Still waters…eaux de vie..

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.


About Food,Photography & France

Photographer and film maker living in France. After a long career in London, my wife and I have settled in the Vendee, where we run residential digital photography courses with a strong gastronomic flavour.
This entry was posted in 2015, apples, Art photography, Drinks, Eau de vie, Excellence, Food photographer, France, French countryside, Fruit, Humour, lifestyle, Memory, Pears, Uncategorized, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Still waters…eaux de vie..

  1. margaret21 says:

    Oh, I loved the day when we ran into the-man-with-the-alembic. Talk about another age! But the alchemy of which he was capable with his ancient coppper contraption which looked as though it was antique when George Stephenson was busily inventing the steam engine…. well – it was quite an experience. They’re good for a few more years yet, don’t you think?

  2. Mad Dog says:

    Fantastic, I wish I was there! I spent some time with the old men in a village near Le Mans, who all made their own Calvados and other fruit spirits. They were all between 70 and 90, with the exception of an amazing chap who was 105 (still gardening an acre of land). The majority of their distillation was done in a pressure cooker with a rubber tube coming off the top going through a sink full of ice. I have never had such good tasting or smelling Calvados and those old men were an inspiration. Sadly almost all their children had moved off the land to regular jobs and a supermarket lifestyle.
    On another note, the Soho Food Feast tickets go on sale tomorrow – you seem to come over here in Spring so it might be of interest to you or your son. It’s all the very best food from Soho at a price anyone can afford:

    • Many thanks for that MD…I’ll check it out. My courses don’t seem to inspired many takers so I’m not sure if I’ll be making the trip…who knows. Talking of age, I heard, on Radio 4, an inspiring man of 103, a doctor, who had been captured at the fall of Singapore and survived the dreadful imprisonment of the Japanese. On being asked his age he replied “Oh, I03, but please don’t ask me if I’ve retired…I’m so busy”. What a dude:)

      • Mad Dog says:

        I heard that too and was most impressed! I hope you have time to come to the Food Feast – a friend of mine enjoys it so much he comes over specially from Barcelona every year 🙂

  3. thomas peck says:

    The joys of distillation! I used to be a tour guide at Chartreuse and if we were lucky we got to see one of the monks in the distillery, or even better in the cellar amongst the huge vats, weaving their alchemical magic that results in the finest liqueur in the world. I used to drink a (large, double, treble…) tot of it at the end of every tour and ended most days staggering back to my apartment tipsy on a concoction of Chartreuse verte and jaune. All distilled through the wonders of the alambic… Great days!

  4. My dad and his friend tried their hand distilling spirits. One night they sampled a little too much and my dad’s friend, the church organist , played drinking songs during church service the next day. Some people preferred this to the normal music, so the story goes.

  5. catterel says:

    Nothing like home-distilled eaux de vie. My Breton electrician gave me a couple of bottles of calve his father had produced – about 500° proof, and incredible flavour. Sadly the old man is no more, and his son didn’t inherit his secret.

  6. Eha says:

    What one can learn on interesting blogs!! Never heard of this before but . . . am just wondering at what proof some of this was sold 😀 ?

  7. How amazing! Peripatetic distillers! No such animal in my neck of the woods, which is moonshine country. Increasingly, it’s being made legally, which kind of takes away its cache and its individuality… But average folk and hipsters and tourists alike seem to be happy to give the government their share for ease of availability. Though much of what one finds in the Carolinas is corn whiskey, I recently discovered through friends a still-completely-off-the-record peach brandy. Sensible as I come from peach country, and so much better than corn… At least in white form. I wish I could see the process, not least for the human element and the tradition involved, but it’s too risky for the makers to allow outsiders. So I’ll simply sip and enjoy in wonder.

    • Love the sound of the peach brandy. The French laws are extremely complex. All growers of fruit or grapes are allowed to distill and vinify a certain amount before having to pay duty. The distillers who travel from village to village are allowed to supply a certain amount to each customer free of duty…I think! It’s a minefield which the French country folk have happily walked through for time immemorial. 🙂

  8. This is all as it should be. Several years ago Suzanne and I were on a walking holiday in Slovenia. We visited farms in our rambles where we were able to buy pear schnapps that the farmers distilled themselves. Apparently it is legal in Slovenia for farmers to distill their own. It was delicious, by the way. I bought a litre for 8 euros.

  9. Wow. What gorgeous photos and how enlightening to see the process. Amazing.

  10. Michelle says:

    Wonderful! I had no idea.

  11. You couldn’t have found a better-looking character in a Hollywood casting call! 🙂

  12. Amazing – I need one fo those for my pears!

  13. Ah, just one of the many wonderful things about France. This is so interesting to me. I come from an area of the USA where folks aplenty had/have “moonshine” stills, but not anything like this exists that I know of. Thanks for the beautiful photos and the story. Merci.

  14. Sally says:

    My only experience of home distilling was when I lived in Saudi Arabia and there was the infamous date-brew sidiqi. I never touched it! Lovely story.

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