My daughter Tracy was home for a few days last week and we got into a discussion about eaux de vie (pronounced oh duh vee) and how much she enjoyed it when she lived in Paris. This is not going to be news to you European bloggers because it is commonly on your wine menus and many of you probably have a bottle or two at home. We are not so fortunate. Tracy has asked for it frequently in New York City restaurants but few include it on their wine list. Because I knew very little about it, she suggested I blog about it.
And so we did some investigating while she was visiting here. Five wine stores later we found one lonely bottle. And it was French, rather expensive and a poire (pear) eaux de vie. In a couple other places we got blank looks, but in most we were told there was no demand for it so there was no reason to stock it. My daughter said she can find it in her favorite wine shop in NYC- Chambers St. Wines so it's available at your better wine merchants, especially for you lucky people on both coasts. Another helpful manager suggested we try www.winesearchers.com to see who carries it in Florida. Guess what? Hardly anybody. It may be offered more frequently in restuarants on the west coast because there are some distilleries in Oregon and California that produce it. And there are some mail order opportunities as well. I'll give you their websites later in the post.
But back to my story. In the heart of Alsace, eaux de vie is produced in profusion. The many fruit flavors include: Poire (pear), framboise (raspberry) Mirabelle (yellow plum), fraise des bois) wild strawberry), quetsch (purple plum),prunelle (blackthorn or sloe plum), even sapini (pine buds) and gratte-cul (rose hips). Really, the flavors can be just about anything. There is also a Douglas Fir and a rosemary-infused eaux de vie.
The rules that apply to the production of these white alcohols in France are quite strict: absolutely no sugar but there is no requirement that the raw material be locally grown. So the raspberries may come from Romania and the mirabelles from Lorraine, where summers are cooler and plums ripen slower resulting in more flavor. The quality of the fruit is what makes a premium eaux de vie. The fruit has to be free from bruises or cuts. So it's of prime importance to have fine fruit to start with.
After distillation, the new eaux-de-vie rest a few months to become mellower, smoother and rounder, while developing a complex, many-faceted character, but really without anymore aging than that.
It takes about 20 pounds of mirabelles, 18 pounds of wild raspberries and 30 pounds of pears to make one bottle of eau-de-vie. Connoisseurs, and of course Alsatians, argue that their fruit alcohols are superior to those made in Switzerland and Germany. Those countries, they say, allow artificial fruit essences to be added. Eaux de vie are strong, hovering around 45 percent alcohol. They are very pure, the Alsatians say, because they have none of the chemical or color additives normally added to Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados.
Another way to describe eaux de vie is to say they are the anti-vodka. The point of vodka distillation is to remove all the flavors; the point of eaux de vie is to preserve as much of the original fruit as possible. Because it is a digestif, it is usually served after dinner. But in Alsace, the locals often sip them with cheese, or with one of their tarts. They should be served cold but never over ice. And serve them in chilled glasses. What's important is that the glass and the eaux de vie be the same temperature so as not to shock them.
There is also something called a poire prisonniere. Unlike other eaux-de-vie, poire prisonniere captures the fruit itself. Early in the growing season, when the pears are just forming on the trees, glass bottles are tied over some of the most promising buds. The pear grows inside the bottle, and when it is ripe, it is cut from the tree-still in the bottle. Both bottle and pear are washed and pear brandy is added. The whole pear is in the bottle you buy, its beauty and flavor completely intact. Some French firms say this doesn't change the flavor one bit and one says: "C'est un gadget". (It's a gimmick)
My daughter, son and I had a tasting of our purchase the other night. We had been advised to use either small brandy snifters or some small tulip shaped glasses, which I have. The initial sniff was of fresh pears. The first sip takes your breath away. (This is strong stuff!) And the aftertaste is pear. It was delicious! But be careful, remember this is a digestif, not something you gulp down and ask for another.
In the meantime, satisfy your craving for fresh fruit and find some "water of life". Who knows? It may stave off a cold!
