Rakia Making Day Arrives in Bulgaria

Every year during the end of October to December the air around Bulgaria is filled with the distinctive smell of rakia. I don't need reminding as I've been waiting patiently for this time of year as I'm part of the enormous Bulgarian gangs of rakia makers responsible for this.
In case you didn't know rakia is a spirit normally of around 43-45% distilled from fermented grapes this time of year. Earlier in the year rakia is made from other fruits that ripened in late Spring to early Autumn such as cherries, plums, apples, pears, etc.
rakia, bulgarian, kazan, boiler, wood, alcohol, kukorevo, bulgarian lev, village, grapes, apples, tights, barrels,  supermarkets, mulberry wood, sugar, salt, coriander seeds, bicarbonate of soda,
Rakia made in previous years
The grape version is by far the most popular with the majority of rakia made from this product as it doesn't need too much additional sugar to top up the alcohol content on the initial fermentation. It also provided an avenue for grapes that are not fit for wine, no grapes are wasted in Bulgaria.
This year I had to buy my grapes, I had a good source in a local village which supplied me with around 80 kg of mature grapes at a good price. These were put in two big 120 litre barrels, crushed then mixed with 15 kg of sugar diluted with water. this was to get more alcohol content in the final must before distilling.
The barrels were stored in my garage and visited every day for the next 6 weeks to be stirred until fermented out. It actually took 7- 8 weeks for the gravity level on my hydrometer to read no more sugar was left in the must. This now was ready for taking to the village rakia house. There are around 6000 of these in Bulgaria, but being Bulgaria only around 1500-2000 are registered which is a legal requirement now. I booked one up in the village of Kukorevo some 5 kilometers from Yambol. I've been to various other rakia houses but this one was by far the cleanest, most well organised and of course legally registered. They provide transport for the barrels which was an issue for me with such as small car. The service they offer also included making the rakia so you didn't have to be there while the process was being done. This was something I didn't want as one of the reasons I make raia was being part of the process and a product that is made from my own hands. Without this it was being close to just buying a product, so I just chose the transportation option.
rakia, bulgarian, kazan, boiler, wood, alcohol, kukorevo, bulgarian lev, village, grapes, apples, tights, barrels,  supermarkets, mulberry wood, sugar, salt, coriander seeds, bicarbonate of soda,
Moving the barrels in pouring rain
Along with the two barrels of grape must, fuel was needed, namely wood for the stove that heats the boiler (kazan). This was kindly given to me as a present from one of Galia's family. It was made up from lots of laminated MDF board off cuts from an renovated apartment. Nothing is wasted in Bulgaria and gratefully received. Added to the must was some old rakia that was left over from a batch made in 2009. This was the last of the distilled must which read less than 40 percent proof and not good enough for drinking so it is saved for the next round of distilling albeit 8 years later. This was alongside old wine and left over rakia and liquor from parties form a bygone age. Basically anything that contained alcohol was mixed with the must, nothing wasted, all recycled. this is another reason I fell in love the culture here. In addition to this was 1 kilogram of salt, 150 grams of bicarbonate of soda and the optional 100 grams of coriander seeds. These are to be added to the must just prior to heating up in the kazan.
The reservation was made for 7:00 on 28th November and the excited anticipation of that day was very much still there as it was on my first time back in 2006. It was agreed that the barrels and wood would be picked up the day before and be ready for the early morning process.
The kazan house van duly turned up at the garage at 7:30 pm in the pouring rain as we hauled the barrel up into the van leaving me with a wrenched wrist form the efforts(another story). The wood alongside and now in the hands of a Rakia Maestro and on their merry way to village of Kukoreva to be greeted again early next morning. And in the midst of an injured wrist in the cold night and now soaked through from the rain, the excitement of the occasion to come builds further and overcame any pain and discomfort.
I rose the next morning before the alarm set for 05:00, the day had arrived and I was more than ready for it, despite not being able to use my left hand. Breakfast and bathroom served and I was off. Driving no problem, all the controls are on the right as had mustered the thoughts of managing the day single handedly so to speak.
Arrived at he rakia house though the now mud laden road with my car that had been cleaned to perfection yesterday morning dead on 07:00, oh that's so English! It is funny how you can't avoid the disciplines of time that had been even more exaggerated by working in the bus industry in London for 6 years!
rakia, bulgarian, kazan, boiler, wood, alcohol, kukorevo, bulgarian lev, village, grapes, apples, tights, barrels,  supermarkets, mulberry wood, sugar, salt, coriander seeds, bicarbonate of soda,
The kazan being fuelled up
rakia, bulgarian, kazan, boiler, wood, alcohol, kukorevo, bulgarian lev, village, grapes, apples, tights, barrels,  supermarkets, mulberry wood, sugar, salt, coriander seeds, bicarbonate of soda,
My barrels waiting for a clean kazan
