We're here at the far north-east end of the Côte d'Or département which is part of Burgundy, in short it is quite at a good distance from Beaune and away from the beaten path. Nicey (there are plenty of village names ending with "ey" in the area) is very close to the Yonne and also to the Champagne region with Les Riceys for example at a mere 21 km north (where B. and I visited the small family Champagne house Horiot Père & Fils). Like much of these remote extremities of Burgundy it's not very well known, the area around Nicey is the Chatillonais, a moderately-developped region with natural resources, woods and agricultural production including a restarted viticulture after a century of oblivion. But we came in this village on our way back to Paris for a small artisanal distillery after reading about it in Le Bien Public, the regional newspaper. My last visit in a distillery in the region was in the Morvan quite a few years back, this was at a Bouilleur de Cru, this ancient regulated profession in charge of distilling the fruits brought by orchard owners.
Anne Coste's father was actually himself a bouilleur de cru, she told me how he began to work in this trade : Albert Méan was a farmer, being the only child in his family he had no choice but to take the farm (consisting mainly in cows and cereals) in charge after his parents, so in order to bring some distraction from the routine of the farm, he jumped on the opportunity in 1975 to buy the small ambulant distiller's business in the village when its owner retired. This brandevinier (a different name for bouilleur de cru) had a couple of distillers on a trailer and he would drive to different villages in the area where his clients would bring their fermented fruit to have it distilled, like this mobile distillery I reported on several years ago. It is really an old trade dating from the time people had no car, the mobile distiller moving from village to village to make the spirit as close to the orchards as possible. Same for mobile apple presses for cider making, they're still around like you can see on this story of mine (and it was not that far from here either).
Taking such a distiller's charge is not very complicated, Anne coste says, there's just a procedure to follow according to the règlementation (regulation) and at the time he made a declaration to what we call the Fraudes (the nickname of the French administration that controls and regulates all things related to alcohol production) and asked for a Prefectoral authorization (where they check that the applicant has no trace of crime or fraudulent activities in his background). So he started this business in january 1975 and then on, he'd drive during january with his trailer when the farm imperatives eased. He began with Poinçon-lès-Larrey, Larrey, Bouix, Molesme and other villages in the vicinity, keeping the distillation trailer one week or two weeks in the same place to process all the fruit he was delivered from the locals, and his own father would also help. There was two alambic/stills on the trailer, allowing them to work to batches at the same time.
In France ordinary citizens aren't allowed to distil their own alcohol from their fruit, they have to ask the bouilleur de cru (this is the name of the regulated profession consisting of distilling fermented fruit or must for people) for that operation and they will pay a fee per liter for the work as well as a tax per liter (they pay that all to the distiller who will pay back the tax administration later).
Picture on left : an old still with the wood stove underneath, this still is exposed in Anne's shop.
They had no building for the distillation at the time, it was all done on the trailer holding a couple of stils with their cooling tanks. At one point other mobile distillers in the region retired which opened the opportunity to serve yet other villages and he gradually extended the number of villages where he'd drive his trailer to, this was as far as the Yonne and the Aube départements (the latter being part of Champagne), and as january wouldn't suffice to go distil all over these places he'd do the service not only one month in winter, but two, three months and more as additional villages asked him to come over with his alambics. Then Anne's brother joined in the farm and he could manage more workload, the time distilling on the road soon reaching 9 months, say, from late october to july.
Then in 1978 he opened the shop to sell his own production, starting with the Gilane,a digestive liquor he designed from an ancient recipe and consisting of 20 different plants macerated in alcohol. They'd not use alcohol that has been distilled here, they'd buy a 96 % neutral spirit so that no other aromas interfere with the herbs' flavors. Then in the mid-1980s' he added other spirits including the Marc because there were grapes in the region, then pears which he bought in the Rhone, the plums and the raspberries he'd find near Nancy (Lorraine), the cherries from nearby Auxerre in the Yonne département and so on. They need fruit in good condition, in the past people would use the fruit they can't do anything else with it for the distillation but she says you'll find the result in the liquor as well, so for the pears for example they have them picked on the tree and finish ripening near the village in their 50-kg boxes so that they can have the proper quality for the maceration. She says that every couple days she checks the pears, taking the ripest ones, crushes them and put them in the maceration barrel, after which the fruit begins fermenting on its own yeast. For the plums it's different, she doesn't crush them.
