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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!

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