Earlier this month, I had the fortune and privilege to enter Kingdom A&S Championships with an entry that had been in progress for the better part of a year.
After multiple entries into other displays and competitions, trial and testing of different methods, and sifting through possible ingredients from a terroir that spans two continents, I selected the two recipes I thought would give me the best chance. The krupnik that I made, flavored with fruits and spices, might stand a chance to win.
For those unfamiliar with krupnik, it is an alcoholic drink that begins with a neutral grain spirit. As in nearly any area of the study of food, alcohol has long been a staple of human existence and has taken a variety of forms. For the people who settled East of the River Elbe and North of the Caucasus Mountains, their cultural liquor contribution was vodka, as well as its various adjacent types. These were created by using additives such as herbs, spices, or honey. Honey, popular in its own right for its use in mead production, was a useful addition for softening the bite of grain spirit. Eventually, the practice became common enough to earn the right to a separate classification of alcohol. Called krupnik by the Poles, Barenfang by the Germans, and krambambula by the Belorussians, honey liquor culturally came into its own.
Many of these liquors are difficult to trace the origins of. Krupnik is no exception. Allegedly, it was created by Benedictine monks in a monastery in the northeast of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, now known as Belarus, in the 16th century. After its inception it presumably became very popular with the nobles of Poland-Lithuania, called szlachta, who modified and expanded their personal recipes for the drink and passed them down through. However, as I read through various books related to the Pre-Christian period of Poland-Lithuania (pre-15th Century), this story became less and less credible to me.
While the Teutonic crusades did their best to erase pre-Christian religions and cultures from the Baltic areas, some evidence of the animistic Romuva religion does survive. Analysis of the primary sources closest to the period indicated that the Romuva faith had a loosely organized pantheon and was highly animistic, allowing for the incorporation of deities of all kinds. While authoritative lists of canonical gods are difficult to come by and often don’t agree with each other, they still demonstrate consistent themes.
Among these consistent themes were gods and rituals directly tied to the healthy production of honey, its fermentation, and storage. Using the logic of sympathetic magic and post-structuralism, or “if people had gods that they prayed to about this thing, this thing must have been important and had some serious cultural bearing to it,” I came to the conclusion that krupnik was likely a drink made by the common folk long before some enterprising monks picked it up as a monastic trade item. Thus, it is unsurprising that I couldn’t find a direct recipe or method. And so, I wrote up my research, added justifications from my ingredient choices, and wrote up my method for making this drink.
I should note here that I do not have a documented method for this beverage as it stands. I learned how to make this drink from my and my partner’s family traditions, us both coming from long lines of Eastern and Southern European Slavs. We have both drank our share of strange brandies and cordials made by enterprising family members, and have been informed of the “correct recipes” with some ethnic muttering about who’s culture’s liquor is best thrown in. I cannot tell you with precision how period our recipes are. I can only tell you that Slavs have traditions regarding liquor that are assuredly more pagan than Christian, and that there are more ways to earn good luck and a good harvest than to properly drink a shot. It was a test of research and primary sources to find any contemporary recipes from the later end of the time period, and some of those were barely in the period definitions of the Society. In previous competitions, I had been heavily docked for providing no supporting method documentation, so I was on the hunt for nearly anything that I could use. Thanks to some timely and incredibly helpful recommendations, I was able to find some instructions from a Russian manual of household management. So, I wrote them into my method with caveats and headed to Kingdom A&S.
I was honored by visitors to my table, curious and effusive royalty, and by my insightful and exacting judges. Their feedback was supportive and precise. As a bolt flees from the firing string, so did they swiftly seek and certainly find the weaknesses of my project. Modern choices of fruit and modern processing tools, only partial documentation of the herbs used, and the usual dagger, a lack of a single recipe. Across all judges, I consistently lost points for this one. Despite written caveats, despite the tightening circle of supporting evidence and points for probability, there was no smoking gun, so to speak, of how this drink would have been made in period.
I have to note here. This is the SCA. We are in the business of the recreation of historical artifacts, methods, and techniques. We strive for this; it is perhaps our calling card amongst the class of medieval play-acting groups. It is a facet of the society that drew me towards it and keeps me engaged day after day. However, it is one particular rock that I also keep tripping over. In my mundane life, I am an Associate Principal Investigator for a cultural resource mitigation company. The title is a mouthful, but means that I work as a historian, anthropologist, and archaeologist all in one. I am in the business of collecting historical and archaeological data, synthesizing it, and presenting the best possible picture of what it can tell us folks in the modern day. As one puzzle piece does not make the picture, neither does one data point make a conclusion, and thus do we do our research and draw conclusions in my field. Very rarely do we get that “smoking gun,” but piles of spent shell casings often are ample substitute.
So, what to do now, with several months until the next Festival of the Passing of the Ice Dragon yet still bearing the same ultimate feedback that I received at the last one? Thanks to the diligence and support of my judges, I have a handful of new leads for other weaknesses in my work, but that pack of lost points that a recipe would ensnare is a frustrating target. There still exist more historical monographs about the Teutonic Crusades than the Lithuanian Empire that preceded them. There still exist paywalls over university-led research into these kinds of anthropological puzzles. I still can’t read Polish. These same roadblocks led me to the indirect methods of problem solving that I first began this project with, and now 40 sources and 4,000 words later I am running out of clever ideas to defeat this final boss. I can hear my thesis advisor from years ago asking me where my ethnography is to contextualize this data, but in this moment, it feels like I have none of the data and entirely too much context.
Ultimately, I have four months to seek another, more complete answer. I’m not ready to set this project down and there are stages of maturation techniques and more period methods that I want to use and try, but this question of authenticity is one that needs to be nailed down. But for now, as the holidays roll in and I prepare to celebrate three religions’ Christmases in the space of a month, it is time to step back. Friends, family, and ancestors all need to be toasted, and I have several bottles to empty.
May trouble never find you in the new year,
Lord Cassiano da Castello, Order of the Sycamore, Shire of Nithgaard.
For complete documentation and bibliography check the pdf at:
A Partial Bibliography, For Those Interested:
- Maria Dembińska, William Woys Weaver (1999). Food and Drink in Medieval Poland: Rediscovering a Cuisine of the Past. University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Rowell, S. C. (1994). Lithuania Ascending: A Pagan Empire Within East-Central Europe, 1295-1345. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought: Fourth Series. Cambridge University Press.
- Greimas, A. (1992). Of Gods and Men. Indiana University Press
- Pouncey, Caroline Johnston (2001). The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible.”