Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Controlled fire

There are fragrant, colorless alcohols served from cut-glass carafes in small glasses. Whether these are called quetsche, mirabelle or framboise, they all tasted like the fruits they came from, converted into a controlled fire on your tongue that warmed you and loosened it.
                  Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Imagine Hemingway drinking eaux-de-vie in Gertrude Stein's Paris apartment in the early 1920s. His respect for the power of this "water of life” apparently didn't deter him from drinking it on sunlit afternoons, not the best idea for everyone, considering that the proof of most eau-de-vie hovers just under 100. The concentrated aroma of the distilled fruit masks a considerable punch.
But Hemingway was accustomed to knocking back a couple of hot rums of a morning, followed by a half-bottle of wine, while writing in a cafe. The drinking habits of the Lost Generation in general would make an interesting doctoral thesis. Papa and Fitzgerald once drank several bottles of Macon (chardonnay) while driving between Lyon and Paris in a convertible without a top, in a rainstorm.
Hemingway remarked on the effects this movable binge: "It had never occurred to me that sharing a few bottles of a fairly light, dry, white Macon could cause chemical changes in Scott that would turn him into a fool." Poor F. Scott was about to drawn and quartered in Papa’s memoir.
But our subject for the moment is eau-de-vie. The term has equivalents in many languages, including Gaelic, and generally denotes a distilled drink made from fruit, berries, and even grain. Strictly speaking, cognac and calvados, made from grapes and apples respectively and aged in wood containers that give them color, qualify as eau-de-vie. So do those powerful after-dinner drinks known as marc in France and grappa in Italy, made from pomace - the residue in the bottom of a wine press.
I’m focusing on the subcategory of fruit and berry eau-de-vie best served on a cold or rainy evening, preferably in front of a fire. A dollop in a liqueur glass makes an ideal dinner party finale, too, flavorful enough to triumph over the residue of food and wine and a source of inspiration in itself any time of year. Having a few eaux-de-vie to choose from heightens anticipation for what remains, in this country, an exotic taste experience.
Kirsch is probably the best-known eau-de-vie, made from cherries and stored in glass or pottery vats so the liquid remains clear. Kirsch and the various eaux-de-vie that Hemingway spoke of have traditionally been made in little farmhouse stills in the Black Forest region of Germany and in Switzerland, although variations are made throughout Europe, including in the northeast of France. There they’re called alcools blanes, and those from Alsace are the most readily available here.
The process of making eau-de-vie is simple: the mashed fruit is fermented and then distilled, usually twice, keeping the alcohol level below 50 percent (the equivalent of 100 proof) to preserve the fruit's essence. It may be difficult to believe that a clear and potent alcohol could smell like a delicate fruit or berry, but it can. Whether you can afford such olfactory extravagances is another matter. Because eaux-de-vie require large amounts of fruit to produce a relatively small amount of liquid, their prices are high - particularly for exotic potions like fraise des bois, or wild strawberry brandy.
Fortunately there are more common eaux-de-vie that are less. Another consolation is that a small bottle should last a year. The intensity of flavor, and the heat Hemingway speaks of, preclude guzzling. One of the most popular eaux-de-vie, pear, known also as poire William and Williamine in France and Switzerland, and Birngeistin Germany, made from the Bartlett pears. You’ve seen the fancy bottles of pear eau-de-vie with a whole pear inside.
Framboise is another popular eau-de-vie, made from raspberries. Wonderful on its own, it adds a distinctive note to any cooking calling for fruit brandy. Plum eau-de-vie comes in a couple of versions. Mirabelle, made from yellow plums, has a spicy, clovelike quality that is particularly appealing in cold weather. Quetsch, and pruneaux, are made from blue plums, and are mellower than mirabelle.
Another’s made from the pits of the sloe, or blackthorn, the same plum-like fruit that goes into slivovitz made in eastern Europe, which has a slightly pungent flavor and fresh intensity. Some of the most intriguing versions of eaux-de-vie are made from apricots (abricof), blueberries (myrtille), gentian flowers (gentiane), and even holly berries, a rare eau-de-vie known as baie de houx and hard to find.
What really got me into this subject was Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Joan Miro, the noted Spanish painter. It was Stein who, at least vicariously, brought Hem in contact with Miro. He bought Miro’s painting, The Farm, which accompanied the writer to Key West and Cuba before coming into the possession of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. If you’re interested in how, you can read the piece I wrote about the painting and its odyssey in the current issue of Washingtonian magazine, and on my blog for National Geographic’s site, Intelligent Travel, about Miro’s Catalonia:


  1. solid post on the "hemming-way". do you have any interesting info about Pineau des Charentes? i love that stuff...


  2. I am really impressed along with your writing skills and also with the format on your blog.

    eaux de vie