As I entered the house, my barrels were by the kazan which was being cleaned by one of the workers there. The wood was outside so I gathered them up and transferred the into the purposely placed plastic basket in readiness. These kazan had temperature gauges for the must in the kazan and the steam that exits the kazan. This was something I hadn't had before when processing. Also there was a design on the final exit of the rakia that cools the finished product off by means of extra travelling through a little mazes of copper routes. Prior to this  have to use jam jars on the finally exit so to cool the rakia that frequently comes out hot. Also on this system after the condensing was a place for the alcohol to be measured, a great design sainv having to extract rakia in a jar away from the kazan to be measure as I did on many other occasions. Somehow though, it felt like I this was cheating and the chore of constantly checking of the level of alcohol by taking samples was all part of the hands on tradition of rakia making. Getting more practically and physically involved rather than passively just watching just adds to the occasion and fulfillment of achievement. Guess most would say just why add to your workload when there is no need to? I can answer that, but is would probably turn into a chapter of deep personal historical psychology.
rakia, bulgarian, kazan, boiler, wood, alcohol, kukorevo, bulgarian lev, village, grapes, apples, tights, barrels,  supermarkets, mulberry wood, sugar, salt, coriander seeds, bicarbonate of soda,
The distilling has started
So, back to the kazan that is now filled with the fermented grape must plus salt, bicarbonate of soda and coriander, then the lid sealed. Again this lide sealing is different to my past experiences. It used to be seal with the rims cemented with flour which seals once heated. Again, this screwed lid is more secure and practical than the old method, but  do miss the old fashion process with the flour. Harder work and not foolproof? Yes, but it was at one time the only way and part of the rakia making process culture.
Because I was the first there it meant that the stoves were cold and it took a good hour or so for the temperature to rise to 100 degrees and the steam to travel to be condensed. this take up a lot of wood. More than I had anticipated and had to use up local wood with an extra 2 leva levy for this. I was asked if buying the wood at this price was a problem. My reply was yes, no wood was a bigger problem.
rakia, bulgarian, kazan, boiler, wood, alcohol, kukorevo, bulgarian lev, village, grapes, apples, tights, barrels,  supermarkets, mulberry wood, sugar, salt, coriander seeds, bicarbonate of soda,
End of the journey for the Rakia
The first of trickle of rakia journeyed into the bucket after 90 minutes. I measured the alcohol from that first batch to be 80% proof. quite happy with that. But then didn't expect anything less as I knew the grape fermentation was made effectively. Throughout the process the alcohol level was monitored not just with my rakia but four other parties who had it going at the same time. Conversation was solely based on rakia and many tips and tricks in the process. Funny how you can spend hours talking about one subject. There was a big screen TV in the house but that basically got ignored in the main as the focus was on rakia production. Another big plus in my books that!
After another three hours, the alcohol level fell to 40% proof and that was the end of the promised 23 litres of drinkable rakia at just under 70% proof. The distilling continued for another 5 litres weaker rakia put in another container in readiness for recycling in the next visit.
All done, barrels washed out one handed and put in my car, they just fit horizontally. Then last but not least the results achieved by midday. There was a very happy man driving back in the rain to Yambol stinking of alcohol, must have got a little high by the time I landed home!
Galia who was kept updated on progress greeted me at the front door with the rakia to hand saying we will have a great Christmas and New Year now this is in stock. And of course it compliments all the other produce we have preserved over the last few months to see us through winter. It felt like winter was no just around the corner and were well prepared.
rakia, bulgarian, kazan, boiler, wood, alcohol, kukorevo, bulgarian lev, village, grapes, apples, tights, barrels,  supermarkets, mulberry wood, sugar, salt, coriander seeds, bicarbonate of soda,
Apples in tights
rakia, bulgarian, kazan, boiler, wood, alcohol, kukorevo, bulgarian lev, village, grapes, apples, tights, barrels,  supermarkets, mulberry wood, sugar, salt, coriander seeds, bicarbonate of soda,
Apples in tights in rakia
One indoors the rakia was put into a big plastic container and submerged pair of tights stuffed with bitter apples peeled and sliced. I was going to add some mulberry wood to give it a dark colour, but then I've been doing this in the past and wanted something a bit different this time so omitted it this time. I should get a slight colouring as well as a subtle flavouring from the apples anyway. It has to be left open without the lid for two to mature. Then it can be diluted to the required strength for drinking although a longer maturing time would give it time to develop its character. Many store it in wooden casks made especially for maturing rakia, but I don't have that facility much I'd like to.
What did it cost I hear you ask? Besides the fact that it will be ten times better than anything you can buy in the supermarket along with the pride factor which you can't buy. Well total expenses amount to around 130 leva. This includes everything including my own petrol costs. Once the rakia has been diluted to bring it down to around 43% proof I should end up with around 32 litres of rakia. this equates to just over 4 Lev per litre. Yes 4 Bulgarian Lev! You can see why millions of Bulgarian do this and have their own kazan built on their property. With home grown grapes and their own kazan the cost would be next to nothing!
So. another rakia making day drew to an end and Im still buzzing with that day everytime I monitor the results and my wrist, well I've suffered for my rakia and that makes it even more memorable and special somehow. Ask the local hospital and they will bear witness to this, (like I said earlier, another story).
Having made rakia on many occasions this was a process I knew about and with this knowledge and experience I have been running blog over the years dedicated to Rakia. If you are more curious about rakia please visit my site:The Rakia Site

