|Mention Normandy, France to any American, and the immediate thought is of D-Day, when Allied forces launched their invasion of Europe in World War II. But that northwest corner of coastal France has offered more than military history to the world. It is home to the Appellation Contrôlée of Calvados, a unique and intriguing sprit distilled from apple cider. The finest Calvados comes from this narrow valley, and while the drink is revered by connoisseurs, it does not receive the attention that its quality and enduring history warrant. One of the panels of the Bayeaux tapestry depicts the Normans loading wooden barrels onto their ships. While some say they contain beer or cider, Vincent Boulard, a foremost Calvados distiller, whose family has been involved in Calvados production for generations, relates that his ancestors always would say of those barrels: “Why not Calvados?”
How About Them Apples?
Why not, indeed, since Calvados was a homemade beverage, and the preferred drink of local farmers and fishermen. The terrain and climate of the region are unfriendly to grapes, but perfect for fruit trees, particularly a wide variety of apples. Locals, accepting that life had given them apples, produced a cider spirit to meet their needs. It was not until the time of the French revolution, when France designated the geographical sector as “Calvados,” that the spirit got its modern name. And, as a matter of ironic history, it did not gain real respect in its own country until the late 19th century phylloxera outbreak. With vineyards devastated and the wine industry crippled, the happy apple spirit of Calvados rose in stature.
From Orchard to Shelf
In early days, when the trees grew in pasture lands, “high draft” fruit trees were preferable, with branches emerging about six feet from the ground, out of the reach of hungry cows. Since the orchards are now dedicated to the purpose of Calvados, production “low-draft” apple trees (with fruit-bearing branches about three feet from the ground) are planted in rows similar to the planting of vines in a vineyard. Harvest is more abundant and efficient, and the varieties – bitters, bittersweets, sweets, and acidics – are combined in proportions appropriate to AOC requirements and the desired blend. Note that a designation broader than the Pays D’Auge, simply termed Calvados, and a third, named Domfrontais (which spirit contains 30% pears) comprise the total AOC. Another product of the region is Pommeau, which is a mixture of Calvados and unfermented cider. This beverage makes a delightful aperitif.
The press and dry aging of the cider produces a clear, high alcohol (4.5%) liquid. No sugar or caramel is introduced, rather, this liquid is double-distilled in copper pot stills, resulting in an eau de vie that can be as high as 70% alcohol. The Calvados is then aged in oak barrels, the type of wood being chosen for the characteristics it will lend to the product. The aging process (a minimum of 2 years, but in some cases, 10 to 25) intensifies and adds flavor notes and lends color – from pale wheaten gold to a warm reddish brown. Depending on the final style desired by the maker, the Calvados is blended – either with its own vintage or with product from varied vintages. Most Calvados borrows the VO (minimum 4 years) and XO (minimum 6 years) descriptions from its Cognac cousins to declare the age of its youngest component. Prices generally reflect age and rarity, but a solid selection of quality product falls into a range of $30 - $100, comparable to Cognacs, fine brandies and eau de vies.
Tradition of Farm to Table
Although Calvados has moved away from the pasture, the old connection between dairy cows grazing in the orchards comes to mind when matching Calvados with foods. Using the “grows with, goes with” concept is a simple and rewarding rule. Camembert, justly acknowledged as one of France’s most luscious cheeses, is another source of pride in the region, and pairs beautifully with Calvados. The rich butter and cream of the entire Normandy-Bretagne region are legendary, and often find their way into sweet and savory dishes. One of the region’s dessert specialties, the Tarte Tatin – the upside down treat of caramelized apples on flaky layers of puff pastry – can only be made more delicious if served with whipped cream flavored with Calvados. With the coastal abundance of fish and shellfish in the region, another popular dish is steamed mussels, rich with cream and fragrant with Calvados. Grenadins (or scallops) of veal, and poultry are often sautéed in butter, and served with a pan sauce based on Calvados and cream. If such a meal seems too rich and filling employ le trou Normand – the tradition of taking sips of Calvados at the table between courses to aid digestion, thus creating a space or hole (trou) for more food.
Marcel Guelaffe, one of the owners of Le Petite Auberge in New York City, grew up in the region. Today, in his restaurant, Calvados is most often served neat, as an after-dinner drink. It is used in the kitchen as well, in Chicken Calvados, and Pork Tenderloin with Calvados and sautéed apples. Guelaffe, whose father made Calvados when he was a child, said that traditionally, at home in Bretagne, a nip of Calvados is often taken in the morning “to keep us warm against the cold weather.” He also gave his recommendation for flu season: “We make what you call a hot toddy: hot water, sugar, and Calvados.”
Taste is another plus. Calvados, born of apples, retains the essence of the fruit’s refreshing flavor and acidity, even after distilling and aging. The younger spirit, more likely to be used in a cocktail or mixed drink, has more “apple-ness” so can add a unique taste to a creation. The longer-aged spirit has had time to pick up flavor notes of vanilla, gingerbread, and dried fruit from the oak, and while it still has a strong kick, is rounder and softer than a comparable distilled grape spirit.
Flavor - especially big flavor – is... well...big today. One look at the surge in sales of big, fruit-forward wines, the resurgence of floral-scented German wines, the return of roses, and the countless flavor varieties of white spirits says that the American palate likes to taste its drinks. Since we’re having a flavor-note party, why shouldn’t Calvados join in the fun?