Kvass: one for the road

Belarusian drinks of three centuries ago offer surprises

Belarusian drinks of three centuries ago offer surprises

Traditional Belarusian drink — sbiten
In the days before fashionable mojito cocktails or a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream Liqueur, there was kvass, kissel, sbiten, klenovik, krupnik, krambambula, and even coffee!

Kvass, honey and beer were once the most popular drinks across Belarusian lands, with Kvass men-tioned in the Tale of Bygone Years, written by Nestor in the early 12th century. Usually made from rye bread, rye (sometimes wheat, oat, barley) flour, rye and barley malt, it could be cooked with additions of honey, horseradish, blackcurrant leaves, sugar beet, or maple or birch sap.

Honey was the basis of various drinks, including mead: made from water, honey and yeast. Sbiten used not only honey but such spices and herbs as cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, and bay leaves. Drunk warm, especially on cold days, it was thought to boost the immune system. Krupnik was made with honey, spices and herbs, with a vodka base. It was served hot and in small cups, directly from the glass or, in some peasant homes, from large wooden spoons. Belarusians also drank birch and maple sap, compotes from berries and, surprisingly, coffee!

Special ceremonial drinks often included honey; syta was a staple at funerals; oat kissel was made on Christmas Eve; and kulaga, from berries, rye flour and honey, was made on Kupala night.

As Belarusian culture expert Sergey Khorevsky tells us, coffee came to our lands in the late 17th centu-ry, brought by those who’d fought in the Battle of Vienna (September, 1683). The armies of the Ger-man princes and of the Polish—Lithuanian Commonwealth, under the command of Polish King John III Sobieski, who was also the Grand Duke of Lithuania, defeated the Ottoman Empire army, which was besieging Vienna. This ended the aggressive wars of the Turks in Europe. Those from Belarus who fought on the victorious side received plunder from the retreating Turkish army, including a wagon holding eight tonnes of coffee and various equipment for its preparation. In this way, coffee came to our land; as the Turks called it ‘kahve’, in Belarusian, it was named ‘kava’.

By Mila Golub 

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