It all began with the typical message you get from your boyfriend: “Do you happen to know how raki, ouzo and sambuca are related?”. No, I didn’t, but I immediately wanted to know more about this issue, so I started researching this three beverages and I ended up realising that an aniseed liqueur was common in almost every country around the Mediterranean. Why is that?
Raki is the Turkish national drink and is made by distilling twice grape or raisin pomace and adding aniseed to it. It is generally served along with meze or by itself as an aperitif or after dinner drink, and it is quite common to mix it with water, rather than drinking it pure.
Ouzo is one of the symbols of Greece, although the origin of its name appears to be Italian. Apparently, the best quality of silkworm cocoons bore the stamp uso Messalia (lit. “for Marseille”): when a member of the Ottoman consulate tasted a sip of this beverage, declared it was “uso Messalia” to mean it was excellent, and with time the term “ouzo” stuck with this alcoholic beverage. To prepare it, aniseed (and occasionally other natural flavouring) is steeped in alcohol from raisins and distilled three times, and then mixed with water before bottling. As raki, it is also served with food and generally diluted with water.
Sambuca is from my homeland, Italy, and it is made distilling into alcohol the essential oils of star anise and fennel, to which other herbs are also added, including elderflower, which gives the name to this beverage (elderflower is fiore di sambuco). It is never drank with food, but it may be mixed with water, although its most common use is its addition to coffee for the famous caffè corretto (literally, “rectified coffee”).
From the top of my head I could think of other two similar products, namely pastis, for France, which became popular as a substitute for absinthe when this was banned in France; this is mostly drank with added water and sometimes ice cubes. Differently from the previous three liqueurs, pastis in its pure form is not transparent but slightly yellowish. In Spain, they have anís, in the Levantine regions they drink arak… but apart from a nice taste, what is it that makes this kind of drink so popular in the Mediterranean?
First of all, the aniseed plant originates in the Mediterranean area and it has been cultivated there for centuries ; moreover, its seeds have several properties, as they aid digestion, are antimicrobial, balsamic and very refreshing, just what you need if you live in a hot climate, especially in the summer. So it only makes sense that all these countries have developed their own recipes for a liqueurthat could help them fight heat, the microbes that can proliferate in excessive temperatures and also help them digesting some “tough” ingredients common to their cuisines such as garlic, onion and pepper.
If you know of other drinks that might be similar, let me know, I’d be happy to expand my knowledge!
Also, let me know if your significant other sends you similarly random questions so I don’t feel alone in dealing with this. 🙂