added to a word in Greek means that something is small. It is a playful way of referring to mezes. Mezes is usually something small, spicy/salty, tasty, mostly fatty that will pair nicely with your ouzo or tsipouro. Tradition had it that you did not drink if you were not eating something. Both pair beautifully with fried fish, fried squid, octopus, saganaki (fried cheese), eggplant salad, tzatziki (garlic flavoured yoghurt with cucumber and dill), meat dishes that have sauce, sausage, fried zucchini and fried eggplant and of course different greek salads.
Ouzo is the alcoholic drink that contains aniseed and is traditionally produced by the blending of alcohols that have been flavoured with aniseed and maybe fennel, mastic from the indigenous mastic tree grown on Chios island, and other aromatic seeds, plants or fruit. It is not a sweet drink, although some ouzo may have a hint of sweetness, compared to others. Once water touches it, it turns milky.
The geographical indications that can be put on the label are: Ouzo Mytilini, Ouzo Plomari, Ouzo Kalamata, Ouzo Thrace, Ouzo Macedonia and for these to be so labeled they must be produced and bottled in the place of origin that is stated. Each of these places has a long traditon and ‘secret’ recipes that make these products recognisably different to each other, despite having the basic characteristics of what can be labeled as ouzo.
Tsipouro and Tsikoudia (or Raki) are produced from the skins, lees, and grape juice usually following winemaking (the juice can be must, partly fermented must or fully fermented wine). The main difference is Tsipouro is made in the mainland of Greece and is double distilled, which means it has higher alcohol vol., and many times during the second distillation it is flavoured with aniseed, fennel or other seeds and herbs, whereas Tsikoudia is made in Crete and is usually distilled once, meaning that it has a lower alc volume and it is definitely not flavoured (in Crete it is often called raki). These can be made in pot stills or column stills. When made by professionals they are characterised according to place of origin. So you have Tsipouro from Macedonia, Thessaly and Tyrnavos and Tsikoudia from Crete. The label of Tsipouro always defines whether it is flavoured with aniseed or not. Also in Crete they sometimes make tsikoudia from mulberries and in other parts of Greece from a different type of berry.
I have somehow combined ouzo with summer and tsipouro with winter. It’s not an official thing. It’s my way. There are also some very interesting examples of barrel aged tsipouro, that you will have after a nice dinner to complement some dark chocolate or a nice cigar.
One thing that is important is that it is not very safe to have homemade ouzo, tsipouro or raki because you can never be sure that distillation processes are adhered to. This means that they could be harmful to your health, at worst, or the flavour could be awful, at best. It is much better to buy these products bottled from certified producers.
These pictures are taken at the incredible taverna of ‘Achilleas’ in Chania, Crete. Right on the beach front, excellent sea food, we went in for lunch and discovered that the man has a collection of over 50 different ouzo from around Greece. These were just 3 of what we tried.