The maceration and fermentation takes time in the barrels and she waits till the end of september to distill her spirits, usually there is a lot of juice above with the solid matter in the bottom. She doesn't add sugar and she has not the right to add any, but there's no need anyway. Anne Coste joined her father in 1984 at the age of 19, right after high school and she later learned some accounting through correspondence courses. For the distillation she learnt the trade with her father, and it's like cooking, you learn to improve all along. At this time her brother took the farm in charge because their father was really busy with the distilling, both the mobile part and their commercial production. She really took over the distillation business on herself in 1995. At that time she was making the eaux de vie (fruit sprits), the cherry cream liqueur and the Gilane.
Later, about 8 years ago Anne added a product that is not the result of distilling : she loves the Middle Ages and had the idea to resurrect Hypocras, an ancient type of wine from that era, typically it consisted of regular wine added with honey and spices. She buys the wine in bulk and adds a few spices. The first time she drank Hypocras was some 20 years ago when she visited the Puy du Fou, a historical theme park which is considered the best in the country and whose success was built without relying on government subsidies [it's been shunned by the cultural elite for being too conservative and offering a largely negative view of the French revolution especially in the matter of the genocide-like repression of Vendée in western Loire]. Anne didn't like this version of Hypocras then but the idea of making one herself one day made its way. Today her Hypocras is sold in a small theme park in Burgundy at the Chateau de Guédelon, which features the real-size recontruction of the medieval castle using the same tools than in the Middle Ages. Her medieval spiced-wine was selected among several similar Hypocras, good sign...
We tasted both the white and the red and definitely prefered the white, both make 11 %in alcohol and the white had a nice balance between everything, spiciness and sugar, can make a nice apéritif for sure. Anne made several tries before selling her hypocras, it took two years to finetune the recipe, choosing the wine then the spices and their respective dosage. At the beginning she used honey as sweetener but later switched to sugar because it was better. For the wine she'd use local producers at the beginning, sourcing the bulk wine from Tonnerre (northern Burgundy) but for the last 3 years the harvests have been very low due to hail or frost and she had to look elsewhere and she buys currently generic Pinot Noir from a caviste in Montbard.
The first documented recipes for Hypocras in France date from the 13th century. From what I understand the red version was named Hypocras while the white was named Clarée. In the book Early French Cookery, you can read :
Mulled or spiced wines formed an integral part of meal in late-medieval France. Clarée was occasionally used as an apéritif at the beginning of the meal, and hypocras was regularly served as a digestive at its end. So regular was this particular serving of gypocras that it became recognized symbolically as the ceremonial conclusion of any banquet and was followed in a limited number of cases only by the offer of "chamber candies"__candied sugar which was itself
flavored with spices or a spice mixture.
The spice mixtures for making hypocras or clarée would be purchased from the local apothecary or spicer. As with "fine spice powder", the actual composition of the mixture was apt to vary according to local preference. Because of the large number of individual spices that could enter into it, hypocras in particular offered the cook or merchant a great deal of latitude in determining its nature. Undoubtly, large households evolved mixtures for their hypocras that, because of the choice of spices or the predominence of certain spices in the mixture, bezcame for each household a sort of gustatory tradition and perhaps affirmed the special nature of each. the Menagier's recipe for hypocras (p.248/#317) is a good standard version of the mixture
Evidence is the high regard hypocras enjoyed in medical lore and learning is afforded by the survival today of a recipe for a version of that drink composed by one of the most respected physicians of the thirteenth century, Arnoldus of Villanova (1235-1313), personal doctor to three popes as well as to King Philip the Fair of France, King James II of Aragon and King Frederic III of Sicily. Copied along with successive versions of his medical works over many generations, his treatise On Wines contains a recipe for a spiced beverage that was a carefully reasoned combination of wine with spices--cubebs, cloves, ginger--together with raisins, rosewater and sugar. This drink, Arnoldusargued, "fortifies the brain and the natural strength....It....causes foods to be digested and produces good blood. It is good for flatulence of the belly, and also for ailments of the womb caused by cold or superfluous humidity which prevents women from conceiving children...It strengthens all spiritual parts... It is marvellously useful for the cough and for the heart.
