Two weeks ago, I spent the day skiing at Les Brasses, a small ski station in the French Alps, just south of Lake Geneva in Haute Savoie. My 4 year-old nephew learned to ski for the first time that day, and after 2 hours, he was already better than his tired old alcoholic Auntie Katrocket.
I really don't mind though, since the main reason I enjoy skiing is just for the "après-ski" : that magical time when strangers bond over cognacs while wearing the bottom half of a snowsuit, a shhexxy shhweater and goggles on their heads. There's no other place in the world where you can get away with THAT fashion statement. Ok, maybe Aspen. Hollywood wankers!
We broke for lunch around 1pm - a FABULOUS fondue hosted by my in-laws at their chalet about 10 minutes down the hill in the town of Bogève. After an hour of gooey cheese and great wine, my hostess suggested that I take a quick tour about 10 minutes down the road to visit les Bouilleurs de cru - loosely translated: "the boilers of raw (fruits)" - who had set up a portable still by the side of the road just outside their town. She warned that the Savoyards were surly men of questionable repute (my kinda people!), but I should take this rare opportunity to meet with them, because the very existence of roadside distillers was threatened by changing times.
Okay - some quick history first... unlicensed moonshining was tolerated in France up to the late 1950's : having an ancestor who fought in Napoleon's armies automatically gave a person the right to distillate a given quantity of alcohol (the equivalent of 10 liters of pure alcohol a year) for their own consumption. But since 1959, the laws were revoked and that right can no longer be transferred to the descendants, therefore only a few bouilleurs de cru are still exercising their rights nowadays. Owning a registered fruit orchard or a vineyard still gives you a right to have your production distillated, but it is no longer free, and you have to hire a licensed distillator to do so. So all the local orchard farmers take their mash (rotting fruit gathered from the ground, plus all their surplus produce from the harvest) to a travelling distiller, who drives a weekly route from town to town in rural farming areas. These farmers also bring the Bouilleur gifts of wine, cheese, bread, pastries, etc in exchange for their services. It's what Bartertown COULD have been!
So, with a wine buzz firmly entrenched, I headed east with my brother Mattrocket, dadRocket, the Corporal, and a bottle of Seagram's Crown Royal whisky that I brought over from Canada, and drove until we found this:
The party was already in full swing, with several locals unloading their barrels of mash, and lots of old guys wearing jaunty chapeaux telling stories and eating cheese. At first, they were a bit leary of les touristes stupides. I had my camera kit with me, and they were concerned that I was going to exploit them for profit, just as I have with the sex trade workers of Toronto.
See? I told you I was an internationally reknowned pornographer.
But just like back home, everyone totally relaxed as soon as I showed them my goods. The Crown Royal, that is! And then it was smiles and cigarettes for everyone! The Bouilleur was making a brandy from a mash of cherries, pears, and mirabelles (a variety of yellow plum). He was kind enough to explain how his still worked, and let us sample the end product, called "gnôle" (and sometimes "goutte"), still warm from the copper spigot. It tasted like gasoline, but I sucked it back like a pro, winning their hearts AND a severe case of heartburn.
Forty five minutes later, I was so fucking loopy that I found it difficult to stand without assistance. This, along with my hillbillyesque Québecois accent, made the Savoyards laugh and laugh and laugh at me until I thought I was going to be sick. Literally. I took a lot of pictures at that point, figuring it might be my last crack at photography before the blindness set in. We put a Rush CD in the ol' Puegeot 406 and cranked it loud. The Savoyards danced and made fun of my music. Yeah, that kinda made me miss Pistols for like, 2 minutes. But for a half an hour on a lazy Sunday afternoon, the hills were alive with the Sound of Rock-n-Roll Parking Lot. GIVE'R!
I left later that afternoon with a gifted bottle of gnôle, and a unique cultural experience that is in its final act in the Alps. I was all excited to bring the gnôle home to share with my friends, but the stuck-up bitches at Cointrin airport customs in Geneva got all pissy with me about "transporting illegal substances" and "exceeding the allowable limit of exporting alcoholic beverages by 14 liters" and blah blah blah. So I had to leave it with my brother, along with a bottle of Absinthe, and 6 more rare vintages that I can't get in Canada (and I'm still pissed off about it).
C'mon, don't these people know who I am ???