The skill of making a French style gin once produced in vast quantities and enjoyed by the miners of northern France to fortify themselves against the rigours of work in the coal mines has been all but lost. Janine Marsh tracks down one of the last of the great gin distillers of France near Calais…
“Genievre is a sort of gin isn’t it” I ask the owner of one of only three distilleries left in France where once more than 70 such companies churned out copious amounts of the strong alcohol.
“Not really” he says, “it is what it is, genievre is unique but some say it tastes a bit like juniper gin”.
I’m here in the little town of Houlle, not far from St Omer, because I have a passion for the authentic and original produce of France. I got a tip from a French friend who swears by the digestive properties of this unusual drink.
Monsieur Persyn who owns Genievre de Houlle, walks me up to the company’s presentation room to watch a film about the history and production techniques used for making this rare form of gin. These days there is a growing interest in specialist produce made to original recipes as our ancestors would have known them and visitors from the UK, Belgium and France are increasing.
Monsieur Persyn and his brother have spent all their working life in the distillery and their father was the manager before them. In fact the company has been in the same family since it was founded in 1812, though the recipe for genievre goes back much further.
That this little producer has survived, is testament to the passion that these men past and present have had for their craft. Based on the banks of the River Houlle, nestling at the foot of the hills of Artois they have lived though wars and financial difficulties and striven to continue to make the strong alcohol that is a favourite amongst the locals.
The copper stills that they use for the distillation process in the aromatic atelier have been in use for more than 100 years. Their burnished metal surfaces glisten in the sun that forces its way through the small windows. Here in this room, the distillation process using organic cereal, rye, oats and barley from nearby Aire-sur-la-Lys, takes place three times. It is a technique that cannot be hurried and which limits the amount that can be produced in a year to just 30,000 litres.
Once distilled, a strong and unique liquid is left with an alcoholic substance of an eye-watering 49%. To this is added a sort of giant teabag of 5kg of juniper berries. Somewhat unfortunately AOC status (appellation d’origine contrôlée) cannot be applied since the berries are not produced in France but in Crete, a Greek island. “It’s a shame” agrees Monsieur Persyn “but they are the best so we must have them”.
The genievre is then stored in oak casks “nature’s secret” confides Monsieur Persyn reverently. It then goes through a maturing process which leaves a dark mould creeping up the walls known as “the angels’ share” a common chemical reaction in wine making.
The flavouring of alcohol with berries has been known since at least the 15th Century in France when apothecaries of the time experimented to produce spirits. Locals say that the genievre is good for your health and regular imbibers claim that it aids digestion.
Making a comeback
The mines of the north may be no more but a new type of client is coming to the rescue of this ancient drink.
In the late 20th Century chefs shied away from using Genievre because of it didn’t really have much of a gourmet reputation; it was after all a miner’s drink. These days, however, it is enjoying something of a comeback; its energising properties are appreciated and people are finding new ways to enjoy it.
Monsieur Persyn proudly announces that it is used for making cocktails, is great with trout, good to drink with fruits, makes a great sorbet, delicious poured over ice cream, sipped with cheese and much more. He recommends it is drunk very cold, at 49% you can keep it in the freezer he assures me.
“We are craftsmen” says Monsieur Persyn “The three distillations take a long time but it is worth it” and he urges me to taste some as we finish the tour. In the shop there is a steady stream of customers perusing the different flavours on offer, pure or with berries, citron, and other flavours.
I lift the glass to my nose and sniff; it has a clean, fresh scent, very like gin. I sip and taste the ice cold liquid, flavoured with a little lemon, it is bitter like gin, but it is definitely different and absolutely delicious… a real winner for an after dinner digestif and a true taste of history.
Find our more great things to do and see in this area: www.tourisme-saintomer.com
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The best bread in northern France – it’s official
Amazing cheese shop in St Omer a delicious taste of France…
Brasserie de St Omer, how one man’s passion for good beer created a legendary company