Still life: On-the-road with a trade of France past
We meet one of a rare, dying breed of travelling distillers – or bouilleur de cru – who are licensed to make moonshine from other people’s garden produce
There are few traditions in France that have passed totally under the tourist radar – especially those that involve food or alcohol.
The roving alembic still, one of the great travelling traditions of France for centuries, has managed it.
The still itself is hard to miss. It is a huge contraption sitting precariously on a trailer, like Heath Robinson’s version of a steam engine.
Long before Napoleonic times, peripatetic stills were common all over France.
These days, with supermarket aisles full of every spirit imaginable, there is little interest in DIY moonshine.
Add in concern over alcohol consumption, mixed with pressure from commercial distillers and the days of the mobile roadside distiller appear to be numbered.
Yet, early on a chilly morning, Sylvie Bergougnoux is busy with her alembic still. She is one of a rare, dying breed of travelling distillers –
or bouilleur de cru – who are licensed to make moonshine from other people’s garden produce.
Commercially-produced spirits are a far cry from their “homemade” origins.
Additives and flavourings are commonplace in mass-market products, whereas eau de vie from an alembic still is completely natural.
Fruit will eventually turn to alcohol of its own accord, but to make it drinkable, a little assistance is required.
Mrs Bergougnoux makes her living not by selling alcohol but by providing a distilling service to amateur fruit growers.
Her licence, granted by the douanes customs officers, comes with strict rules, but allows her to transport her alembic still, usually by tractor, around Puy-de-Dôme in central France.
Anyone who owns a fruit tree, bush or vine has the right to have the produce turned into alcohol. They do not have the right to do this themselves.
To make a tasty eau de vie, the fruit must be left to ripen and drop naturally from the tree.
It is then placed in barrels to ferment and, after several weeks, it is time to make an appointment with the bouilleur de cru.
The roaming moonshiners are licensed for only six months of the year, normally from mid-October to March.
This coincides with the harvest and the time required for the fermentation process.
Every year, village councils organise the visits and provide each landowner with a document signed by the mayor confirming ownership of at least one fruit tree, bush or vine.
This bit of paper is essential. No paperwork, no alcohol.
On the day of distillation, there are more forms to fill in, tax to be calculated, and rules to be followed.
The fruit must have come from your land – wild fruit and supermarket supplies are not allowed.
Even more importantly, the amount of raw fruit must tally with the amount of finished hooch, with huge fines for those who try to cheat the system.
Formalities completed, the fermented fruit is placed into the large vats, or “vases”, of the still.
Along with the fruit, it is traditional to layer in a few sausages, pork chops or slabs of bacon.
The meat has no effect on the flavour of the finished liquor: it’s just a good way to cook lunch while you are waiting.
The valves are turned, buttons are pressed and hot steam is forced through the fruit, producing vapour. By way of pipes and vessels, this vapour turns into a wonderfully fruity, clean-tasting alcohol.
As a bonus, the meat is imbued with the flavour of fermenting fruits and enjoyed while chatting with fellow fruit tree owners.
Mrs Bergougnoux’s father bought the business in 1968 and taught his daughter the trade.
She loved the life and would cycle for miles to help her father. “My mother became so annoyed, she removed my bicycle seat, but I continued,” she said, while tending her complicated contraption.
At just 16 years old, she took over the alembic still but found it hard to gain acceptance from local farmers.
They could not believe “a girl” could do the job – but eventually she gained their respect.
Aside from the back-breaking job of shovelling the fermenting fruit, the old alembic stills were powered by coal, with huge boilers radiating scalding heat.
Now, Mrs Bergougnoux’s still is powered by electricity, with an insulated boiler making the job far safer and more efficient.
The rest of the job has pretty much remained unchanged for centuries. So have her clients.
However, while her still remains popular at events and festivals, she admits her regular customers are ageing rapidly.
It is also hard to find people to take on the trade. The attraction of a warm office or distillery is more tempting than a mountaintop village in winter.
Mrs Bergougnoux has an apprentice, who she hopes will take over the levers some day.
Now, with the warmer weather, she is on her annual six-month break from her roving work, tending her fruit trees and preparing the still for another winter on the road.