I have already done one of the 10 desiderata for 1011 (oops, I mean 2011. Must be the eau de vie) that I listed in my post earlier this month – seeing vieille prune (plum liquor) being distilled in the old way. This is entirely due to the good offices of our neighbour, who phoned on Wednesday to tell us that it was going to happen.
Madame F never says who she is on the phone, assuming that somehow the apparatus itself will do the job. The first thing she said, at 10,000 decibels, was “C’EST POUR LA PRUNE.” Then, in case I hadn’t caught it the first time, she added a few thousand decibels to the repetition and added, “C’EST POUR VENDREDI APRES-MIDI.”
After nearly 14 years, I am used to her stentorian delivery and the paucity of information delivered. However, I entirely misunderstood the arrangements and simply assumed that we were to turn up chez eux to witness the work of a travelling still. Que nenni, as they say here – but no. We turned up at the appointed hour to find Monsieur F waiting for us, his coat neatly folded over his arm.
Off the beaten track
The travelling still, it turns out, no longer travels. We had to go to it. Off we went into the back country on the causse until we got to Saint Projet. We turned off down an incredibly muddy track (having just cleaned the car, of course) and stopped beside a tarpaulin-covered edifice. A sturdy, beaming man in technicolour overalls came out to greet us. He was the owner of the still, or alambic, and he was already in the process of distilling our neighbours’ plums.
There, puffing and steaming away like an old locomotive was the still. The distiller informed us that it was manufactured in 1945. The manufacturer, Orthès, was based in Agen, plum capital of southwest France. I can’t find any mention of them on the Internet, so assume that this manufacturer no longer exists.
The distiller had inherited the still from his father and is one of the few people in the département to carry on the old occupation. He has another one in the village where he lives near Montauban. He told us that he provides this service to around 60 customers. We watched as a limpid stream of almost pure alcohol poured into a succession of grubby buckets.
In the old days, the owners of the stills took them around all the farms to distil the fermented plums into liquor. In 1959*, the government, seeing a means of making money out of this, ended the old privilege whereby the right to distil vieille prune without paying tax passed from father to offspring. Only those who had the right in 1959 (generally landowners under the law that originally granted the right), or subsequently their widows, were exempt from paying the tax. There aren’t many of them left now.
*[Not sure about the date. I have also read that it was 1952, but that might have applied to another part of France.]
Making it is a simple process. The plums are gathered and placed in large plastic barrels (wooden, previously). A little sugar and/or baker’s yeast are added to assist the fermentation process. The whole lot is left to ferment for at least two months, after which fermentation ceases. The stills start work at the beginning of November and continue until the end of March.
The contents of the barrels are put into a large container like a pressure cooker at one end of the still, beneath which a wood fire burns. It takes about an hour to reach the necessary temperature for the distilling to start. Then the alchemy takes place, separating the water from the alcohol. The rendement, or yield, is about 10% by volume, i.e. 100 litres of plums produce 10 litres of eau de vie.
To start with, the liquor that comes out is very strong – about 85° proof. By the end, it is about 30°. The head and tail are discarded and the net result is a liquor of around 55-60°. Monsieur tips the plum residue out of the container and dumps it in the woods (well, it’s organic, so I suppose that’s OK).
One year in three is a good plum year; that is, you are knee-deep in them and don’t know what else to do with them. We always give ours to our neighbours, for which we are given a litre bottle every year. We now have litres of the stuff secreted away in cupboards.
The distiller gave us a glass to try. I just took a very small amount; ce n’est pas mon truc. It was very strong. Indeed, you could get drunk just standing there from the alcohol-laden steam emanating from the still. No wonder the distiller is so jolly.
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