While us English folk are content with turning our pears into perry, the pear version of cider, over the channel they take pear alcohol production to an entirely different level. Oh no, they don’t make the weak stuff; the Eau du Vie produced by the Swiss could knock the balls off a concrete rhinoceros.
My first foolings with this devilishly potent liquid was in the form of kirsch (a cherry eau du vie), in true Alps fashion it was added to the cheese fondue and as an over excited 6 year old, I ate far to much and proceeded to get annihilated, I hadn’t got my drinking boots then…
Eau du vie or ‘water of life’ is made by taking top notch fruit, turning it into an alcoholic beverage (like cider or perry) and distilling it, unlike a brandy, eau du vie is not aged in barrels which means it remains perfectly clear rather than turning a rich gold. In France and Switzerland, pears and apricots are the fruit of choice, although raspberries and other berries are also considered useful. To begin with (using pears as an example), the best pears are selected and mashed in a fermentation chamber to ferment, some producers add yeast, but most let nature takes it’s course and after 2-3 weeks the natural sugars will have converted to alcohol.
The mash is then pumped into a distillation chamber and heated till the alcohol vaporises and gets tapped off from the ‘middle run’ or ‘heart’, the part of the chamber that produces the best balance of alcohol/flavour. For a more concise description of the process, click here.
The eau du vie is usually bottled straight away and left to age in the bottle, by doing this, the delicate aromas, an essential part of the ‘water of life’ experience, are preserved. Poire or Williamine packs so much aroma that, when taking a sniff, its hard to imagine the kind of punch that swills around the glass getting ready to smack you in the chops: this is the kind of stuff that will not only warm you up on a cold day, it will cover you in petrol and strike a match on your chin. Comforting drink then…
When in the Alps, my better half’s father goes out with a local friend of his and watches them make Poire in a mobile distillery. Parked up in a deserted car park in the early hours, all the locals turn up with their fermented pears and the master distiller works through each batch. Unlike the proper brands, this mountain boy mixture is bursting with the heady aroma of the fruit, eau du vie in its rawest form…I know because I’m having a sip now, I occasionally get slipped a small corked bottle from time to time, yet I still hope to join one of the early morning brewing parties…one day!
One of the classic gimmicks of eau du vie manufacturers (and one of the weirdest things you will ever see), is to flog their bottles of grog with a pear inside. Weirder still is when you drive past a steep, terraced orchard of trees covered in bottles, when the first hint of a pair appears, it is given it’s own miniature greenhouse and the pear gradually grows inside the bottle, and when the pear is ripe, the bottle is filled with Eau du vie and corked…clever boys.
Out in Switzerland, in the valley below our place is the Morand distillery, bang central in the heart of Valais and surrounded by acres of fruit farms. Morand’s Williamine is one of the best around and you can purchase it online, a 35cl bottle costs about £30, an excellent addition to the loop juice cabinet. One person I know keeps it just to get rid of people at the end of the night!
In Valais, poire sorbet is quite often on the dessert menu in most restaurants, it is also served between courses to cleanse the palate. Over Christmas, I decided to go pear crazy for the big day by putting together a pear sorbet and a pear tart:
A fairly straight forward process, if you have made sorbet or granita in the past, you know what to do…
25ml of Pear Eau du vie
1 tin of pears
1 star anise
½ a stick of cinnamon
Empty the pears and juice into a saucepan and add the star anise, cinnamon and cloves. Put on a medium heat and allow the pears to break down gradually on their own, simmer gently for about 25 minutes. After 20 minutes add the shot of eau du vie and simmer for 5 minutes more.
Remove from the heat and pour onto a shallow dish or tray, spread the mixture out thinly and allow it to cool completely before placing it in the freezer.
After 20 minutes, take the dish out of the freezer, it should have partially frozen, and mash up well with a fork, spread it out again and place it back in the freezer. Repeat the process twice more at 10-15 minute intervals. Then leave it in the freezer till you need it.
If you are serving it on its own, it is considered polite to pour a glug of Eau du vie over the sorbet.
This invariably starts off as a Tarte tatin, except I haven’t got a suitable pan to bash in the oven, a shame, as it would make life easier! So over the years this half-baked imposter has found its feet and become a tasty crossbreed and dinner party classic. This particular tart was spiced up to deliver some Christmas feel, Bay leaves and cardamom should always appear on the list of Christmas spices…
500g block of puff pastry
80g butter (salted)
80g caster sugar
Pinch of nutmeg
2 star anise
4 allspice berries
3 bay leaves
3 cardamom pods
1 stick of cinnamon
2 tbsp Pear Eau du vie
Peel, top and tail the pears, remove the core and cut into sixths. Unlike the tarte tatin, the pears slices will form a dainty little circle.
Put the butter, sugar, and all the spices in a saucepan and place over a high heat stirring occasionally until bubbling away nicely, it should caramelise and turn a rich toffee colour. Add the pear slices and the Eau du vie and stir the pears around in the sauce until well coated and leave to cook for about 10 minutes, then remove from the heat and allow to cool.
Roll out the puff pastry on a floured surface until it is 5mm thick. Line an 8 inch shallow cake tin with butter smeared baking parchment and carefully place the pastry over the top before tucking it in to the base, try to leave a bit of a fat lip of pastry on the edge to rise a little during cooking and trim any excess.
Once the Pears have cooled, lay them out in a circle slightly over lapping till you reach the centre. Try to pick out the cloves to avoid a nasty surprise (something I didn't do)! Pour over the remaining mixture and place in a hot oven for 25 minutes at 200C. Check it from time to time to make sure it doesn’t spill over.
So there you have it: a potent pudding packed with liquid dynamite, quite naturally, we had the tart, a quenelle of sorbet and a shot of Poire to go with it. Just what you need after an enormous meal before curling up in front o the fire with a good read.