Katarina Pucic, Croatia’s oldest woman, celebrated her 107th birthday in the village of Barban on April 19th this year. Though her sight is failing she remains mentally sharp, to the point of telling a Croatian newspaper that she’s looking for a nice young man – ‘maybe someone 10 years older than me’.
Katarina has three sons (all of whom are still going strong and one of whom still cares for her daily), four grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren. She can remember Croatia from its days of Austrian rule right through to Tito and the present day. She was five years old when Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, plunging the Balkans and the rest of the world into World War 1.
And Katarina’s longevity secret? Along with local ham and cheese, it’s homemade rakija – fruit brandy.
Plausibility rating: 5 out of 10.
Brandy has a long tradition of medicinal use, most famously illustrated in the (sadly fictitious) barrels of brandy carried by St Bernard dogs. However the evidence for it as an aid to long life is harder to find than a traveler in an Alpine snowstorm. One possible helpful ingredients is ellagic acid, which is also found in whisky, and which just might have anti-cancer properties. Another is ethanol, which may have anti-inflammatory properties according to this, very small, study of volunteers drinking red wine,vodka, rum or brandy. But in truth there’s little hard evidence for this version of the hard stuff.
Against that there’s all the evidence for the cancer-causing properties of alcohol even with moderate usage, plus the serious illnesses associated with over-use. And if just the medical evidence doesn’t deter, you might want to consider Edgar Allan Poe’s dependence on brandy to which he resorted as a ‘desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom’. It’s likely that the brandy contributed to the mental anxiety rather than prevented it, of course, and Poe died an alcoholic at 42.
Could Katarina’s local fruit brandy be any different? Unlikely, though you will find lots of articles claiming health properties for it. From one end of the Balkans to the other, rakija is sworn by as a cure for toothache, heartburn, sore throat, anxiety and scores of other ailments. It’s quite common for older Croatians to swear by a morning shot of rakija – and the habit is by no means confined to the Balkans. This study found that brandy was a very common form of self-medication by men over the age of 75 in Finland.
But if none of this has put you off you can either a) holiday in the Balkans or b) make the stuff yourself at home by following this step-by-step guide in Esquire. You will need:
• 6.5 lbs fruit (grapes, plums, apples etc)
• 6.5 lbs sugar
• 2 gallons plus 1 cup warm water
• 1 packet wine yeast
• Large thermal water cooler
• Large stockpot
• 6 small C-clamps
• Cheap meat thermometer
• 10-foot coil of copper tubing (3/8-inch inside diameter)
• Tube of silicone sealant
• 3/8-inch rubber grommets
But don’t let that put you off.