Wednesday, 24 December 2014

It Still Works

Back in October we went on a walk with friends around Chambon and near the end of our outing encountered a rather tumbledown tin shed on the side of a narrow country road. Inside was what at first glance we thought was an ancient piece of road mending machinery, but closer inspection revealed it to be a still.

It's just down the road from O Petit Verger, so the next time I saw Lara, one of the owners, at the market selling her fruit and vegetables I asked her about the still. She told me who it belonged to and assured me it still works and is fired up once a year to make the annual batch of eau de vie.

We've seen stills in the area before, mobile ones at fairs, and a beautiful one just outside of Genillé, glimpsed as we drove past, that we'd love to get a closer look at. There are still a few old guys in the district who have the right to distill a small amount of eau de vie for private use and small scale private clients, but every year a few more slip away.

Once you know the signs you can recognise a still whilst driving by. They are generally housed in disreputable looking tin sheds like this one, with at least one side open or just draped in plastic or canvas. That's because stills are quite prone to blowing up, and I think it is probably quite hot while they are running, as they are wood fired. Even if you can't see the alembic itself, the metal chimney flue will give it away. We've realised we know of at least one other in the area, on the outskirts of La Celle Guenand, and now we know what we are looking for will no doubt spot them all over the place.

In the old days distillers tended to be orchardists and their small scale activity was not subject to duty or taxes. Nowadays, since 2008, there are probably fewer than 30 small scale distillers left in Indre et Loire and they pay tax of €7.25/litre on the first 10 litres of production and €14.50/litre on production above that. Pear, apple, cherry, plum and grape eaux de vies were the most usual but sometimes the still was used for walnut liqueur and a local speciality made with the new shoots of blackthorn. Run through once the alcohol content would be 30° - 40°, but occasionally a batch would be run through the still twice to get 70° (presumably for the local pharmacist). Clients arrived in turn with their fermented juice (marc) and the distiller provided the wood to fire up the apparatus. A typical still ran 2-4 times a day, every day over winter, servicing around 200 clients. The stills needed to be situated near a well or stream so there was a water supply.

Distilling was a winter activity, and the smoke and very particular smell permeated the atmosphere. The still in Preuilly, which no longer exists, was once on the banks of the Claise, opposite the sports ground, and those who were school students at the time remember it well. The police station was just up the road and to quote the son of the distiller 'the gendarmes were not the last to come and sample a new batch'. The distiller made sure he was on very good terms with his neighbours, who turned a blind eye to the occasional batch with a slightly higher than regulation alcohol content, in return for 'contributions in kind'. The still was dismantled in 1980 when the distiller became too old to run it.

Distilling arrived in France from Spain in the late 13th century. The Spanish learnt the technique from the Moors, and both 'alembic' and 'alcohol' are words with Arabic roots. Initially it was connected with alchemy (another Arabic derived word...) and medicine. The term eau de vie comes from the Latin aqua vitis ('vine water'). Liquor only became a commercial product in the 15th century and by the 16th century Cognac was being produced on an industrial scale.

The beginning of the end of small scale distilling in France actually began in the early 20th century, when concern about the affects of alcohol consumption on the health of the nation began to surface. By the 1920s school science text books said things like 'liquor is fatal to all those who abuse it' and 'the man who drinks it ruins his health'. On the other hand, 'beer, cider and especially wine taken in moderation are tonics and healthful', but by the 1950s even the winemakers were being targetted and regulations for distillers became increasingly complicated and discouraging.

Au jardin hier: More grubbing up of cherry suckers. It strikes me that the end result is quite a good proxy for the trampling of large grazing animals. I think the disturbance will do the site good.

The garlic and onions are up. The peas, as suspected, have probably been eaten by rodents.


  1. "I think the disturbance will do the site good."...
    I reckon you are spot on there....
    I've taken to dropping the ride-on cutters down to 1/2"...
    in the odd place...
    as I cut in the meadow.
    This scalping used to happen with the Allen scythe until the skids were designed and fitted.

    But your mattock-grubbing system...
    which probably is more like a rooting by wild boar...
    is also likely to bring things up from the fossil seed bank...
    nice one!

  2. I notice...
    from the last photo...
    that the owner has put up a "piege photographique" somewhere...
    or it is just a load of old cardboard tosh?

  3. Tim: You are right -- much more like I've had a herd of boar through the place.

    The cardboard warning is empty threat I suspect. I don't think the still is visible from the owner's house and I doubt he's the sort that would set up a camera trap.

  4. I found a notice for Abilly in la Nouvelle République which says: "Distillation. La Bouilleur de cru se tiendra à votre disposition à partir du 20 décembre. Tél." - So there's a working still looking for business in Abilly.
    Don't give up on the peas yet, they may survive the rodents. We'll probably have peas with our Christmas dinner, out of the freezer. Have a good one. Pauline

  5. Pauline: yes, I've seen petites annonces from distillers in local newsletters once or twice.

  6. It would be interesting to see the still in operation. In essence it probably isn't a lot different to the one I had in the prep room!

    Perhaps I could set myself up???