Rebuilding a Retro Raleigh Bicycle in Bulgaria

As many people know I am a keen cyclist and have been since giving up smoking around 1992. Indeed it was in 1992 I bought a Mountain Bike from Halfords in Huddersfield and that was the year I never looked back in terms of the love for cycling.

Rebuilding a Retro Raleigh Bicycle in Bulgaria
My 25 Year Old Raleigh Kalahari
The bicycle was a Kalahari which I used for commuting and beyond that touring France after a bit of modernising to accommodate panniers for my tent etc. I also gave it three coat so Hammerite on the frame, strong downhill rims and put dropped handlebars on it. It turned out to be a fine if not slightly heavy tourer, but we got on very well.

When I went to Bulgaria for the first time to live in 2005, this bike came with me. I used it not only for riding for fun, but carrying water and gas bottles for the home in the village. It was a great workhorse. Then I had to return to the UK again in 2011. The bike was given to Galia's son and he used it for the next 6 years on a regular basis. The bottom bracket finally gave up on him along with other problems due to lack of maintenance. He finally got himself his own bike and my Kalahari was waiting for me in disrepair when I arrive back in Bulgaria gain in April this year.

I really felt sorry for that bike after all the adventures we have had on it and the bike helping out Galia's family get around here. Due to the Hammerite treatment the frame was still in near perfect condition, it was just the components that needed replacing or TLC. So, a project was born to rebuild the Kalahari.

Rebuilding a Retro Raleigh Bicycle in Bulgaria
Stripped down A waiting for refitting
There are cycle shops in almost every big town and city in Bulgaria, Yambol is no exception, however, bike shops are not the same as in the UK. Most bikes in the shops here are low budget machines and I understand completely why with the ways things are here. the parts needed to rebuild my bike are universal , but somehow the local shop doesn't have most of what is needed. Simple replacement bottom bracket and the grease to use for installing, both where unavailable. Degreaser, an essential for chain maintenance, they didn't sell that either and recommended washing up liquid! And tools for the job such as a crank extractor. 

This may drive many expats crazy, but I know how it works here, I except that is how things are and just try and get around the problem the best I can. And yes I did use washing up liquid as a degreaser, not perfect but good enough. The bottom bracket was bought online form the UK and the grease to instal it was bought from the the car parts shop next to the bike shop, not dedicated to bike bottom brackets but does just as good job. Found out many years ago paying stupid money for designer products when general purpose products are just as good. Another example of this is with the sourcing of Hammerite which I intended to use giving the bike frame another couple of coats. But at over 20 BG Lev that to me was stupid money I didn't want to to pay. Next to this was a similar Bulgarian brand of coating at half the price and with a free paintbrush. No question, this is what I went for and after applying two coats the results were just as good!

I must admit there are a few things I bought online from China on Ebay. Purely down to price, every involuntary practical and prudent Bulgarian would go for this option. Cable casing, handlebar tape and cable seals all are coming for China at around 2 BG Lev for each item.

Needless to say I am now well on my way to restoring my Kalahari and will in due course give updates of progress. For now though the bare frame is prepared for serviced and many new parts due from online imported sources  and the excitement grows.

Caffeine: Rocket Fuel For Cycling

It has been six months now since I gave up drinking coffee with caffeine and gave up tea. This was done partly because caffeine made me hyper and didn't help at all with getting sleep, something which has been an issue for quite a while in the UK. Also Galia can't drink coffee with caffeine so now it saves having to make to batches of different coffee in the coffee percolator which was inconvenient.

Fatigued After  a Hard 80 Kilometres
In the meantime, it has been a couple of seasons on my bicycle racking up literally thousands of miles on the road getting fit and losing weight. On the occasion where I ride over 100km in one session, which is quite common, fatigue and lack of concentration hits hard in the last 20 km despite loading up on home made energy snacks and drinks.So, with no caffeine in my system on the rides this is a major benefit that I have discovered to avoid hitting the wall on the end of long rides.

It all started in a village called Roza, around 12 kilometres from Yambol. I decided to stop there for a break after riding around 75 kilometres prior to arriving on the way back to Yambol. I must admit, the weather was hot and I was pushing it throughout the ride up unit that point so it was a very tired and fatigued man who sat down outside the cafe on the outskirts of Roza with a strong cup of caffeinated coffee in front of him.

