A strong but little published connection we have with our trees and woodland in Western Europe is through alcohol. It is hardly confined to Europe and most primitive and modern cultures will have a spirit made from an indigenous tree.
Vodka aside, the production of most European spirits will involve a forest or orchard product and the tastes on offer from trees provide the very distinctive qualities to be found in the many of the vast array of spirits we can now choose from: the colour and subtle flavours found in the best of single malt whiskies from resting in Oak barrels; the distinctive taste of juniper in Gin; Rowan berries in Gammel Dansk; apples in Calvados etc.,
Arguably the most prevalent spirit in Western Europe is ‘Plum Brandy’. Most French ‘Eau de Vie’ is made from plums, Slivovitz in Slavic countries and many other states have a variety of spirit made from plums. Commercially plum brandy is hardly a top brand, but the easy distilling process allows for huge domestic production. Straight it is a potent drink and is responsible for many new friendships and new emnities, promptly forgotten about the following day.
In France it is illegal now to buy or sell domestically produced eau de vie, but its production is still rife and is very much a part of the landscape. As described in Sheila Dillons wonderful radio 4 broadcast.
This year has been an excellent year for all our plum trees; in our village I have counted up to 32 different plum varieties the most prized of which are the mirabelles. I had been looking forward to finally having enough plums, from various varieties to have some of our own eau de vie produced, but some of the trees border a road and in the dead of night were stripped clean, as were most of the wild plum trees in hedgerows around the village. Whilst very angry, I had to accept the point that living where scrumping was the only crime is hardly a bad thing. It reminded me of Roger Deakin’s pleasure in discovering he had poachers in the woodland he had planted.
There was of course an additional factor in this, as with most other British expats in France it is difficult to become accustomed to rights and privileges enjoyed by generations in rural France, which have no grounding in modern laws. The production of eau de vie is a family matter and recipes are dependent on particular quantities of fruit from particular trees. These trees are revered by families who may have no ownership rights at all.
The distillery in the village which produces eau de vie is just one stage of the final production of the regional speciality Pineau. Once a family has had their favourite melange of plums, often with quantities of other fruits thrown in, (cherries, raspberries, sloes and even the fruit of the Wild service tree – a particular favourite for me), the resulting eau de vie is mixed with grape juice, the resulting taste is similar to a very sweet sloe gin. Nestled in between the wine growing region of Touraine and the Cognac vineyards, (which often produce their own commercial Pineau), there is effectively no ‘commercial’ drink available, and thus the domestic Pineau rules in the Sud Vienne, when eaten with the local cheese Chabichou you experience the landscape itself at its pinnacle as the production processes have been refined and refined to reach the most optimum taste in the here and now. France is well known as a country which identifies its landscapes with taste and hospitality thus dictates that any visitor must sample the taste associated with the landscape they visit, the combination of tastes offered reflecting not only the natural heritage but the socio economic circumstances of that landscape also.
Is this the result of a country more culturally progressive than the British Isles as is often quoted? I would argue not, that it is the reverse. The historic poverty of the French provinces was acute and much of the cuisine is the result of a need to use the landscape to its optimum – sustainability by default. The UK in comparison for much of history has been an extraordinarily rich country and the loss of regional tastes is the product of centralisation, capitalism and thus progression. No wonder Napoleon referred to the English as a nation of shopkeepers.
But in modern terms and in the need to discover sustainable progression for rural UK, it is surely time to look at traditional French systems as a method to help re establish localised cultural heritage across the board. Of course this has already started, local fruiting tree varieties are sold out year on year, there are many new small businesses experimenting with various foods and drinks using the local landscape as a source and rapidly discovering new yet perhaps ancient tastes of real wonder.
Having got into the habit of referring back to the UK forestry panel I feel I must disappoint, (asides from perhaps a suggestion to install distilleries within UK woodlands to help people re connect with their landscape), so instead ‘cheers’.