Thursday, June 6, 2013

Balsam—Curing Russians since Catherine the Great

By Kelly Raftery

It was mid-October 1992 and a group of grad students were going to see the Presidential candidate speaking outside that cold Michigan night. We were all bundled up with scarves, gloves and hats to stand in the cold and as we headed out the door, one of my Latvian classmates showed us all a flask, which she slipped into coat pocket, informing us that it was “balsam, it is like a mitten for your tummy.”  And, as the evening went on the flask was emptied and indeed, we all stayed quite warm.   

Balsam is good for what ails you—no matter what that might be. Cold, flu, low blood pressure, digestive ailments,
Catherine the Great, cured by balsam.
all cured with a hearty dose of balsam. Bottled into ceramic flasks since the 1700s, balsam is rumored to have gained its reputation as a healing elixir from a visit that Catherine the Great made to Latvia. The Empress fell ill with stomach complaints and was given balsam, brewed by a local pharmacist named Abraham Kunze. Catherine’s illness subsided, she was saved (supposedly) from death and balsam became known as an effective remedy.

The recipe for balsam has been and is a closely held secret. Once you open the special ceramic bottle and pour a dram, you will see that it is a thick, black liquid that pours more like molasses than vodka. Balsam is 90 proof alcohol with anywhere from 17 to 23 other natural ingredients mixed in. Among the botanicals that can make up a balsam are grasses, herbs, roots, berries and other fruits. The actual mix is proprietary and varies from brand to brand, but can include linden blossom, mint, ginseng, black peppercorn, birch bud, bilberry, valerian, raspberry, and honey. The taste is bitter and sweet all at the same time, somewhat like drinking cough syrup. Regardless, balsam is on the menu in many a Latvian restaurant, served over ice cream, in cola, or as shots. Apparently, it is a “must do” for the brave and hearty tourist seeking to experience the “real Latvia.”

Riga Black Balzam
photo by Fanny Schertzer
The most popular (and most frequently exported) brand of balsam is Riga Black Balsam that can be found in many well-stocked liquor stores, particularly those in Russian speaking enclaves such as Brighton Beach in New York.

A number of years ago I suffered from digestive issues that took me from doctor to doctor seeking relief. In frustration, I finally consulted a Chinese traditional medicine practitioner, who began my treatment by poking me with needles and then handing me a tiny bottle of medicine that she sold off the shelf of her office. Always a skeptic, I took the bottle home, where it laid in a drawer for a while, until I finally talked myself into measuring out the required droppers of liquid into some water. I lifted the cup to my nose, sniffed delicately, breathed out and then took all the brackish brown liquid in to my mouth and downed it with a quick swallow. I stood in my kitchen dumbstruck and then called out to my husband, “Hey, you know what this stuff is?  It’s balsam!”  It did not have the alcohol content of the balsam that I knew, but it certainly was a similar combination of botanicals.

My stomach issues eventually resolved and that tiny bottle of plants and herbs marked a turning point, a start on the road towards healing for me. I don’t know if it was the healing properties of the herbs and roots or the fact that the taste reminded me of all the times I had drunk balsam over the years. I seem to recall drinking balsam at my wedding in Kyrgyzstan, a local brew made from wild herbs picked in the mountains. With each sip of that medicine, I was reminded of a different time in my life, from that cold night watching candidate Bill Clinton introduce Hillary to my Kyrgyz wedding surrounded by my new family. I have this cough I can’t shake; I wonder where I can buy a bottle of balsam?

1 comment:

  1. I love the premise of your blog and that you “packed up your job.” Inspiring. I look forward to catching up on your adventures and reading more!