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Aperitifs and Digestifs

Aperitif wines are made from a mixture of fruit, pips and leaves macerated in l’eau-de-vie with sugar and sometimes spices. After about 4O days this mixture is strained and diluted with either red or white wine. It is then aged for 3-4 months. The pips add an almond-like bitterness and the leaves infuse a strength, which cannot be obtained from the fruit alone. However, by dramatically increasing the quantity of fruit, the leaves may be omitted. It is always advisable to include the pips. Digestif ratafias are based on fruits or berries macerated with high quantities of sugar in l’eau-de-vie. Ratafias are not diluted, but merely strained and aged. Longer aging is recommended than for aperitif wines.
There are two types of l’eau-de-vie: Marc, one made from the remnants of the grapes after pressing, and the other from fruit. The pressed grape skins are placed in a wooden tub, moistened with wine and sealed with a layer of damp loam to prevent fermentation. The crust must be checked regularly for cracks and fissures. L’eau-de-vie Marc has a distinctive, rather bitter flavor, which limits its use. l’eau-de-vie can be made from any fruit: pears, cherries, plums or even a mixture of fruits. Regionally, one of the most popular fruits was quetsche, and in the early years of this century quetsche trees lined roads of the commune. They provided shade for travelers during the summer and their small purple fruit were picked for making l’eau-de-vie and jams. The process for preparing l’eau-de-vie with fruit is similar to the one for Marc. A tub is filled with firm ripe plums or pears or cherries or mixed fruits, which are then covered with a layer of dampened earth. No liquid is added to the fruits since they are juicy enough. The fruit is left to sit under the air tight crust for 3-4 months, and is then distilled. The bouilleur, distiller, passed with his alambic from farm to farm between late November and early December. Each property owner had the rights to 1000° l’eau de vie, i.e. 20 liters at 50 proof or 25 liters at 40 proof. In 1955 under the Mendès government hereditary rights to produce l’eau-de-vie and other home-made spirits were curtailed and production was limited to lifetime tenure. Similar laws were passed limiting the profession of brouilleur to direct male descendants. Few such rights still exist, Claude Boussiere, the retired mayor of Puycelsi estimates that now less than 200,000 independent producers and brouilleurs remain in France. One of these, Hermann Pezous from neighboring Rabastens continued to service the commune until 2001. He inherited both the license and the machinery from his father. From late November to December, he and his son set up their distillery diagonally opposite the old bar at Les Barrières, and distilled l’eau-de-vie for the few remaining independent producers. The brouilleur pours the fruit or grape skins into a large copper cauldron and brings the liquid to a boil; the slower the better for rapid boiling produces a harsh and bitter taste. The resulting steam is then captured and fed through a series of coils and pipes. These quickly cool the steam into a stream of highly alcoholic l’eau-de-vie.

Gaillac Wines

Several books have been written on the history and evolution of Gaillac wines. Greek coins found near Montans show that Greeks from the large colony at Marseille had moved to the region and can be assumed to be the first cultivators. Roman pottery jars also found in Montans testify to Roman continuance and expansion of the viticulture. Their merchants transported wine to Bordeaux and northern Europe down the Tarn River. It was the efforts of the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Saint-Michel who provided the first real impetus to the cultivation of vineyards during the A.D. 10th century. They brought much needed knowledge and organization to the small growing industry. In the 12th century, the area was given a franchise from the Count of Toulouse and wine was shipped to Bordeaux for export via the two large rivers, the Tarn and Garonne. The now famous Cock of Gaillac was given as an emblem by the Counts of Toulouse for marking barrels of Gaillac wine. The Gaillac red was well-suited for ‘traveling’ and was especially sought after in England. The wine was transported in wooden boats called gabarres. At beginning of 19th Century there were 240 boats working at the river port in Gaillac. The industry had various periods of good and bad fortune. With the advent of the railroads, the industry experienced a sustained boom. This period of prosperity is reflected in the population figures for the village of Puycelsi. In 1830 it had 2,903 inhabitants. It boasted more artisans, cafes, schools, than ever before and gained a reputation as an important rural center.
In 1852 mildew and phylloxera infested the vineyards of Gaillac, and the flow of wine halted. The region was quarantined; vineyards were plowed under and by 1892 the population of Puycelsi had fallen to 1,600. With the help of hearty hybrids and rootstocks, some imported from America, and a switch to white wine production the vineyards slowly came back and by the beginning of the 20th century were again in full production. Until the 1950’s almost everyone in the commune had a small vineyard. According to an account from 1806-08, grapes were cultivated both as a cash crop and for private consumption. A total 443 hectares were cultivated by vignerons in the commune. Puycelsi had 133, as did its hamlets, Laval and St. Catherine. While La Cappelle had 40, Valès and St. Maurice only 4. Some vineyards produced as little as 5-6-8 barriques of wine, while others as many as 20 - 30 or 50. A total production 1249 briques of 225 liters each was logged. One ton, a barrel measure, contained 4 briques. Today, rural life in the commune remains marked by the activity in the vineyards. In March, the plants start to awaken, the rows between the plants get their first turning and all worry about unseasonable weather. During April the last sarments are burnt and the plants are fertilized. In the 19th century, there were sometimes bloody quarrels over whether the vines should be fertilized or not, and over the best type of fertilizer to use. These days, by May, the first of five or six sulfur dustings takes place and the plants are sprayed against the dreaded oidium. Some biological wine is now grown in the area, and merits tasting. June is a quiet month but during July and August the plants must be trimmed to remove excess foliage and growth so that all the strength of the plant flows to the grapes. Depending on the summer heat the grapes are harvested in September or October. The pickers no longer use the colorfully named baskets, lo panier, la hotte, lo gorb or la comporte, but rather metal or plastic trays. The presses with their wooden screw mechanism, truelh, were replaced at the end of the 19th century with cast iron ones and production is now completely modernized. The traditional red wines of the region are made of the grape varieties Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Duras, Fer or Syrah. The white wines are made of Mauzac, Sauvignon Blanc or Muscadelle, Len de l'El and Ondenc, local grape varieties.

Les Verres de la Grésigne

Glass production in La Gresigné is attested to as early as the 13th century. Silicon sand and the much needed wood to fuel the kilns were found locally; and potassium was derived from the salicorne plant of the Mediterranean Sea. Charcoal began to replace wood during the 18th century and it became possible for production to be under-taken outside the forest. By 1725 only five kilns remained in the forest itself, and by the end of the nineteenth century there were only two. Many of the glassblowers were from two local Protestant families and after the revocation of the Edict of Nante several English artisans came to the region.
Glass from La Grésigné is much appreciated today but this was not always so. Its blue green color was thought to be unattractive and a sign of inferior quality. The glass was not pure because shards from broken glass were remelted and used in production; and the shapes were simple and often molded. In its time it was an industry that served a functional economic need, and only rarely ventured into the artistic. The core items were wine bottles, flasks, kitchen and rudimentary table ware, as well as equipment for trades like pharmacy. Today the glassware is highly collectible, expensive and very rare.
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