Eau de vie came into my life just as I was packing to return home.
Madame Martin from Megève in Haute Savoie — not her real name — was, probably still is, the sort of woman that makes men drool; women, too, from what I recall. Supremely self-confident, beautiful, curvaceous, stunningly proportioned and firm of everything that needed to be firm, in spite of having brought three children into the world. And always, but always, whatever she was doing, dressed a titillating smidgeon on the acceptable side of blatantly sexy. Nevertheless, my eyes struggled to meet hers.
She smiled—I can see it still—'Un petit cadeau', offering an unlabeled bottle of clear liquid. 'C'est eau de vie de vin...du terroir', she said, waving her arm expansively to signify her particular terroir. Thankfully, as I had many hundreds of miles to drive, I didn't sample it until I reached home, and I think some of the enamel came off my teeth when I did.
Eau de vie is the afterlife for grapes, a reincarnation, coming at the end of their often traumatic journey from vine to bottle, during the course of which they encounter a vicious contraption called an égrappoir that contrives to rip away the stalks and crush the grapes en route to the storage vat. Time-shrouded periods of maceration follow, and fermentation, before the pressoir gets a crush on them. What remains, after the embryonic wine is drained away, is a thick pulp of grape skins and pips; this is marc. It looks terrible and doesn't smell so good, either, and the thoughts of mortal man would instantly turn to fertiliser usage. But the peasant farmers of autrefois were quick to realise that there was still juice left in the mash, and that represented an intoxicating outcome that was too good to ignore. Further distillation was needed, resulting in a rather potent eau de vie, or, more precisely, eau de vie de marc, commonly known these days simply as marc.
The step from mash to marc is pure chemistry, and involves an alembic, a distilling device that would transform the sludge into a clear liquid. Of course, not all French farmers had their own alembic, a problem solved in typically French manner by the introduction of an alambic ambulant, a kind of alcohol-producing peripatetic wheelbarrow that journeyed round the farms, performing simple chemistry and leaving many a happy face in its wake.
I had noticed such a device in the garden shed of Madame Martin, but, her husband assured me with the hint of a twinkle in his eye, it was purely for decorative purposes, and certainly not, definitely not, absolutely not for personal use, non, pas du tout! So, why hide it in the garden shed, I wondered, but my French in those days wasn't up to enquiring. 'Monsieur didst protest too much, methought', to mangle Hamlet. And far be it from me to forge any association between the innocence of a garden decoration and the law restricting distillation to registered companies.
Today, far from its peasant origins across the wine-producing regions of France, marc has acquired a family of some distinction: marc de Bourgogne, marc de Chateauneuf and marc de Champagne. My first, Martin, sample was marc de Savoie, and followed not many months later by the lesser-known marc de Provence.
The 45-50%-proof liquid is clear or mildly gold-tinted and possesses an unusual, ever-so-slightly oily feel in your mouth. It explodes in your mouth, swiftly followed by a sharp intake of breath before spreading a comforting warmth to your throat and a lingering ripple that spreads across the upper body before sinking to the depths of the stomach. I have found it remarkably efficacious is settling the stomach after a hefty meal; it works every time. Some suggest that its powers of penetration create a hole in your stomach, un trou, to make way for courses to come.
That's not something I can say I've tried. Note to self...