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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:  Distillerie WarenghemArmorik Double Maturation

The Books: The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi

The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul

A double-matured single malt from France. Like the books, matured in two languages. Translates to very fine experience.


This Armorik is bright, light copper in the glass. Spirited cereal on the nose, with a current of caramelized apple. A creamed, woodsy profile, spicy and dry. Peppery finish, tempered by a little salt sea air. Assertive, but very likeable. (46% abv, unchillfiltered)

Distillerie Warenghem has a history of making fruit liquors that goes back more than a century. For the past thirty years, it has turned its attention to the making of whisky. It’s one of several distilleries in Brittany, the most notable whisky-producing region of France. Warenghem is said to deliver the most Scotch-like single malt in the country, perhaps a nod to the region’s Celtic roots. Whatever the reason, it an expertly-made dram, with a reputation that now extends well beyond France.

At the helm are Gilles Leizour and son-in-law David Roussier, two men proud of their distillery being the first in France to produce a single malt. Distillerie Warenghem is situated in the Breton town of Lannion, a few kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean. A borehole on the property, running over 100 metres underground, extracts granite-filtered, spring water for use with local wheat and barley.

Distillation is in two modified Charentais-type copper stills. The spirit is first matured for five years in oak harvested from Brittany’s Armorique Regional Nature Park. Breton oak is less porous than regular French oak and  provides a slower, more subtle maturation. Another two years of maturation takes place in Spanish Oloroso sherry barrels.

Whisky production at Distillerie Warenghem has made award-winning strides in a few short decades, with the output of its single malt and blended products now reaching a quarter million bottles annually. An encouraging statistic in the country that consumes more whisky per capita than any other in the world.


Just recently I discovered the brilliant books of Peirene Press. I had noticed titles with distinctive, similarly minimalist cover designs showing up each year on the shortlists of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. I purchased one, that led to another, then two more, and now I eagerly anticipate the arrival of still more titles from this London-based publisher of European novellas in their first English translations. Often less than 150 pages long, perfect for reading in one sitting, writing of exceptional quality, and by authors completely new to me. Literally, reading heaven.

These are three titles, all by female authors, all notably well translated, all particular favourites.

German-born Birgit Vanderbeke wrote The Mussel Feast in 1989, a few months prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. A mother, teenaged daughter, and son wait at the dinner table for the arrival home of the head of the household. In the centre of the table, growing cold, is a large pot of cooked mussels. A wait of minutes builds to hours, and all the while a portrait of the absent, tyrannical father emerges.

Life with this man is related by the daughter, in hermetic increments. Through wonderfully nuanced prose we learn how each of the three at the table copes with the father’s skewed expectations. It is quietly intense, a riveting study in character, with political overtones that in the reunified Germany made it an instant, hotly-debated success.

Amazingly, it was Vanderbeke’s first novel. Born in what was then East Germany, she moved to the West as a young child, growing up in Frankfurt. As a beginning novelist, she lived with her husband and children in Berlin, but in 1993 moved permanently to southern France.

France is also home to Véronique Olmi. Beside the Sea is a hypnotic story of a mother and her two young boys, a story that slowly draws the reader into the minutia of their family life, leading to the point when there is no turning away from its disturbing, stunning conclusion.

The mother’s life is plainly lived, defined by poverty and mental distress. She dearly loves her sons, and wants for them what she cannot give. Neither can she imagine them being absorbed into the world outside her own.

From the moment the three board a bus in the opening lines, the reader realizes the trip to the seaside will go badly. The 105 pages it takes to find out just how badly allows us into the mother’s mind, sharing its moments of anguish and raw tenderness, knowing it is a mind we cannot fully comprehend. It’s a brave, unforgettable piece of writing.

Despite its success in Europe, it took ten years before the book appeared in English. Peirene Press, committed to publishing strong, innovative fiction in translation, chose it as its very first publication.

Its eighth publication is by Danish author Pia Juul. Despite the title and a setting at the edge of a fjord, the reader should not expect anything that would rest easy in a stack of recent Nordic murder mysteries. There is for certain a murder (page three) and finding out just who did it remains the great unanswered question. But rather than dwell on who might have pulled the trigger, the reader’s attention is taken up with figuring out just what Bess (the narrator and partner of the dead man) is all about.

Why is she not grieving more? What exactly was her relationship with the murdered man? Why, ten years earlier, did she abandon her husband and young daughter? All absorbing questions. Yet there are no straight-forward answers, no mysteries completely solved by the last page.

The Murder of Halland is a fresh take on crime fiction. Juul has played a genre-bending literary game, for those who like their murders, and narrators, particularly perplexing.

Three fine short novels, leading to more Peirene, please.



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