There I was, smack-dab in the middle of Austrian edelweiss paradise, and all I wanted to do was close the curtains on the glorious mountain views, pull the featherbed up to my chin, and suffer through my summer cold in silence. I had already begged off a hike, and was about to miss out on a village beer-and-bratwurst fest, when my friend, whose family lived in the area, entered the sick room with an unlabeled bottle of mysterious, glowing amber liquid. Brandishing the flacon, she explained, a little apologetically: “Here’s something for your cold. It tastes a little…umm…odd, but it’s traditional, and this batch was made by a friend of my mother’s. It’s zirbenschnaps.”
“It’s zerba-wha?” I grunted, red-nosed and bleary-eyed.
Schnapps, generically speaking, is a clear, fruit-flavored—pear, plum, raspberry, even elderflower—high-alcohol distillate, and in German-speaking countries is made without added sugar and often imbibed neat from a tiny shot glass. zirbenschnaps is an Austrian variation on the theme, and it is often homemade. It is schnapps flavored with—wait for it—pinecones.
The pinecones come from a particular type of evergreen, the Arolla pine, and are gathered in July while still green and immature. This pinecone harvest is an event full of male bravado. Since the trees ooze a sticky sap impervious to any modern washing machine, the männer pull on their nastiest clothes. And though the trees may grow right in town, it is far manlier (and better for the recounting later) to stalk them in more perilous terrain.
Once harvested, the pale green pinecones are sliced into discs and immersed in their alcoholic bath. Within a day or two, the green-and-white cones transform the liquid into a vibrant terracotta hue, and after a couple of weeks, their essence—and according to my host’s recipe, a little sugar—is transferred to the schnapps, and then bottled.
This was the potion offered to me as I sniffled in my miserable, self-pitying malaise. Thinking anything was better than the state I was in, I popped the bottle open, poured out a generous measure and sniffed suspiciously. Even through my cement-clogged sinuses, I could make out the fir trees and forest floors. Hesitantly, I sipped.
I seemed to hear a distant cry of “timber” as I was walloped over the head with a virtual pine tree. Intense, resinous and somewhat mentholy, it tasted as if I were sipping the very essence of the primeval forest. (And no, this wasn’t a fever dream.) Something this powerful, I reasoned, simply must have some sort of beneficial effect.
Happily, I awoke the next morning vastly improved. Was I truly restored to health by the magical properties of the zirbenschnaps? Could this pinecone assault actually boast medicinal powers?
I may never know. But auf Wiedersehen, Austria, and thanks for the zirbenschnaps.