I was fully aware of the benefits of taking caffeine after starving yourself from it in my previous life as a teacher to gain more concentration facility in exams. I was also fully aware of the use in sport especially cycling where caffeine is taken on the last part of the race to give an energy boost. However knowing about it is one thing, but trying it is something I had never ever done.

One Coffee in Roza
So, here was the first test of caffeine to get me over the last hill and into Yambol hopefully without a struggle with tired legs and fatigue.

Did it work? Well I was shocked, the amount of energy it gave me was amazing, honking up that last hill throughout without any fatigue in my legs and full of determined concentration. Then powering my way forcefully on the last 6 kilometres as if I hadn't done any mileage prior to this stretch. I just couldn't believe that a simple cup of coffee could have such an affect on my energy.

Thee caffeine revelation was something quite new to me, I know the exaggerated effect was due to starving myself of caffeine prior to the intake. It really can be described as rocket fuel.

So, it is my routine now to only drink take caffeine on the final leg of long bike rides, something I have done a few times now and works very well. As long as I don't do more than two 100+ km rides per week, the withdrawal  of caffeine should be enough to stimulate to the full effect.

Don't underestimate the power of caffeine, it was a revelation to find out first hand.

A Piano? Great Idea.

Swept Under the Carpet for Years
Retiring early is something that I could only achieve with relative comfort in Bulgaria. Due to small pension I receive I have to live like most Bulgarians here on a very tight budget and no facility for materialistic desires. Luckily I been forced to practice that not just here in Bulgaria but in the UK the latter for reasons I will not go into.

However, there was one suppressed desire that was on my mind over the last few years. Music has had an important influence on my life in the past and I turned my back on that since leaving the teaching profession under the music coordinators banner. There are many times I reflect on my past musical activities and involvement. This gives a strong feeling and regret that part of me is being wasted by not fulfilling a need which was for some reason swept under the carpet.

A Digital Piano Solved a Problem
Moving to Bulgaria meant gave Galia and me a great opportunity of freedom. This meant that I could if I wanted to return to a musical world that I have evaded for so many years. I have many musical instruments, violin, viola, guitar, recorders, harmonica etc., but all would disturb neighbours if practiced here. What I really wanted was a piano, something I haven't played for countless years, even though I wasn't that proficient at it.

A piano? Surely that would create even more din for neighbours than the current repertoire of instruments in stock was the feedback I got from those I put the idea to. On the contrary I begged a digital piano would solve that problem as it can be used with headphones with just a little clutter of fingers on the keyboard that can be heard. So with that idea dwelling in our heads for a few months, I start savouring the moment of reliving music with the delivery of a digital piano imported from Poland.

Galia on the Piano
Since its arrival, it is with great endeavour and purpose spend at least and hour a day practicing piano technique with is based around scales, arpeggios and exercises provided from C. L. Hanon's Piano Virtuoso publication. Once the technique has been built up then I will start to work on piano pieces with a good foundation to springboard off. I must admit, the incentive to get out of bed  and practice after breakfast everyday is something I am really enjoying right now, even after two months of this routine.

So, a piano is now part of our home and as a piece of furniture look great as well. Galia was very nervous about a piano here until it arrived, but is more than happy with the idea now. Not least keeping me occupied for a while whilst she gets on with jobs in the home. Even more so now she can play Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy ' tune. 

Keeping Fit in Bulgaria

It has been said that moving to Bulgaria and having loads of free time due to retirement can lead to becoming an alcoholic.  Many expatriates could quite easily fall into that trap with the cheap alcohol widely available here and lots of free time.

So, what can you do day to day to keep yourself occupied being without funds from my small teachers' pension to splash out on regular travelling and holidaying. This is a problem I foresaw prior to settling down here and made provisions for this which are now being practiced. I do not have a farm to manage this time round so spare time is plentiful.

Also, how do I to ensure I will still alive to get my UK State Pension in 7 years? (You say that I look after my health out of spite not allowing the UK to reward me with the National Insurance I  have paid into my pension working for over 33 years there.)

My answer involves Jogging, cycling, walking, and to keep mentally healthy fishing and practice the piano, (after laying this dormant of over 20 years.) In addition to this writing, which will increase as the days get shorter. In the winter months which are fast approaching, there is a local Gym where I will work out if the weather prevents outdoor pursuits. I have already done the research on this on times and costs the latter nominal.

So all is now in place. The problem is keeping fit is like a drug; if I miss a day or two I get quite agitated with my mind filled full of regret by not plunging into it. Nice to have a routine to follow and set goals on each activity seeing progress. My heartrate has now fallen to less than 50 beats per minute resting which gives peace of mind on my health as a result.