WINE & SPIRITS
A EUROPEAN AFTER-DINNER DRINK FINDS A CONNECTICUT HOME
When I lived in Belgium among the castle-dwelling set, I looked forward to lingering long after meals over miniature glasses of potent liqueur. It was customary, at the end of most formal dinners, to offer guests a so-called pousse café. These after-dinner digestifs were intended to prolong the evening, to inspire conversation or, perhaps, something more risqué. The term had a double meaning, as in "can I interest you"—wink, wink—"in a little pousse café?"
The post-meal libations were usually fruit-based eaux de vie—poire (pear), fraise (strawberry), framboise (raspberry) or mirabelle (red plum). We had a full collection at home in Belgium—their powerful fragrance never failed to elevate my mood—but we also partook when my then-husband, the Baron, and I traveled together. In Normandy, we would opt for apple-based Calvados; in Italy, the best local grappa.
To my dismay, the pousse café has never really caught on this side of the Atlantic. As a result, I've fallen out of the habit of indulging myself. Still I do enjoy a wee eau de vie now and then. Which is why I was thrilled to recently discover an artisinal distiller producing them right here in Connecticut. Westford Hill Distillers, in Ashford (30 miles east of Hartford) is a rare American producer of clear, fruit-based eaux de vie.
Founders Louis and Margaret Chatey live on the idyllic 200-acre farm where their fine spirits are made. Their restored classic Cape home, dating back to 1711, sits on a postcard-perfect plot dotted with ponds, meadows, woods and apple trees. They share the property with a horse, a pony and a whole slew of Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs.
The couple began producing their clear, handcrafted brandies in 1998. As beautiful to look at as they are to consume, their diverse line includes a variety of flavors such as framboise, poir, kirsch, fraise, an eight-year-old Calvados, and a special poire prisonnière (with a whole pear held "prisoner" in the bottle). Each is encased in an artful bottle with wraparound label displaying beautiful illustrations of fruit.
Margaret sat me down for a tasting one afternoon. She began by offering a primer on the proper method for sniffing eau de vie. "Let the aromas come to you," she advised. Instead of sticking my nose in the glass, as I would with wine, she showed me how to place it right below my chin.
She poured out a thimble of kirsch, her first, and still her favorite, creation. "It goes so well with so many things," she said. "Clear brandies are perfect with dessert, with chocolate—Black Forest cake in particular—butter cookies, shortbread, nut tarts. The fruity aromas blend so well with sweets, which work to tame the alcohol."
Next we sampled her poire, which is made from local Bartlett pears. "This is perfect as an intermezzo—a break—between courses in big holiday meals," Margaret said. "You might pour it over mango or passion fruit sorbet to create a refreshing scrub for the palate. Some people like to add a few drops to whipped cream and serve it with dessert."
My head was starting to spin—these are powerful sippers, after all—as she offered some framboise. "Framboise started it all for us," she said, segueing into the backstory. "My husband and I were traveling through Alsace when we first tasted framboise. We wondered why no one was making this stuff in America." Later, on a trip to California, the couple stopped into one of the country's first licensed fruit-spirit micro-distilleries, St. George Spirits, in Alameda. They were so inspired by what they saw they decided to enter the business themselves. "We had already planted grapevines on our property," Margaret said. "We decided to make the switch from wine to fruit spirit distilling." So they purchased a Holstein still to process the fruit into alcohol and were off and running.
The process, she said, is not overly complicated, though it does require a lot of hands-on attention. Sixty-five gallons of fruit go into the still at a time. During fermentation it must be punched down by hand and then pumped over, like wine. Once the eau de vie has been produced it rests for two years in glass or stainless steel before being blended with spring water (the Ashford property has its own deep water wells). After a mere 10 years in operation, the Chateys now produce 20,000 bottles annually. Recently, their Poire Prisonnière won a "best in show" award at a prestigious competition for its bottle and label design.
As she poured me a taste, I couldn't resist asking how on earth they managed to get that big, fleshy pear into the bottle. Was it old-world black magic? "It's a New England farmer's secret," she said, offering only a mischievous smile and another glass of her fine eau de vie.