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Maitrank, a Belgian drink for May time
At the end of each April when the milder weather arrives, the people of Arlon, a Belgian municipality located in the Walloon province of Luxembourg, venture into the area’s surrounding beech woods in search of sweet woodruff, a delicate, fragrant little white plant sometimes referred to locally as Reine de mai (Queen of May) or Elodie Belle. The woodruff is used as the foundation of Maitrank (‘May drink’), an aperitif that is specific to the Arlon region.
Traditionally, the drink is prepared for the "Maitrank Festival" celebrations, held each year over the fourth weekend in May. This year’s celebrations in Arlon include a free-flowing Maitrank fountain, fireworks and a two day programme of music from various bands and folk groups.
As well as being the symbol for the town of Arlon, Maitrank is also represented through its own Brotherhood, borne from the success of the Maitrank Festival, with an aim to promote the town and its favourite drink to Belgium and neighbouring countries. Led by a Grand Council of 16 Echanson (administrators), the Maitrank Brotherhood currently boasts 250 members who meet regularly in their ornate yellow-green costumes, designed to represent the colours of the plant and wine.
Sweet-woodruff, the soul of Maitrank
Without woodruff there would be no Maitrank as the small plant is the key ingredient that lends the drink such a unique taste. The plant is harvested before flowering and, once dried, will begin to release the essence of hay, honey and vanilla fragrances contained in the plant’s coumarin toxin.
although each family will have its own jealously guarded variation of the Maitrank recipe, the drink will typically feature dry white wine from the Moselle region of Luxembourg (Elbling grape), in which the sweet-woodruff is marinated for two to three days along with sugar and slices of unpeeled oranges. Some families will choose a dryer option, such as a wine from the Müller-Thurgau white grape variety, or add Cognac, Cointreau, lemon, a cinnamon stick or sugar cane. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find a Maitrank made with all of these ingredients.
Recent years have seen a growing tendency to use Maitrank in the kitchen, with the aperitif offering an original flavour and an inventive twist to desserts and sauces.
Although the vast majority of Maitrank is predominantly made for personal consumption, there are now two or three small, local producers who are now raising awareness of the drink by producing for various shops and supermarkets across the country.
However, the authentic Maitrank should be enjoyed in May and June, as a fresh aperitif served with a slice of orange. The drink’s shelf life is relatively short and will only keep for around a year in the right conditions.