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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Be Still My Heart

Yesterday, I had a peek into what may soon be a part of France's past: the distillation of a batch of fruit into the water of life, or, as the French call it, eau de vie. It's frequently drunk as a digestif.

Friends invited me to travel out to Dun-le-Poëlier in the Indre, a 90-minute drive, to watch as they brought their mirabelles to a mobile still. The entire operation was fascinating.

Last summer, as the fruits fell from the trees, my friends collected their mirabelle (tiny yellow) plums and stored them in a 100-plus-litre plastic vat known here as a fut. They added sugar and sealed it up for months, allowing the fruit to macerate and ferment. At times the fut bulged so fearfully with the released gases, they worried it might explode.

Now, about seven months after sealing the fut, they've brought it to this visiting mobile still that makes the rounds of the regional villages. The whole process takes about an hour and the various farmers arrange in advance to distill their fruits.

Three 400-litre stills operate simultaneously, ensuring each producer gets literally the fruits of their own labors. As the futs are opened to reveal the fermented peaches, pears, plums or grapes--grapes having already been spent from having been made first into wine (the fruits are never combined in this process)--the workers insert one end of a large vacuum tube. I'm afraid I can't think of any way to more accurately describe it than the unfortunate resemblance to pumping out a septic system.

The still operator fires up the motor and the pipe sucks the pulp and liquid from the fut into the still. The still is then sealed and steam is forced through, and the ensuing alcohol is then filtered from the pulp. The pulp is discarded and the alcohol level appears on a gauge to determine how much water should be added to dilute it.

Typical alcohol levels on the initial yield are in the 80-90% range. I can tell you that a mere drop burns your mouth on contact and it takes close to a minute before the aftertaste of the fruit makes itself known to your seared tastebuds. Eighty percent alcohol is equal to 160 proof and that's what we sampled, before it was diluted to roughly half that strength.

This was once a widespread practice but the government, in an attempt to increase tax revenue, has all but put a stop to it. Families are limited to a maximum of 20 litres of eau de vie per year, and, from what I understand, these mobile stills don't operate nowadays north of the Touraine (the region in central France where I live) because the cost of a license has become prohibitive.

So it was a real treat getting to see this live and up close!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Sans Heat but not sans Adventures

I returned recently from three days in Paris to celebrate a major birthday. (I'm not supposed to admit to which one as my older sister gets irritated when I blithely reveal my age to one and all. So I'll refrain from actually stating I've turned 50.)

Despite the relentless, bitterly cold wind, Paris was as always quite magical. Although I'm without question a country girl, I do enjoy my urban forays, and the knowledge that Paris is a mere 90-minute train ride is delightful. For some it's a daily commute, comparable to my Manhattan commute 10 years ago.

This was only my second trip to Paris thus far, the first having been November 2006. (Connecting trains and planes don't count.) And, as I said, it was magical. At least up until the point where I discovered my wallet had been stolen out of my backpack.

Admittedly, I hadn't had the best of luck overall on this trip cash-wise.

Unfortunately, I'd neglected to bring sufficient cash.

Fortunately, I do have a cash/ATM card.

Unfortunately, I'd forgotten to bring that, too.

Fortunately, my companions agreed to give me cash and let me pay a few bills with my Visa card. And, fortunately, the theft occurred on the last day, an hour or two after I'd paid the hotel bill using my credit card.

Unfortunately, my friends had just given me cash before the wallet was stolen--120 euros in total. And, unfortunately, the wallet also contained my driver's license and carte grise which is essentially car registration and title of ownership, which you're required to carry at all times.

Fortunately, I had the fraud telephone number to cancel my Visa programmed into my cellphone.

Unfortunately, I didn't have enough money on the pay-as-you-go cellphone to make the call and charging it up meant using the Visa I was about to cancel. Probably not a problem but I was wary nonetheless.

Fortunately, my friend had purchased our train tickets and still had mine in her possession so I was able to get home. And fortunately, in addition to being able to procure a replacement credit card and driver's license within days of returning home, a letter arrived from the Parisian Prefecture of Police saying someone had found the wallet and turned it in...sans cash, of course.

Unfortunately, the letter demanded I return to Paris to collect it. And that I was required to pay them 10 euros for the privilege of claiming my stolen property. (That made me choke and splutter a bit.)

Fortunately, my friend and I went down to the local gendarmerie where I'd first filed my theft report (so I could drive without documents) and the gendarme there was wonderful, calling the Prefecture and ensuring I could just send them a check and have them mail me the wallet instead. Well, I hope that's the end of it. I still have to mail the letter to Paris.

Despite all that, Paris has lost none of its magic for me!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Weathering the Weather

Well, just two days after I extolled the virtues of weather in France this time of year versus the litany of snow-bearing tempests that have been littering the States, a hurricane blew in Saturday night from the western coast of Spain, heading across to Germany. It left a sufficient wake of destruction due to collapsing sea walls, some of which date back to Napoleon's era, to merit declaring a state of national emergency. The storm, Xynthia, is responsible for a staggering 59 deaths at last count, 49 of those in France.

Being two hours inland here in the Indre, on the border of the Indre-et-Loire, my inconveniences extended merely to a few roof tiles being shattered (and I'm not even sure they were mine; they just landed in front of my garage), my patio umbrella keeling over, and a loss of electricity. The latter rippled into loss of heat, cooking facilities, phone and internet, most of which were fully restored within 36 hours. What remains out of commission is the central heating. My oil company couldn't fix it and suggested I call a plumber. A bilingual neighbor, Edward, on the far side of the village, offered to help although his electric and phones are, at this writing, still out of service. So, unbeknownst to me, he drove over to Mézières to physically catch the plumber at lunch and arranged for a Thursday afternoon repair. People here really are a treasure.

In the meantime, my emergency paraffin/kerosene heater keeps the living area warm as long as the rest of the house is closed off. So Tilly and I will continue to sleep on the sofa, not a huge change for her since she sleeps there half the day anyway. All in all, I'm very fortunate, considering the number of people whose homes were destroyed or are still under water. Just last September, I spent three lovely days on the charming Ile de Re off the coastal town of La Rochelle, a very swank vacation destination. I read yesterday that La Rochelle's main district remains under more than six feet of water.

With that in mind, I'm reminded of Jonathan Swift, who once said, "May you live all the days of your life." I'm off to go do some of that now.