Salamander brandy

Where did you find it? Slovenia, deep in central Europe in a rural area formerly the personal property of the Bishop of Freising in Bavaria.

So what makes it different from all those other strange drinks you see at foreign airport duty- free shops? Well, besides being made from salamander juice, it has aphrodisiac powers.

Liquid Viagra? Not quite, but a traditional medieval method of getting in touch with your deeper sexual feelings - and getting off your face in the process. The erotic charge of the drink is powerful, but tends to be indiscriminate in its target, so that anything in the natural world can become sexually attractive - trees, plants, animals or even humans.

Sounds like a witch's brew. To quote Macbeth's coven:Lizard's leg and howlet's wing for a charm of powerful trouble, like a hell-broth, boil and bubble. In the Middle Ages, salamander brandy was certainly used to conjure up and exorcise demons, and the area around Skofja Loka where the brew is found had an unusually high proportion of tried witches. But the salamander is not all bad; it is also the sign of the alchemist. Its ability to walk unharmed through extreme heat or fire led the creature to become a symbol of self-restraint, chastity and purity, metaphorically surviving the temptations and rigours of red-hot earthly pleasures.

This seems at odds with all the 'randy brandy' talk. The Middle Ages were a period of mystery not rationalism. Loosen up a bit.

How do they make the brandy? There are several different methods. The simplest is to take two salamanders (live), toss into a barrel of autumn fermenting fruits, leave for a month and then distil. The sophisticated method is to pour the warm, freshly distilled brandy over the salamanders (one lizard for every five litres of brandy), collect the results in a suitable vessel and then drink. The X factor is the poisonous mucus the salamander gives off to frighten away its predators.

Sounds disgusting. It is, but very warming on a chilly autumn evening and it's a great way to see the world through Hieronymus Bosch's eyes without going to the Prado.

So how do you get hold of it? Production of the brandy has always been a clandestine affair. The Slovenian tourist board certainly has not heard of it. But the secrecy of the brandy is half the fun. I had to go through a chain of whispered contacts and endless hours in smoke-filled taverns in Skofja Loka before finding the stuff. It is best enjoyed as a local experience, drunk fresh in the forest where there are plenty of trees to fall in love with. Direct requests for the magic brew will not yield results, but a disapproving local farmer might "happen to find" some of the evil stuff if the price is right.

Is it expensive? Forty Deutschemarks (£13.50) for five litres, but it depends on who you manage to get it from and how much donation you want to give to the WorldWild Fund when the guilt about the poor suffering salamanders kicks in.

When is the best time? Autumn, just before the salamander goes into hibernation. You can combine your search with a dormouse hunt, another charming local custom.

So is it illegal? Not at all. In Slovenia, anyone of any age can produce alcohol. Selling it or exporting it is a different matter. Of course, if Slovenia is ever admitted to full membership of the EU, all this will have to change.

Considerations . . . Not to be confused with the Slovenian liqueur made from mistletoe (very handy at Christmas parties) or pleterka kruska - the pear grown in a bottle of brandy, poteen, paint-stripper or cane-toad licking. This stuff does not come with any government warnings - you have only yourself to blame.

John Morris ©

John Morris travelled as a guest of the Slovenia Tourist Board 0207 287 7133), flying to Ljubljana courtesy of the national airline, Adria Airways (0207 437 0143). Many thanks to Blaza Ogorevca, an authority on all things strange in Slovenia.