Though medieval physiciansunderstood in a rational way how valuable spices were for human digestion, and particularly when mixed in moderate quantities with a good red wine, we ourselves do not need to worry about the finesse of their logic. Hypocras and clarée are in themselves tasty drinks, and provide particularly satisfying accessories to any medieval meal.
Here is a later English version for Hypocras :
Hypocras, Claré, and Hypocras Powder
To make a lot of good hypocras, take an ounce of cinamonde, known as long rube cinnamon, a knob of ginger, and an equal amount of galangal, pounded well together, and then take a livre of good sugar; pound this all together and moisten it with a gallon of the best Beaune wine you can get and let it sleep for an hour or two. Then strain it through a cloth bag several times so it will be very clear.
Like other measures, the lot varied from place to place. North of the Loire, it was generally the equivalent of four pintes, and at Paris a pinte amounted to 93 centiliters. One lot was thus almost the exact equivalent of a United States gallon. A once was one sixteenth of a Paris livre; at just over 30 g, it was the very close equivalent of a modern ounce.
Hypocras abd claré (made with red wine and white wine respectively) were both spiced wines sweetened with honey or sugar, served mainly at the end of meal along with preserves, candies and wafers. Either can be used today as a before- or after-dinner drink. Be careful not to overdo them : they are strong. But we can assure you there is nothing like a little glass of hot hypocras to clear up a bad cold.
Hypocras and claré should be made well in advance, and should be kept refrigerated; otherwise they could ferment.
The original recipe is for a gallon, or about five 75-cl bottles; our adaptation is for one quart (liter) of either hypocras or claré.If you like it, all you need to do next time is multiply the quantities by the number of quarts you want to make.
Grind the spices if necessary, and mix with the sugar in a glass or stainless steel bowl. Gradually stir in the wine, mix well to combine. Let the mixture stand for about two hours, stirring occasionally.
Strain the wine through a double layer of cheesecloth; repeat several times until clear. Store in a corked bottle in the refrigerator for a few days before drinking.
Back to the distillery : at the beginning Anne's father was working only with his mobile distillery, a trailer with a couple of stills which he would drive to the villages. Then later when he began to distill spirits to sell them, he'd use the mobile stills as well, selling the products from the shop (2nd picture from top) he had built in 1978. Back then he had to build this shop perpendicular to the road, according to the local building regulations so that it wouldn't hide the tower from the street passage, this tower (pictured on right) being a historical landmark, a remaining part from a medieval castle which was standing in the village (the tower is now part of a large farm that has probly been built in part with the remains of the castle).
The problem is that there's a rule for distilleries in France that says their buildings have to face the road or the street. The intent of this ancient (and totally outdated) rule was to keep in plain view for every passerby including the constabulary) who-was-distilling-what in the building, the whole thing being to make sure that the authorities weren't cheated from their taxes and due revenue. So when he stopped using the trailer (which he'd operate always parked along the road/street wherever he'd be) and wanted a building to distil, Anne's father had to build this other building above, some 300 meters away, this was in 1988. Although farther from the village (and thus less in view), the respect of the law was assured, the building was aligned with the road...
When Anne took over the distillery business in 1995 she stopped with the mobile distillery trailer, asking instead to the villagers of the area to drive over here o appointment with their fermented fruit. Some balked but all still came, especially that unlike in the old time everyone has a car, and the few elderly people who don't can be helped by neighbors for the transportation. On good years (when the orchards have good yields for fruits) she makes 350 to 400 clients (in contrast in 2016 she made 69 clients only because of disatrous harvests and in 2018 by far when this viosit took place she had made 24), all bringing their fermented fruit here in plastic tanks. On average the people who come here for distillation are in their 50s' but some younger people come as well. All you need is have an orchard of some kind because by law you can only distil the fruits you grow. The tax you have to pay for up to the equivalent of 10 liters of pure alcohol is about 7 € per liter, then above 10 liters the tax is doubled. But in fact you usually take away a spirit at 40 % or 50 % and the tax is calculated down to fit with the lower alcohol content.