Eaux de Vie Pear Compote with Eaux de Vie Pear Sorbet
From Pastry Chef Alba Estenoz, ZINC Modern American Food
Ingredients for compote:
6 Bartlett or Anjou Pears
Juice of 1 lemon
2 Tablespoons Poire Eaux-de-Vie
½ cup Sugar
2 Tablespoons Butter
¼ teaspoon salt
Method for compote:
Peel pears and cut into small dice. Toss with lemon juice. Caramelize sugar in pan over medium heat. First the sugar will melt, then crystallize, then begin to melt again and turn golden brown. When it is completely melted, add the butter and salt. Then add pears and you will find the caramelized sugar will seize but that's OK. Stir a bit and then add Eau de Vie and continue to cook until pears are slightly translucent and much of the fluid has dissolved. Remove from heat, cool, serve at room temperature or refrigerate until you are ready to use.
Ingredients for Pear Sorbet:
1 ½ cup water
1 ½ cup sugar
2 Tablespoons light corn syrup
4 ½ cups ripe pears, diced and peeled
½ teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons Poire Eaux de Vie
Method for Pear Sorbet:
Combine water, sugar, syrup and salt in large saucepan. Bring to boil; add pears and simmer until pieces are very tender. This took about 45 minutes. Let the mixture cool slightly; puree in blender or food processor; use caution when blending hot mixtures in blender or food processor.
Cool puree for at least 3 hours; freeze.
Serve frozen sorbet with pear compote; compote should be served at room temperature.
Here is Food and Wine's list of the best eaux de vie producers, plus some additions from other sources. You can check out these websites and find out where you can buy locally or order online.
Clear Creek Distillery
Steve McCarthy founded this Portland, Oregon–based distillery in 1986, when he decided to experiment with his family’s pear crop. He now produces seven kinds of eaux-de-vie from local fruit, including blue and Mirabelle plums. clearcreekdistillery.com. (Top Picks: Kirsch (cherry), Blue Plum, and Douglas Fir
This new western-Colorado producer buys only organic fruit grown within 20 miles of the distillery, including pears, cherries and the Rosa and Cresthaven peaches it uses for its summery peach eau-de-vie. peakspirits.com.
This Austrian distillery makes the deeply flavored Pear Williams eau-de-vie and the excellent Blume Marillen (“Blossom of the Apricot”), a floral, apricot-based brandy with fruit from the Danube Valley. alpenz.com.
Many think fastidious Austrian distiller Hans Reisetbauer makes the world’s best eau-de-vie (at up to $170 a bottle, it’s priced accordingly). Reisetbauer’s enormous portfolio includes classic eaux-de-vie varieties and bottles featuring unlikely flavors like carrot, ginger and the piquant rowanberry. reisetbauer.at. (Top picks: Pear, Plum, and Rowanberry (complex, with fruit and marzipan notes); also Ginger and Carrot (both are fascinating, if not typical flavors for an after-dinner drink)
St. George Spirits
Alsace native Jörg Rupf, who founded this Alameda, California, distillery in 1983, has helped spread the eau-de-vie gospel to many other microdistillers. In addition to crafting cherry, pear and raspberry eaux-de-vie, St. George offers experimental brandies, including one derived from Thai basil. stgeorgespirits.com
Alsace, France; Top picks: Kirsch (cherry, with a delicious touch from the cherry stones) and Quetsch (dark red plum
Top picks: Fruit Tree Blend, Zuger Kirsch Three Year Old (cherry)
This 10-year-old Connecticut-based distillery bottles four kinds of premium eaux-de-vie, including the fragrant Pear Williams, made from ripe Bartlett pears. westfordhill.com.
The two most well known firms on the west coast are St. George Spirits (http://www.stgeorgespirits.com/) and Clear Creek Distillery. (http://clearcreekdistillery.com/index.php) Both of these sites will list stores where their wines are available to those of us who can't find them locally.
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