Rakija nation’s wine culture exploration

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Autochthoinos is pleased to present an extract from a paper by Mariusz Rybak exploring links between Serbian identity and wine culture.

By Mariusz Rybak

In his book about traditional wine production, Petar Bokun calls Serbs a ‘rakija nation’, as opposed to a wine or beer nation (2010). In fact, rakija, a strong alcoholic beverage produced by distillation of fermented fruit, known in Italy as grappa and in Hungary and Romania as palinka, is a flagship product of the whole Balkan Peninsula, associated with the cultures and cuisines of the region. When I arrived in Belgrade with a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to conduct a research on the links between Serbian identity and wine culture, I heard this opinion from many Serbs, and there were few to dispute this self-definition of their compatriots. Soon this gave a rise to doubts whether I had mistaken the product, and the object of this developed identity-creating culture is rakija rather than wine. Some interviewed people even allowed themselves jokes like “rakija is the best wine of Serbia” or “rakija is the most popular wine among Serbs”, adding playful phrases such as “rakija – connecting people”, which is an obvious allusion to the slogan “Nokia – connecting people”.

Discovering the identity-creating function of rakija was a byproduct of the research. Even though there is a lot of consumer patriotism related to this beverage, the product’s status in the culture does not diminish the meaning of older and deep-rooted wine traditions, present in literature, music, visual arts, and religious and historical symbolism.

Wine entered Serbian culture when the ancestors of today’s Serbs arrived in the Balkan Peninsula and thus came under the influence of the Byzantine Empire. The particular role of wine in the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean Basin was preserved to a considerable extent in the rituals of Christianity. It was one of the most significant agricultural products in the medieval Serbian empire. In the 14th century, under Dušan the Mighty, there were merchants mostly from the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik), who traded it abroad. Their freedom of commercial activity was protected by law, as was the quality of the wine (Dušanov Zakonik / Dushan’s Code 2002). It was also forbidden to mix wine with water for sale (Marjanović- Dušanić and Popović 2004). The area under viniculture was growing, and when the French traveler and pilgrim Bertrandon de La Brocq́ uière visited Serbia in the first half of the 15th century, he wrote that:

[T]here is nothing but forests, mountains and valleys to this town [Belgrade] but the valleys are crowded with villages, in which provision and good wines are met with (de La Brocq́ uière 1807: 280).

Even more than four centuries of Muslim Ottoman reign over the Balkans did not erase this heritage. On the contrary, for preservation of Serbian identity, supported by the institution of the Orthodox Church, both Christianity and its symbolism became a way of establishing cultural distinction. There is a gap in the scientific literature concerning Serbian wine culture and its role in the process of identification. In fact, not much research on food culture throughout Balkan and Central Europe has been conducted. Not only foreign scholars, but also domestic researchers in these countries have paid relatively little attention to the phenomenon of food, and wine in particular.

Mariusz Rybak works for Slow Food International. He (often) writes on wine culture and the notion of wine as a cultural good.

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