Making moonshine is illegal almost everywhere. However in France
if you've a few orchards of unsold peaches or apricots and can
find a licensed itinerant distiller you can still enjoy the fruits
of your labour in a spirit-warming form. But for how much longer,
asks our Grumpy Gardener Mike Alexander, who could be found recently
sampling the production of one of a dying breed - all in the interests
of journalism of course.
André Jouclase is one of a dying breed.
This writer first came across him in a tiny hameau on the banks
of the Lot River where he was brewing eau de vie from his mobile
still. He's been doing this for the past 35 years, towing this
ancient wood burning still from village to village where he is
eagerly awaited by local farmers with barrels, drums and dustbins
filled with apples or pears they have carefully hoarded for weeks
in anticipation of the terroir-flavoured alcoholic nectar it is
his arts et métier to create.
For a fee André Jouclase turns the fermenting fruit into
that infamous breath-taking alcohol that the French and many of
us relocated foreigners are so fond of. It takes approximately
six hundred litres of fruit and a cubic metre of firewood to produce
twenty litres of "gnôle" (booze or hooch) as the
eau de vie is known around France. The spirit will have an average
alcohol content of 50% although André can turn up the heat,
as it were, to percentages as high as 55% if the client so desires.
Back in the good old days he would often produce a heart-warming,
liver-shaking concoction 80% proof but these days 55% is as high
as he is allowed to go, he tells me, with a shake of his head,
suggesting government medical advisors have got the upper hand.
Good old days? Moonshine still
In fact I get the distinct impression that the good old days
are soon to come to an end altogether. André no longer
has the right to move around the area towing the ancient "alambic"
as the still is known in French. He must now stay on his own site
and his clients have to come to him. He is a licensed "brûleur"
or distiller but he cannot sell the license, although he may pass
it on to his son who is keen to take over the ancient profession
even though Paris (and probably EU) bureaucrats are constantly
ratcheting up the pressure. Surprise inspections both by gendarmes
and douanne or tax collectors are now more frequent and they have
taken to searching surrounding fields and bushes for any "mislaid"
bottles of the final delectation. His license for production is
restricted to the 6 months between September and March, although
if he agrees to pay an additional fee he can get this extended
Today's alambic still
The bureaucrats have now come up with an even more severe form
of control that I fear will spell the end, if not of Andrés
métier then at least that of his son and distilling heir.
The farmers who grow the fruit they wish to distill, are known
as "brûleur de cru" and they too have been told
they need a permit before their produce can be boiled up in the
alambic and, hours later, dribble out as prized firewater. These
permits however are no longer being issued at all although present
license holders have the right to use their existing licenses
for their life times. As nearly all the "brûleur de
cru" are pretty elderly it cannot be too much longer before
the days of the road side "brûleur" will be over
and an era so very much a part of France's patrimoine will have
fallen victim to over zealous and meddlesome fonctionaires.
"I felt privileged to have seen the old
wood burning "alambic"
in operation that day."
I felt privileged to have seen the old wood burning "alambic"
in operation that day. I was not the only person to feel that
way and several locals had turned out to watch not only the still
but also the performance of an old and skilled profession that,
like so many others, will probably will be lost within a few years.
You will of course still be able to buy your bottle of "gnôle",
only now it will come from the supermarket, shipped in from an
industrial distillery where perhaps the bureaucrats can be a little
more assured of getting their hands on a greater share of the
revenue they are so keen to collect.
Perhaps, if you're in luck, the label will bear a picture
of a real ancient alambic.
The video below shows: Jean Roulet, a Bouilleur de Crus filmed
in the local town square and describing his métier for TV8 Mont
"I distill for clients across 15-18 communes
in Haute-Savoie. I've been distilling my daily remedy for more
than 60 years - my medicine is good for cholesterol. But my métier
is likely to end with me even though I'm a third generation distiller."
Licenced to Distil
But for how much longer?
- click image above to pop-up the video -
This video clip (click the image above) shows an itinerant
Bouilleur de Cru Jean Paul Mugnier during a three day stopover
in Servoz with his alambic distilling eaux-de-vie (gnôle)
for the locals....
Gnôle - it's dynamite!
- click image above to view video -
Or have a look at this DailyMotion video (click the image
above), for a slightly different take on the subject!