BEAULIEU SUR MER, FRANCE, June 4th, 2018: Back to Switzerland! This time with another key element of Valais’ terroir: apricot brandy! Many people would agree that the best in the world is made here. The locals are so proud of it, that, for example, restaurant owners from near-by France (Haute-Savoie) make sure to have a few bottles of this for their precious Swiss guests!
Apricot Brandy – Aqua vitae
« Pures et fidèles… telles sont les eaux-de-vie blanches qui, dans leur limpidité, renferment toute l’histoire de l’alcool et une bonne partie de celle des hommes. Grace à elles, notre ligne directe avec le passé conserve sa tonalité´ parfumée… » Raymond Dumay
(Pure and faithful – the white brandies are like that. In their limpidity, they contain all the history of spirits and a good part of the mankind’s one. Thanks to them, there is a perfumed connection with the past)
This alcoholic beverage is a digestif, an Eau de vie (water of life, Lat. Aqua vitae). It is drunk after the meal, chilled, neat or on the rocks. Recently, it has become the key ingredient to many local cocktails. It gives a nouveau touch of originality to the classical ones.
The fruits of the apricot
Cultivating fruit trees is a tradition for many countries in Europe: plums, mirabelle plums, apples, apricots, cherries, quinces. All can easily be found in the countryside and, later on, in jams, juices, pastries but also in alcoholic beverages. The production was, at the beginning, home-made. Many people of my generation still have memories about it.
The apricot tree came from Manchuria (North-East of Asia), through Turkey. It was brought to Europe by the Romans who used to call it ’malus praecox’ (an early apple). But the scientific name is ‘Prunus armeniaca’ – Plum from Armenia. Now we find it also in California, Ontario, South-Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
Apricot flowers and climatic conditions
It is difficult to grow because it is sensitive to the climatic conditions. Being the first that flowers in the spring (March – April), sometimes there is a risk of frost. During the difficult periods, people light fires or spray water in order to protect the delicate flowers. It loves the sun and the light during flowering.
In Valais, the driest region of Switzerland, it is more cultivated on the left side of the Rhone river (up to 1000 m altitude) because it is North oriented and there is a lower risk of frost in the spring when the trees are in flowers. The flowers, pale pink, with many stamens, are coming out before the leaves, usually 2 at a time and with a maximum of 5.
The fruit of the apricot
The oval fruits have a yellow, orange or red tainted skin. The firm flesh is sugary, juicy and firm, rich in carotene and A vitamins. Inside, there is a stone containing an almond rich in essential oils and vitamin A and E.
The caloric content is low, but the apricots are full of fibers, vitamins and minerals. Its’ acidity makes it very light. Now some of the big producers have specials machines which select the fruits by scanning and weighting each fruit.
The Rhone River and the apricot of Valais
The apricot of Valais prefers the hills situated on the left side of the Rhone river. The warm and sandy soil, the good drainage, the pure and fresh water for irrigations, and the microclimatic conditions are all perfect.
This includes the condition for morning dew, followed by long sunny hours that boost the maturation. (Résumé de la demande d’enregistrement d’Abricotine, l’Eau-de-vie d’abricot du Valais). Remember: the right side of Rhone is occupied by the fabulous terraces of vineyards!
According to the specialists from Valais Terroir, there are about 680 ha with apricot trees in Valais. They produce about 98% of the Swiss apricots (5000-6000 tones). The production is different each year, depending on the weather conditions.
The Distillation of the Apricot Brandy
The distillation was an innovative technique, coming from the Arab world, introduced during the Middle Ages, but which seemed to date from the II millennium BC (Mesopotamia).
At that time, the distillation was used in perfume making. Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) is the first who described ‘the process which made possible the manufacture of distilled liquors.
Knowledge of the process began to spread slowly among the monks, physicians and alchemists, who were interested in distilled alcohol as a cure for ailments.
Arnaldus of Villanova (d.1315), a professor of medicine, is credited with coining the term aqua vitae. “We call it aqua vitae, and this name is remarkably suitable, since it is really a water of immortality. It prolongs life, clears away ill-humors, revives the heart and maintains youth.” David J. Hanson
Valais Apricot Brandy becomes an Appellation
In Switzerland, the apricot brandy was home-made too, for long time! Only after 1970 did it become a high-quality consumer product.
AOP (Appellation d’origine protégée) Eau-de-vie à l’abricot du Valais
Nowadays we have the chance to enjoy high quality products, that are not only made after strict regulations, but also represent the image (or the taste) of a terroir.
This includes all the geographical, geological, climatic, technical and human conditions. They should be made entirely in the origin area, after the traditional methods, from the raw material to the final product.
Regulating the Valais Apricot Brandy spirits
Switzerland has a total of 21 AOP and 12 IGP, out of which 4 are for spirits: Eau-de-vie à l’abricot du Valais (Valais, 06.01.03), Eau-de-vie de poire du Valais (21.12.01), Damassine (09.03.10) and Zuger Kirsch (02.09.13).
The Federal Office for Agriculture (FOAG) and The Federal Department of Economy established the specification for Eau-de-vie d’Abricot du Valais AOP:
- Geographic area: production of the fruits, the stock, the fermentation, the distillation and the bottling must take place in Valais canton
- Description of the product: Min 90 % Luizet variety, at the perfect maturity, clean and healthy. Beverage with min. 40% alcohol, a pronounced taste of fruit.
- Obtaining process: fruit dimension, delivery, use of acids, yeasts, enzymes, temperature and period of fermentation and so on.
- Distillation details
- Bottling and labelling
A local taste of Apricot Brandy
The most part of the production is locally consumed, and a part is distributed to the other cantons of Switzerland. Even if the demand for fruit brandies diminished, there is a new tendency of using them in cocktails. This extends from the simplest (Moitié – moitié = Half fruit brandy half fruit juice), to the classics.
Replace the spirit with Apricot brandy (take a Cosmopolitan for example) and lead the way to new creations. All of them can be tasted all around the region, including the most famous ski resorts of the country.
Refined taste and the Eau-de-vie list
A generous Eau-de-vie list is a must for all fine-dining restaurants (gastronomiques). In certain places you can also find a pairing with local food (cheese based, desserts and so on). An inspired chef would use it in order to give a touch of fruitiness and an extra perfume to its creations.
For example, a simple fondue ou raclette can become lighter and fruitier with a dash of spirit and, also, a simple drink on the side can help you digest. But always, drink it responsibly!
Coups de Coeur: Fleur d’abricot, Abricool (The apricot flowers are macerated in the fruit brandy – the most feminine, elegant and the most scented of all the selection that I have tasted. I had the feeling that I was in the garden full of blooming trees). Together with the oak–aged limited editions, they are preferred by women. They are easier to drink, with a rounder and softer texture, and with delicate aromas of vanilla and cake.
Teona Floare is a Wine and Travel Consultant and Sommelier at the acclaimed Michelin starred restaurant Le Restaurant des Rois at the 5 star luxury hotel La Reserve de Beaulieu in Beaulieu sur Mer near St. Jean Cap Ferrat.