EAUX DE VIE (FRUIT BRANDIES)
Imagine how you feel after a rich meal, full of cheerful conversation, family stories and fine wines. A fine cup of estate coffee along with a fruit eau de vie of your choice would increase your enjoyment by so much more and also help you digest much faster.
After a rich and satisfying meal central European gourmets always savour a portion or two eaux-de-vie (literally water of life). In fact scientists have proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that moderate alcohol consumption contributes to living longer and healthier lives. Besides, alcohol in low concentrations helps break down low-density cholesterols and in the stomach breaks down fats accelerating digestion. The accent here is on moderation. More than one or two ounces of eau-de-vie after a meal along with wine would certainly be too much.
Central Europeans (French, Germans, Swiss, Austrians, Hungarians, Czechs, Poles and Slovenians) have been distilling fruits for centuries and mastered the process while refining constantly. Today you can find outstanding eaux-de-vie of cherries, pears, apples, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, apricots and plums in many specialized European stores from many reputable distillers.
Fruit brandies are derived from perfectly ripe fruit that has been crushed, pressed, fermented and distilled. Alembic style copper stills are used in an attempt to obtain best results.
Generally, pending on the harvest, 20 – 22 lbs of fruit is required to produce one litre of eau de vie at approximately 40 per cent alcohol by volume.
Properly distilled eaux de vie are clear, smell of the base fruit and possess an intense taste. They are always dry, smooth, smell of the fruit and well rounded to provide maximum satisfaction. Practically all are served in snifters to appreciate their distinct aroma and should be chilled but never iced. While some prefer to enjoy eau de vie at ambient temperature, connoisseurs prefer theirs cool.
You can always pour an ounce of eau de vie in your coffee, but also mix it in pastries and/or main courses as Normans do.
Cognac is essentially an eau de vie of grapes, but most people think of it as a separate entity and clearly it is one of the most popular post prandials in the world!
Italians produce brandy, but they also distil grappa from wine pomace. Vignerons in practically all fruit growing regions have always distilled the alcohol of pomace for economic reasons and consumed this rough, rustic, clear, and potent liquid sometimes as early as for breakfast but more regularly after dinner.
Grappa today is a sophisticated and smooth product often distilled from Moscato or Nebbiolo pomace, but also from Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and even icewine. Modern grappas are marketed in mouth blown Murano crystal bottles of interesting shapes and can be very expensive. Regardless, these are grappas with pedigree which could grace every bar catering to a discriminating clientele. Nonino, Distilleria Bottega, and Ceretto are some of the many producers that are worth seeking.
Marc is the French term for grappa and Burgundians, Champagnards and Bordelais all have their versions. In Charente Maritime they produce Pineau de Charente where to 2/3 grape juice 1/3 marc is added; this makes a refreshing aperitif. In Champagne they do the same with their marc and grape juice.
Calvados is the liquor of Normandy, simply because grapes do not grow as far north as this land. Here butter, cream, seafood, lamb, and Calvados reign supreme. Calvados, like Cognac is aged becoming refined, smooth and texturally very sophisticated.
Pays d’Auge which is double distilled and aged for more than five years. Normans have been distilling Calvados since 1553 and acquired a unique expertise.
Germany, the USA, and Canada also produce apple brandy but these efforts fail to match the quality and intensity of Norman calvados.
Normans splash their apple brandy in cream sauces, into their cakes, as well as on pancakes. They enjoy their apple brandy at room temperature after a good meal or in their coffees. You should try it and see how much it pleases your palate.
Best Calvados producers are Sylvain, Pere Magloire, and Boulard.
Hungarian Barack Palinka (Apricot brandy) is arguably the best of all and if you get hold of a bottle from Zwack or small distillery in the region you would not want to try any other. Barack palinka exudes perfumey apricot aromas that only can be obtained from properly ripened fruit. The distillation is an art that Hungarians seem to have been able to perfect, at least for apricot.
The fruit, according to legend, originated in Armenia and to this day, in my estimation, this country still produces the best, but rather than distilling the fermented juice Armenians dry it.
Austrians, Germans and Spaniards also produce some fine apricot brandies, but fall short to achieve the subtlety of Hungarian products.
Kirsch eau de vie – although the French, Spaniards, and north Italians also produce this heavenly distillate it is always called by its German name.
In Switzerland cherries grow practically in all cantons but in particular Schwyz, Uri, Luzern, Vaud, Valais, Geneva, Bern, Basel produce fine kirsch. Dettling, Fassbind, Orsat and Morin are some of the best distillers in the business.
In Switzerland people enjoy kirsch in their coffee, on its own, after a festive meal, and in cakes. Zuger Kirschtorte is a specialty of the canton and no self-respecting home maker will dare present a fondue without a short of kirsch.
In Germany’s Black Forest region kirsch is particularly well known and the best comes from A. Schladerer in Breisgau. Austria and Alsace in France, Somontano in Spain are well known for their kirsch. Massenez and J. Jux in Alsace are two of the best distillers of kirsch.
Poire Williams a.k.a pear brandy by Morin, Orsat in Switzerland, Massenez in Alsace and Schladerer in Germany are excellent and can be enjoyed on their own, in coffees, fruit salads, pastries, and even as a stomach settling medication after a particularly “greasy“ meal i.e. deep fried foods and/or cream rich pastries.
Some distilleries market pear brandy with a pear in the bottle; it looks very intriguing. Growing the pear in the bottle is a laborious and costly process and such products command a high price. If two half bottles, with a pear in it are annealed the product becomes much less expensive, but less interesting.
In California’s, Sonoma County, where fine stone fruit abound, one distiller does and excellent job.
Berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries) are often used for eau de vie . Alsatians, Swiss, Austrians and Germans produce particularly flavourful and smooth berry distillates.
The best prune brandies come from Agen in south western France and the Czech Republic (Jelinek), Croatia (Navip), and Hungary . In Slavic countries plum brandy generically is called slivovice or some other version. Some prune brandies are cask aged for a degree of smoothness, but in general most are harsh and rustic products, but much appreciated in Balkan countries because of their wide availability and low price.
Mr Rieder, a retired Swiss engineer, started producing various fine fruit brandies in a small distillery in Grimsby beginning 1970 but to the surprise of many, the line never became popular simply because most North Americans associate fruit brandy with sweet liqueurs. Today the distillery is run under the name Kittling Ridge, but most of the fruit brandy production has been eliminated with the notable exception of kirsch, which is used by German speaking peoples and in fine pastries.
In dining rooms astute sommeliers can sell sufficient eaux de vie if they find it lucrative enough and the product originates from a fine distillery.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu