Photo by Iona Wolf
Enter any bar along the sun-drenched shores of the Mediterranean and you'll find locals sipping on a refreshing anise-flavoured spirit. The potent aroma and milky-white colour makes it instantly recognisable. In Greece it goes by the name of ouzo, to the French it's pastis, whilst the Sicilians call it sambuca. In Turkey they call it raki and they love it so much they drink more than 60 million litres of it a year. Over the last 500 years, Turkey's favourite alcohol has acquired its own ritual and ethos, and now Yeni Raki are on a mission to bring their 'spirit of slow' to London. But can this ancient Middle Eastern drink persuade us to unrush our world?
Raki is made by distilling grapes and aniseed in oak barrels and since medieval times it has been a regular feature in the Turkish taverns, or meyhanes. It's usually diluted with chilled water until it's roughly the same strength as wine and has a strong association with food: in Turkey, when groups come together to drink raki in bars, it's accompanied by traditional meze plates of fresh fish and colourful mediterranean vegetables. Unlike a traditional anise-based aperitif such as pastis, you continue drinking raki throughout the meal. So revered is this drink, that often the meze dishes are chosen to match the flavours of the spirit, not the other way round.
Another integral part of the raki drinking ritual is conversation. Answering emails, tweeting, or any other kind of online chatter has no place at the table. Raki drinking plays an important role in Turkish culture, providing a space for old-fashioned face-to-face discussion between friends - whether that means catching up, celebrating, or even commiserating. Drinkers say that a couple of glasses of this cloudy tipple enables even the most conversationally-awkward introverts to find their voice.
Considering the blistering pace of London life, slowing down and socialising over good food and drink is sound advice. However in such a crowded city, it is often a difficult thing to achieve. On those rare moments when you try to convene with friends, most London bars have the music turned up so loud that a deep and meaningful exchange of ideas is out of the question; unless of course you're highly adept at lip-reading. Secondly, if you're heading to one of the city's no-reservation restaurants or street food festivals, once you do find somewhere to sit you can't stay for too long. However, this problem can be overcome. Bars do exist where you can wile away the hours with friends, it just requires some forward-planning and good research.
There's also a burgeoning Eastern Mediterranean food scene in London which should aid Yeni Raki in their mission. Trendy Middle Eastern pop ups and Greek delis are springing up all over town, whilst acclaimed restaurants such as Ottolenghi and Honey & Co. are bringing authentic dishes to the mainstream. When we think of mediterranean cuisine nowadays, it's no longer just Italian and French dishes that spring to mind, but also Turkish, Croatian, Lebanese, Egyptian. And as we discover more fantastic dishes from this far-flung region, a reminder from Reni Yaki to slow down, put the phone away, and converse more, will make for an even more enjoyable dining experience.