A glass of biska (mistletoe spiced grappa), ruda (rue flavored grappa), or rogač (carob flavored grappa) with some dry figs, or a plate of locally produced Istrian prosciutto and cheese will open up your appetite and prepare the body for the joy of a good meal. After a glass of wine with the main dish, you might find the grappa on the table again, coupled with some lovely Istrian biscuits, but now it will be the sweet medica (honey flavored grappa) or višnjevača (sour cherry flavored grappa).
A tradition that goes back for centuries
Recipes for different kinds of grappa are passed down from one generation to the next in Istria, and so are the secret ingredients that make grappas like biska and medica so special and so different from one another. Initially made as a byproduct in the process of turning grapes into wine, grappa soon developed a life of its own and began a rich history. The unique liquor is produced by fermentation and destilation: herbs and fruit soaked in the grappa give it the distinct taste and aroma.
Grappa is traditionally produced in many family businesses but also in private homes. It is a key ingredient of many Istrian desserts and treats and has a very unique set of characteristics. The locals will readily confirm that in small quantities grappa has a soothing and healing effect, helping cure everything from colds and fevers, to indigestion and disinfecting wounds. That is precisely why no household can function without grappa. So let’s take a quick tour of the kinds of grappa you might come across in Istrian homes and taverns:
The most famed authentic Istrian grappa has to be biska, known in this area since ancient times and developed by the rich tradition of Istrian herbalists. With a yellow-brownish color, biska is made by soaking the leaves and fruits of the yellow or white mistletoe in the home-made komovica (pomace brandy) or lozovača (grape brandy). Legend says that the recipe for biska originally comes from the ancient druids, and according to local stories, the residents of the small settlement Vrh have a special recipe for it. When I next visit Istria, I definitely want to go see that village and find out first-hand if their biska truly is the best.
The other great star of the Istrian grappa is the charming medica. It is also made from komovica or lozovača, and enriched with home-made honey, especially wildflower honey, and sometimes also extracts of different herbs. It can be prepared as grappa or liqueur, and due to its sweet aroma it is almost always served chilled or in a chilled glass. Due to the somewhat more suave flavor in comparison with other types of Istrian grappa, it is popular amongst all liquor lovers, and is therefore the most common choice of welcoming drink for guests in Istria. But don’t be fooled by its sweetness! It might go down easily, but it carries a punch just as powerful as that of its less sweet relatives.
The authentic Istrian grappa called ruda or ruta carries the name of the herb used to prepare it, and it is usually served as an aperitif. With a pale green color, ruda gives the impression of being some kind of a magic potion. And truly, just one sip will carry warmth throughout your body and leave an unforgettable aftertaste. The specific aroma comes from the parts of the plant ruta (rue) which are soaked in the home-made brandy, and can be made more suave by adding honey. The best and tastiest ruda I’ve ever had was in Motovun. Whenever my path takes me to that charming town, guess which aperitif I choose to start my meals!
Teranino, sour cherry, carob… there is grappa for every flavor
Once you have tried one of the famous types of Istrian grappa, trust me, you will want to try them all. My favorites are teranino, the wine liqueur with herbs and fruit aromas; rogač, the fantastically aromatic dark brown carob; and the dark red sour cherry liqueur višnjevača, which, just like medica, comes in the form of both grappa as well as liqueur, and is just as deceivingly sweet. If you get the chance to, make sure to also try the fig, mint, pomegranate, wild apple… grappa. Oh, who am I kidding? If it’s real home-made grappa, you can’t go wrong!