This man is disappearing. When I came to France, some 14 years ago, he and his brethren were part of the fabric of country life. He is a “bouilleur ambulant” or a peripatetic distiller; a bringer of joy and a creator of eaux de vie. The laws and réglementations of France are labyrinthine in their sinuous complexity so you should be aware that any statement or suggestion of rights or entitlements that I make should be taken with a pinch of salt or whatever takes your fancy. It appears that if you have fruit trees or vines you can distill, brew or vinify to your heart’s content but to be a bouilleur ambulant you need a little more than a bunch of trees: you need a bloody great alembic on wheels so that you can perambulate through lieux dits , agglomerations and petites cités offering your services, but only by word of mouth. No doorstepping is permitted which should be a blueprint for democratic elections. I heard it on the grapevine should be our watchword. The bouilleur will pitch his tent near a stream, fire up the boiler and patiently await his custom: it is never a long wait. Often a long queue but never a long wait. Tractors and cars draw trailers bearing large, tightly lidded plastic barrels filled with very ripe ( not rotten) plums, pears or apples which will be transformed by the magic of distillation into calva, and eaux de prune or poire.
The process has a simplicity that is disarmingly comprehensible which means that it is as distant from a micro technology as is Uranus from mine….which is a long way. Fermenting fruit is poured into the huge vat which is sealed. At that point distiller and fruit bringers move to the back of the tent where, lit by the flames of the open furnace door, they break bread, drink wine and maybe cook some oeufs au plat in a pan over the hot ashes. At a later unspecified point in time the bouilleur will open a tap in the side of the apparatus and out will flow crystal clear and deeply scented eau de vie. Since then, although I have tried many local eaux de vie, none have manifested what I can only describe as an intense inscape of the essence of pear and plum that I experienced on that day. It was a microcosm of time that I had nearly forgotten and I’m glad I remembered.