Someone who'd take out a spirit at 45 % for example would have to pay pay about 8 € per liter, the tax being included in that fee, Anne's share for the work being 3,65 € (included as well in the 8 €). She just bills the heating energy (propane) separately, it's 8,9 € for a whole marmite (still load). These stills can take a minimum of 60 kg. She never used heating wood, her father distilled with wood for one year at the beginning but he introduced propane the following year.
The stills are pretty old, I wouldn't be surpised they'd be from the early 20th century, they were made by Deroy Fils Ainé in Paris.
Anne works with these vntage stills using all the old ways and tools, except for the heating source. These stills were designed for wood heating and later converted with inserting a gas burner underneath. A chauffe (or boiling batch) lasts 3 or 3,5 hours, typically she puts a layer of straw in the bottom of the tank, a lid with holes (pictured above) and water which she boils first before pouring the fermented fruit. The straw and lid will prevent the thick fruit must to carbonize in the bottom, this is especially important for pears and also quince (by far the most difficult to handle in that regard).
After that she pours the fruits and she puts the upper lid with also this connection made of copper or brass that funnels the steam from the boiler to the cooling tank. She says this bowed copper duct is a very expensive piece of machinery, and i guess they're almost custom made, the makers manufacturing them on demand. When the still is boiling the steam of water/alcohol goes through the upper part of the tank which is called the lentille (looks indeed like a flat lentil, see pic on left, the flat thing hanging above the boiler tank), she pours cold water on it which brings the water part of the steam back to the boiler, this way only the alcohol vapors reach the cooling coil in the other tank.
This ingenious part of the still is named a rectificateur, and she cools it by letting a wet mop which she keeps cool with running a trickle of cold water on it. In some stills this tool is externalized from the boiler like you can see on this Charentaise distillation page (named réchauffe vin here, you can see how the water part of the condensed steam goes back to the boiler). This way, Anne can distil in one shot, no need to do it a 2nd time (called repasse in French) like it's often done because the alcohol level keeps high.
There's an old tradition in the French backcountry to hold a festive Saint Cochon once a year with villagers & families killing a big pig and feasting together with all the meat, tripes & cochonnailles (tout est bon dans le cochon, including the feet and ears...). It's been contested here and there since a few years because, how to say, of the elephant in the room that could feel offended, but the tradition endures (there was one in Besse-sur-Issole in Provence just a couple days ago). But Anne holds her own version of the ritual, a "Sainte Goutte" which takes place in the middle of winter with a few friends and clients to celebrate all these distillings and share a good meal and the best spirits they got.
Goutte is the popular word employed nationwide here for Eau-de-vie or spirit. In the countryside people still drink these distilled spirits and I was given recently a bottle of prune (plum) that was so good that I sometimes pour some as apéritif, slightly diluted with a few drops of water, it's divinely silky and smooth. It reminds me what I heard was said in Russia by doctors, in short that it was healthier to drink home made vodka (Самогон or Samogon) than buy the cheap vodka or spirits in the supermarkets. That is also true for France.
For their own informal Sainte Goutte, a friend of Anne comes to have his marc distilled, marc being also named pomace brandy and in this case the pômace comes from the region of Molesme north from here. They open the still at the beginning of the chauffe and cook some meat on the pomace, right at the surface, after which they all get around a table and eat. Anne says that the bouilleurs de cru often do that in the wine regions, putting saucisses, terrines or meat on the steaming pomace for 3 hours (the duration of a chauffe or batch) and the meat gets very tender and tasty.
The pomace on the surface has a quite solid, rigid fabric and you can just lay the meat or other stuff atop of it, wrapped in aluminium or something and wait, this is a low-temp stove sort of, makes a great job. She says usually she puts meat in one still and potatoes in the other, and she adds that the potatoes never get mashed like it happens when you cook them too long, it's surprising. Usually they eat right near the stills in the small distilling facility, with the heat of the alambics and the heat of the spirits to keep warm....
Anne was nice enough to send me a couple pictures of this fête that took place a few days after we visited her.
We ended up tasting Anne's Marc de la Vallée de la Laigne, from the 50-cl bottle she sells in her shop. This is simply deliciously silky even though with 45 % alcoholcontent it's pretty powerful. Proves that distillation in old traditional alambics yields very nice results, I understand the authorities wanted to rein in the artisanal production, that's so good you don't need to go pay taxes on commercial spirits...