All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Monday, 13 April 2009

The fruitful hedgerows of France

Every country has its own hard liquor, from raki to potcheen, and in France it is eau de vie, made from fermenting wine lees or fruit and distilling the consequences. I was grumbling one day that the hedges round my land were full of plums with very thick skins and not much by way of juice when my elderly neighbour Didier explained that this was not because previous owners knew nothing about fruit, but because these plums were ideal for making eau de vie and that if I used my eyes I would see that nearly every house in the country had a hedge of these useful little things.

Warming to his task, he told me what sort of container to buy....a blue plastic vat which could contain 120 litres with a hermetic seal...and the proportions of fruit to sugar. This explained something else. I had been puzzled by notices in supermarkets limiting customers to 10 kilos of sugar at a time...there seemed to be no shortage of the stuff, after why a limit? Didier explained that apart from its use in eau de vie, it was also extremely helpful in years when the wine was lousy to bolster the alcohol content....thus the limit on purchases. I had visions of vignerons' wives scurrying in and out past the checkout like perpetual motion machines, 10 kilos at a time, until the back of their van was groaning with the stuff.

As the plums ripened and fell to the ground I loaded them into the vat with sugar and when it was full I sealed it and awaited Didier's word to start the distillation process. Distillation is closely controlled by the state, anxious that no drop should escape taxation, so while once vignerons had a right to distill, that privilege is now being the heirs of the last hereditary owner die, their licence dies with them. Needless to say, Didier had a relative, an elderly cousin, whose health was being anxiously watched by the family, and he arrived on the due day with the paper in her name which had already served for thirteen people in the distilling season. I had a large trailer which was low to the ground, which had the advantage that the vats could be loaded with less risk of hernia, so we loaded his vats plural and my vat singular and set off for the travelling still. Despite having the paper, he was cautious...the gendarmes and the customs officers had a habit of lurking on the approach roads to the still and that paper had been well used! As soon as we could, he cut off across country on farm tracks and woodland paths, the trailer bouncing behind, until we reached the still, strategically placed at the junction of a number of earth tracks on the edge of a hamlet. It was an impressive operation, three stills in permanent operation, the customers' vans on one side and buckets and tubs on the other ready to receive the blue tinged distillate. We unloaded and were told to return several hours' later, when our brew would be ready, but the operator showed me how the contraption worked and as he did so he opened a customer's vat to pour into the still...the liquid on the top was thick with the little sticky labels that fruit producers stick on the skins. I looked at Didier askance.

'Well, the guy lives in town, so he uses fruit from the supermarkets. Doesn't matter, it all gets distilled like anything else.'

Already far from convinced that everyone gets his own brew back, distilled individually, given the nature of the operation, I just hoped that my vat was well down the line from the sticky label brew.

At the due time we returned, collected our empty vats and the finished product, nattily packaged in old plastic jerrycans. From 120 litres of fermented plums I had 13 litres of eau de vie which had cost me about one pound fifty pence per litre and a bit of effort picking up plums. Considering that when I was buying it on the black market..boot of the car under a dog blanket had cost me five pounds a litre...special price to foreigners...I was not displeased.

The experience also made sense of an odd episode some years earlier. Driving back to England, I had left in the early hours of the morning, to have a clear run for the ferry. Suddenly, there was a whole lot of flashing lights and torches....I was being flagged down by the gendarmes for a rummage by the customs. Well, they were in for a field day. I was bringing wine in quantity for the family....some from local vignerons, some from supermarkets...the back of the car was full.
Was I a wine merchant? Ever hopeful for something to tax.
No, it was for the family.
All that?
It must be a big family.
They had not had the dubious pleasure of meeting my brother, the man who drives to Belgium to fill his car with cigarettes.
As I was fielding their questions, in total innocence, a horrible thought dawned on me. One of the local guys had made me a present of a few bottles, whispering
No capsule.
I had thought that he was saving himself the expense of the foil bottle top but, as the rummaging went on I realised that the foil top contains the tax stamp the vigneron must pay for every bottle he sells. Those bottles were not very far from the surface and I was sweating cobs. At the least it would be endless forms and I would miss my the worst the poor local guy would be in for the rack and thumbscrews. What a mess!
Luckily, their enthusiasm gave out and I drove away unscathed, but I had always wondered what they were doing out in the wilds of nowhere in the middle of the night. Now all was clear. They had stopped me not far from the site of the travelling still. I suppose they had had a tip off that an illicit haul of eau de vie was to be shifted and were lying in wait for it. They would be so lucky....on a starry night, with all those dirt tracks, the haul would have been long gone, under their very noses.

For a friend of mine, Ziya the Turk, all this picking up plums was just for country bumpkins. He lives in town but has a house near mine, with plum picking rights in most of the neighbouring houses, but the bending is too much for him. Most things are too much for Ziya. One year he did not come down to the house in the country all winter because he could not find anyone to cut the firewood a neighbour had given him! As always, Ziya had a high tech solution to the eau de vie question. He would give me no details, but returned to his flat in town full of mystery. I would see! I would learn!
Later I heard from a common friend that Ziya had been making himself notorious. At the end of the Sunday market in his area of town he would plunge into the pile of discarded fruit boxes, manically sorting containers from contents, carrying on until, smeared with rotten fruit and surrounded by a personal cloud of flies distinctly larger than a man's hand, he had collected everything remotely usable and carting it to his car. Since this was an immigrant and largely Muslim area of town, the obvious had dawned on nobody, but it was clear to me. This was his magic no work formula for making eau de vie.
His wife was far from delighted....he had been making a poppyshow of himself in the market, he had dripped and dropped rotting fruit in the lift thus giving rise to comment by the neighbours and the car had had a resident community of flies for some considerable time. There was one advantage...the police in town were not on the lookout for blue plastic vats containing 120 litres, so he was able to haul it down to the country where in due course it was distilled. He never repeated the experiment. Too much like work.

I did this for some years with Didier, but gave up when my stocks of eau de vie threatened to resemble a supermarket storeroom. I still lent him my trailer, though, and it seemed, like the paper from the cousin, to have become part of the distilling ritual...I would see it all over the place behind different cars until the still moved on and it returned to base.

Last year, Didier did not want the trailer. The government had decided that the still could no longer travel. It had to be in one place where its activities could be controlled and, according to him, the place was like Fort Knox, barbed wire and concrete everywhere, and not a dirt track in sight.

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