Drink Like the Greeks: Rakomelo Digestivo
Traveling in Greece was a lot smoother and easier than we would have guessed. The transportation systems are for the most part efficient and easy to navigate. People were helpful, and for the most part honest in their advice. The Greeks were kind enough to translate most of their signs, menus, and the like into our alphabet–and often our language as well. Generally, our travels were amazingly hassle-free given we were in a strange place, with a different culture, where by all rights we shouldn’t have even been able to read. That’s not to say that there weren’t cultural differences, some of them a little annoying and some of them quite charming.
Thankfully our least favorite cultural difference was a rather small annoyance. Just inside the door of every hotel room is a little slot for your key card. This is not, as we originally supposed, just a handy storage location. It’s the switch that turns on electrical power to your room. No key in the slot, no electricity. You wouldn’t think it matters much whether the electricity works in your room when you’re not there–until you try to chill a bottle of wine in the hotel fridge, or charge a device while you’re out at dinner, that is. A small annoyance, but an annoyance nonetheless.
One of our favorite cultural differences was the prevalence of extras ‘from the house’ at restaurants. Here in the States, we’re used to the idea, at a high end restaurant with a fixed menu, that you might get a bonus item ‘from the chef.’ In Greece, this is the case at every restaurant or taverna every time you eat. There’s quite a complex economy of ‘from the house’ items. The most usual ‘from the house’ item was a plate of watermelon that arrived with the check. It was rare, but possible, to get nothing at all from the house. And sometimes, you would be offered something off-menu more substantial than melon. We stumbled across the existence of these off-menu items simply by trying to order. It wasn’t always easy to figure out what to order from just reading the menu. So, if we saw something at another table that looked good, we would ask, ‘Could we have what they’re having?’ Most of the time, we would get that item. Sometimes, we would notice it wasn’t on the check, and when we asked why, we would be told, ‘Oh, that is from the house.’ Occasionally, we would be told, ‘I’m sorry, that item is only from the house.’
We never quite understood the rules of the game. Were these from the house items offered by some sort of algorithm, by the whim of the server, or based on something we did or did not do? While we didn’t know how the game worked, we enjoyed playing. Our biggest moment of triumph was when we were offered a beautiful dessert from the house at our favorite taverna; that’s because the day before, at the same restaurant, we had asked for a similar dessert when we saw it go to the table next to us, and had been declined.
Our favorite ‘from the house’ offering, though, was a digestivo called Rakomelo. On the islands we visited, it’s the traditional parting toast to guests at the end of the evening. Its base is tsipouro, a brandy made from the remnants of grapes that have been pressed for wine. As we mentioned a few days ago, it seems that pretty much everyone on the island makes their own wine. That means that pretty much everyone has the problem, ‘What do I do with all of these grape leavings?’ The answer they came to is brilliant: distill it. Tsipouro is also consumed straight, but if you doctor it with honey, herbs, and spices it becomes rakomelo. Rakomelo tastes like a more mature and sophisticated European cousin to Fireball. Warm, rather than hot, and with the more complex, floral and tangy sweetness of honey. A sip of it comes at you in waves. The first wave is of honeyed grape, sweet and fruity and just the tiniest bit funky. The second wave is of gentle herbs. And the third wave is a long, slow afterburn of cinnamon.