Finally. Finally I get my act together and start to make my own pálinka, or Hungarian fruit brandy. Sometime ago, I joined a group of men who wanted to make their own “hooch” or home distilled spirits. Up until now I have been largely a silent/inactive part of the group – except of course for tasting the output from others- but I was determined to set about making pálinka. With the help and expert guidance of Dean I purchased the necessary equipment, and have made a start. (Actually I made a start a few weeks ago, but the result was a “not yet successful” attempt. This time it is serious, this time I am serious. So here is an account of the process of home-made pálinka, photos and all.
Part I deals with the making of the ‘wash’ or ‘mash’ – getting the fruit and fermenting it.
Step 1: Buy Your Fruit
I have always been a fan of plum brandy (szilva pálinka) so that was my first choice fruit. At this time of the year, March, there are a reasonably good supply. I choose the local Sunday ‘Farmers’ market as the place to buy the eight kilos of fruit required. I also choose this market because it is, indeed, a market: not a shop or supermarket, but a place where people sell local food. Those last two words are important: local, and food. I recently finished reading Michael Pollan’s, In Defense of Food in which he convincingly makes the case that much of what makes up the so-called Western diet is made up on non-food and thus is leading to our current obesity epidemic. Instead, he urges us to buy “food”, defined, inter alia, has something with less than five ingredients which you can pronounce and your grandmother would recognise! Also the market reminds me of the markets that are common in Hungary and I have a vague feeling of nostalgia whenever I go to local ‘farmers’ markets. So it is off the local Sunday market to buy eight kilos of plums.
Step 2. Clean Your Equipment
The first step is accomplished: eight kilos purchased and carried home. One of the joys of home distillation is that you get to buy new stuff. One of the “still boys”, Dean takes me by the hand, not down the path to righteousness, but to the local home-brew shop somewhere in the Hutt Valley. We buy plastic buckets, magical chemicals and various other stuff. Even an hydrometer to measure the amount of alcohol. Neat. But before I begin, I must clean the lovely white plastic bucket that will hold the concoction while it ferments. So I use magic chemicals and wash the bucket in the bath.
Step 3: Stone Your Fruit
As with all new ventures, you learn stuff you never knew before. Which is kinda the point of new ventures, I guess. Did you know that stones from fruit contain have very small amounts of cyanide? Not enough to harm you apparently but I am by nature cautious. And besides, Dean recommended it and I am student to my guide and mentor in this process, so I oblige and stone the fruit. Not before washing the fruit however. Stoning eight kilos of plums takes a long time. Quite some time. Maybe not next time. But there is something therapeutic about stoning fruit this way. I am sure that many repetitive actions become almost mesmerising after a while.
Step 4: Add Stuff to Fruit
We need to add stuff to the fruit to get the fermentation process going. So in goes four kilos of sugar and enough tap-hot water to take up the volume to twenty litres. This is a cool part of the process as there is something quite liberating about dumping four kilos of sugar over eight kilos of stoned plums. It is quite visceral. I didn’t feel that way about adding the water as, of course it, dissolved the sugar. Next is some mysterious white powder Dean has given me that are called “yeast nutrient salts.”
In they go, to be nutrious. A this stage I feel like I making progress. And indeed I am. Almost there now. The last step is to add yeast and crushed vitamin B tablets. But Dean’s injunction is clear: the water and plums (and sugar) mixture, must cool to 30o. One of the nifty things we bought was a paper thermometer that is attached to the side of the tank to measure the temperature. How long do you think hot tap water takes to cool to 30o? Quite some time. A long time in fact. Long enough to have an afternoon nap after my exertions. Finally, several hours later, the temperature is at the required level and in goes the yeast and crushed vitamin B tablets. Not just any yeast. It is, I think, Lalvin EC 1118 Selection Champagne yeast. I reckon if you are going to use yeast, champagne yeast is as good as any.
Step 5. Seal It
The fruit mash is complete and now the yeast must do its work. I seal the tank with a rubber bung and airlock. A few hours later, I hear a noise.
A strange, ill-defined noise. Kinda like a “plop, plop, gurgle, gurgle”. Ah, the airlock is bubbling away. Fermentation is taking place. An ancient and primeval process that surely goes back thousands of years. It is as if the ancient code is broken and the secrets of making alcohol is revealed once more.
When we wake up in the morning, the gurgling sound continues and a faint smell of yeast permeates the house. Ah, I love the smell of yeast in the morning. Not sure whether the rest of the family shares quite the same sense of exhiliration.
Step 6: Wait
The fermentation has started and now I must wait 7 to 10 days, or perhaps longer, before the process has ended and the mash is ready for the next stage: distillation. Dean suggests I stir the ‘mash’ each day. This I do with much pleasure. I let nature take its course, and feel that an earthy connection with man’s ancestral desire to make alcohol and thereby ever so slightly and temporarily, alter his consciousness.