One doesn't have to be in Dalmatia long to realise that the local relationship with wine is much different to that back in the UK. Wine is a relatively new thing in mainstream British lifestyles (indeed, when I did wine tastings back in the day, one of my favourite statistics was that for every glass of wine drunk in Britain in 1970, seven pints of beer were consumed - by 2000, the ratio had come down to 1:1), but it is the very lifeblood of Dalmatia.
I recall my early horror in Dalmatia at seeing ice cubes in red wine, sparkling water being added to white wine, and most of the wine I came into contact with being served from plastic bottles (for an appreciation of the plastic bottle contribution to Croatian wine, click here), but gradually came to understand and accept that this was the Dalmatian way, traditions borne from generations of poor workers in the field. And 15 years later, it actually feels more natural pouring wine from a non-glass bottle.
But after years here, there was still room for surprises, and I was spellbound in Humac at a celebration lunch a few years ago, trying to figure out what this chap was drinking. It looked like a refreshing strawberry juice, somewhat out of keeping with the copious plastic bottles of red which were being passed around the table. Unable to contain my curiosity any long (and the only foreigner at the table), I finally plucked up the courage to enquire:
"Red wine and goat milk," he replied. "I have been drinking it since the age of five."
Whoa! I wasn't sure what hit me more - the brew going down his throat, or the age he began his drinking career.
Intrigued, I did a research and discovered that not only was he not alone, but the practice of drinking 'bikla', as the drink is called in the Vrgorac region of inland Dalmatia, where it is most commonly drunk. Here is a little info from the Kornelia Bajalo, kindly translated by Ivana Zupan:
"Bikla is a mixture of young red wine and goat milk. It has a specific color, lusty consistency and a pleasant taste. In Vrgorac area, it is traditionally being prepared after the grape harvest. Must was immediately used in a mixture with raw goat milk, which was given even to small children. In the next period of wine-making, during the must fermentation and maturation of wine, bikla has been growing stronger and was used as such until the end of the fermentation process. According to the tradition, young wine has been enjoyed for All Saints’ Day or for St. Martin’s Day. Experienced bikla drinkers are using red wine for making bikla through the whole year."
There is even a wine and goat milk festival, the Biklijada, which has actually just taken place.
And during my research, I came across another rather intriguing drink which is also served to children - the sweet dessert wine Prosek, with a raw egg on top. But THAT is another story...