January 1, 1970My garden, while not exactly an orchard, has plenty of fruit trees -- plum (mirabelle, greengage), pear (Williams, Duc de Bordeaux-- or is it Bourgogne), peach (white, yellow and red fleshed) and apple (Golden, I was told but the fruit looks more like Canada to me). No matter how dismal the flowering season -- this one was cold and rainy -- I have too much fruit to deal with. Partcularly mirabelles. I'm not a jam person. I give away cartons full of plums to anyone who comes to visit. I freeze plums (great for clafoutis in winter). I put plums in eau-de-vie. In fact I always wanted to make eau de vie but I thought the process would be too complicated. In 2007, faced with a record harvest, I decided, 'Why not?'
I got hold of a 60 litre container, put it in my barn, and filled it with about 40 litres worth of fruit. (My tree actually yielded more than twice that but I had already given away the rest.) I had no idea what I was doing but, figuring I'd spent a lot of time around fermenting fruit, I gently punched the fruit down with a long wooden spoon and covered the container, airtight.
Over the next week or two I added whatever fruit I picked, finally filling the 60 litres with an assortment of pears, apples and the occasional greengage plum or quetsch from my neighbor. And I waited.
After a week a froth of bubbles covered the fruit. Fermentation had started. Every once in awhile I stirred up the fruit, shooed away fruit flies and inhaled the (already) intoxicating aromas.
This process lasted through early autumn when my schedule demanded I spend most of my time in Paris. I'd return to the country on the weekend or every other weekend, smell my sludge-like fruit mixture to make sure I didn't detect any volatile odors, stir it up a bit and put the lid back on the container.
It was time to think about distillation.
Once upon a time the French countryside was loaded with small distillers. Just about every village had its own distiller -- who would go from house to house, turning the fermented fruit into moonshine. He (it was always, to my knowledge, a 'he') was called a bouilleur de cru.
After the war -- whether due to concerns about alcoholism or under pressure from the big aperitif companies -- such distillation was outlawed. Those who already had licenses, however, were grandfathered in. These bouilleurs de cru often had stills in various villages within, say, a 50 kilometer radius and, from November through June, they made the rounds and distilled the fermented harvest of local home gardeners and vignerons.
It's a dying tradition but it still exists. I found my distiller, a young man named Laurent, through an article written about him in La Nouvelle Republique. His still, in an aluminum hangar, is in Seuilly, the village where Francois Rabelais was born. On the lowlands of the village, it turns its back to the main road and lies beside a small stream. Inside, an ancient, wood-fired alembic occupies 3/4 of the room.
One reaches Laurent by mobile phone. I explained my circumstances and he advised me to bring him a sample. I was nervous. I was convinced he was going to tell me my stuff was merde and that I should just throw it out.
I don't think that's why I got a flat tire going to the still but I was obliged to hobble to a garage and get TWO (don't ask) new tires before proceeding to Seuilly.
There are always a handful of men hanging around stills and Laurent's still was no different. I handed him the wine bottle containing about a cup of my brew and we went into the still for him to judge it. He poured about two-fingers worth into a duralex glass and sniffed. He nodded in the affirmative. Whew!
Then he stuck a finger into the muck and licked his finger. Again, a nod in the affirmative. Double WHEW.
Now, distillation -- which presented a complication. My batch wasn't big enough to make a whole chauffe. It would have to be mixed with someone else's sludge. I was in no position to make demands but I did point out that my juice was almost entirely mirabelle and was 100% organic. He nodded.
That was in March and I had to go back to Paris. Would my nice juice spoil in my absence? Not to worry, he said. And he was right. I told him I would be back around Easter. He thumbed through his diary, checking his various distillation dates, and told me to bring the container over when I could. A month later, I did. The juice already smelled like eau de vie.
And a week later, it was eau de vie. Laurent had distilled my batch with a batch of fermented plums (he said), reduced the alcohol from 100% to 51% with the water from the process (this I have to witness some time) and put my share in an 8 litre container.
"Is it good?" I asked when I went to pick up my brandy. He nodded, very slowly and sagely. There was a group of senior citizens from a nearby village "touring" the installation.
I brought it home and funneled the eau de vie into various-sized wine and alcohol bottles. I've never seen a liquid that clear, that transparent, in my life. The full Laphroaig bottle looks pretty droll. And I've put a label on the Bombay Sapphire bottle -- to avoid any potentially dangerous misunderstandings.
But there it is. My own eau de vie. And it's really, really good. I regretted not having brought a sample bottle to Los Angeles for the wine and spirits competition. Maybe next time.