I had my Charlton Heston moment in Latvia.
And by that, I don’t mean waving a gun around at an NRA rally.
It wasn’t that dystopian.
By Charlton Heston moment, I mean that point in the Planet of the Apes where he is staggering through a desert and he stumbles across the last remnants of human civilisation – the Statue of Liberty.
I had been in the process of ticking off one of the lower items on my bucket list and searching for the source of kümmel.
150 years ago, kümmel was every bit the rival of gin and being made with caraway rather than juniper, it had one main advantage. Caraway has a calmative effect, reducing flatulence and that bloated feeling after a heavy meal. This ‘medicinal’ benefit help Ludwig Mentzendorff create a healthy business importing kümmel to Britain to sell to the new breed of entrepreneurs and growing middle class who wanted to show off their new found wealth with groaning dinner tables without showing their lack of breeding with clouds of methane.
It also proved useful on the golf courses where it soon earned the name ‘putting mixture’ for its ability to help golfers steady their nerves whilst its sugary-stickiness helped them keep hold of their clubs.
Kümmel, came from the village of Allažu (Allasch) in modern day Latvia, which at the time was part of the Russian Empire. It was produced by a Baltic German aristocrat Baron von Blanckenhagen, a hangover from the days of the Teutonic Knights, who owned land around Allažu which included a pure and reliable water source.
The upheavals of the 20th Century put paid to that business. In 1905 amid the turmoil of revolutionary Russia, the Blanckenhagen mansion was burned down. The distillery closed and entrepreneurial Mentzendorff’s opened up production of their own kümmel in France.
Baltic Germans moved ‘back’ to Germany as tension between Russia and Germany grew and several distilleries in Germany produced their own versions of kümmel, where it is still known as Allasch and is a popular digestif. But in Britain, its popularity never recovered.
So, I went to Allažu to see what remains I could find of the distillery. It was the middle of winter and the shortest routes to Allažu from Riga were along ice roads, making it feel like a proper adventure.
When I got there I realised that it was something of a forlorn hope to find anything. With no manor house, factory or any other sign that this used to be the home of putting mixture, what was there here to see?
I trudged around the manor parkland at the edge of the village, seeing if I could find some clue, anything to justify getting this cold when I had my Charlton Heston moment.
I saw some surprisingly lush plants among the grasses which looked familiar. I picked the seed heads with my numb fingers and rubbed them. It was caraway.
This is what was left of all the activity that took place here a century and a half earlier, keeping golfers in Scotland happy and dinner parties flatulence free.
I had a quiet moment of contemplation on what traces of our civilisation may remain after we are long gone. I popped a few seeds into my pocket and allowed the rest to fall from my cold, dead hands.
Then I went to the village shop. I bought some smoked river fish and rye bread. There was a row of spirits behind till and I asked if they sold kümmel.