Tales from

the Loir

A Weekly Column

February 21, 2001 - Still on Wheels

There is something quite impressive about an alambic with all its shining copper, spinning tubes and hissing steam. It is a circus for children and a shrine to Dionysus for the men who bring their marc or cherries, or plums, or apples or pears for conversion into gout(eau-de-vie). Actually, women and children rarely see such a circus anymore. Fifty years ago the distillateur ambulant or bouilleur ambulant still pulled his copper monster with horses and parked it under the most convenient shade tree to sell his services. The distiller was called ambulant or ambulatory because traditionally he migrated from town to town in his specific region. It must have been a spectacle for all to see in every village he visited. The alambic is still the same impressive fire breathing copper monster but the outdoor show under the shade trees is a thing of the past. It has all moved indoors into a green metal building with a concrete floor and an evacuation pool in back. But the big cooper alambic remains on wheels although the hitch now is for a car not a horse. It is still an ambulatory trade. Our local distilleur ambulant is Jacky Rochereau and he is getting ready to move to one of the other three locations where he is always in demand.

When Monsieur Jean told me that Jacky was leaving his building on the border between St. Rimay and Villavard for the care and maintenance of some foreign neighbors near Tours, I ask if I could get some pictures of the still before he left. Jacky is a cousin of Monsieur Jean, a fact which Jean seems to be proud of. Why not? Jacky turns ordinary fermented fruit into something more vital than gasoline in the Loir and Cher, eau-de-vie.

The consumption of eau-de-vie has been a concern of the French government for many years. I read somewhere that the French drink more alcohol than any other country. I can believe this when I see the energy and ingenuity that goes into making pousse d'épine, feuille de cerise, écorce de clementine, vin côt, marc, eau-de-vie and a dozen other concoctions that I have tried. On the other hand, the French don't seem to get drunk like Americans. The bars in France are civilized places where men come in for a coup then leave after appropriate salutations. In America, bars are where you go to get drunk, fight, die or meet someone that you never want to see again. Despite the French reputation for moderation, alcoholism is rising and the government is attempting to address the problem. Last summer I learned that you can't buy wine at the restaurants on the autoroute anymore unless you buy something to eat. C'est dur.

The regulation of the distillery business has been going on for more than two hundred years and it is still strictly regulated today. Each family is entitled to only ten liters of pure alcohol or twenty liters of fifty percent alcohol. The product that drips out of the spout on Jacky's alambic is usually about fifty percent alcohol and Jacky keeps detailed paperwork on his clients. It is required by law. At one time the government tried to phase out this whole roving distillery business but it didn't work. It is one of those traditions in France that the people will not let go of and since the Revolution the government has a tendency to listen to the people.

Jacky's alambic business is obviously a male environment. Although women will occasionally invade this domain, men have been known to become board certified in gynecology just from looking at the calendars on the walls. It is no longer a circus for children but the alambic is still entertainment for the guys. Everyone who walks in sticks a finger under the dripping spout for a taste. Usually it just tastes like firewater but today the drops have a distinct taste of gamay. Jacky tells me that it is eau-de-vie de marc. Marc is the skin, seeds and stems that are left after pressing out the juice for wine. Nothing is wasted here. Memories of war and starvation still influence the French.

When the distillation process is complete, Jacky vents the steam from the vat chamber and spins the huge copper wing nuts to open the top. He pours the dregs of grape skins, stems and seeds with remaining liquid in a square concrete vat which flow into a retaining pond in the rear of the building. The rosy hot liquid swirls in a steaming spiral down the drain like some distant galaxy. These grapes have finally finished their usefulness or maybe not. I would like to ask what he does with the stuff in the retaining pond but I don't want to hear the answer. I prefer to think of Jacky's still as infinity and beyond.

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February 14, 2001 - Marcel Proust
February 7, 2001 - La Chandeleur
January 31, 2001 - Winter Comfort Food
January 24, 2001 - Festival of Saint Vincent
January 17, 2001 - Guest Columnist Aprille Glover
January 10, 2001 - Muscadet
January 3, 2001 - Ode to Protein
December 27, 2000 - Summer Dreaming: Escargot
December 20, 2000 - Let Them Eat Cake
December, 13 2000 - Back to France
November 29, 2000 -Beignets Aux Fleurs d'Acacia
November 15, - Thanksgiving
November 8, - Pousse D'Epine
November 1, 2000 - Col de Vence: A day on the Moon
October 25, 2000 - Cult of the Black Virgin
October 18, 2000 - Harvesting Grapes by Hand
October 4, 2000 - Provence: All Good Things

 

 

       

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