My good friend and neighbour in the Touraine, The Frugal Gourmet, has invited me to make the occasional guest contribution to his blog. We share a passion for yummy food and frequently swap notes, recipes, meals, produce etc. It’s a great honour, thank you Colin.
In the spirit of the blog and its frugal focus what better than an aperitif which is local to the area, and features, as a principle ingredient, free food!
L’epine is an aperitif and as far as I am aware is unique to the Touraine-Poitou. Mention it to any of the locals and they will invariably start swooning with pleasure at the mere thought of it. Once a respectable period of reverential praise has been heaped upon the unsurpassed qualities of drinking l’epine the conversation will move swiftly to the recipe. This year, assisted by my husband, Jim and a French friend keen to share his knowledge and enthusiasm I decided to make my own.
The principle ingredients are universally agreed: cheap wine, eau de vie, sugar and l’epine (known to us as blackthorn). Also undisputed is when to pick the blackthorn. There are only about 2 or 3 weeks in May, when the stems of the blackthorn smell and taste of almonds and it is this which gives L’epine its unique, almost marzipan – like taste. Locations where the blackthorn grows are jealously guarded and it’s a race to get there first and bag the best pickings.
And this is where agreement ends, after that the variations are endless. You can use either white, red or rose wine – they all give quite different results. We conducted a survey of some French friends each of whom was adamant that their preference was the right one. The quantity of sugar varies depending on taste and that’s before we even start with the eau de vie. Then there is the number of days you leave it to infuse, the length of time maturing in the bottle……..
For the uninitiated, eau de vie is a clear brandy made with fruits, most commonly pear, plum, cherry or raspberry. It translates quite literally into ‘water of life’ the same linguistic origins as whisky. Historically every French household had the right to distil the fruits grown themselves up to a maximum of 10 litres. Unsurprisingly it was a huge cottage industry.
In 1952 the government of the day (who either wanted to preserve the livers of the nation or to make money from tax revenues, whichever version you choose to believe), changed the law. The right to make eau de vie no longer passed from father to son. Anyone with an existing right, passed it to their widow (if she survived her husband) after which the right died with her. A quick mathematical calculation then, anyone still making eau de vie today has to be aged 77 or older, assuming they were 18 and legally able to make it in 1952. Hmmm, that doesn’t quite tally with my experience but I’m saying nothing more, except that local lore suggests that a good number of octogenarians who were happily making eau de vie in 1952 are still alive and kicking today, their descendants never needing to register a death.
We could have course have bought eau de vie in the supermarket but it was much more fun to visit a jolly (and very, very, very, very old, at least 130 year old) farmer who was more than happy to let us sample his wares before we settled on the pear flavour. 1.25 litres in a plastic water bottle for a bargain 10 Euro’s.
This is how I made mine.
500g of blackthorn picked from the hedgerows near our house
5L White wine (I used Muscadet from a box)
1L Eau de Vie de Poire
- Mix the eau de vie with the sugar in a large, clean plastic bucket until the sugar dissolves.
- Add the wine and stir thoroughly
- Add the blackthorn and mix again
- Cover with a clean tea towel and leave in a cool airy place
- Stir once a day for 15 days
- Taste every so often and add a bit more sugar if you want it sweeter
- Strain through muslin and bottle
- Store in a cool, dark place
- Leave for as long as you can (I shall probably open the first bottle at Christmas)
See you again soon,