What’s a wine guy to do when he finds himself in a place where no wine is produced? Why, set out in search of that Normandy nectar Calvados, of course.
We recently spent a few days in the delightful medieval town of Bayeux, a perfect hub from which to explore the countless tourist attractions and other delights of Normandy. Among these are the towering spectacle that is Le Mont Saint-Michel with its exhausting stairs and racing tides; the fairy tale town of Honfleur where the Seine river meets the English Channel; and the haunting D-Day beaches, including the artificial harbour at Arromanches-les-Bains, the German bunkers at Longues-sur-Mer, along with the memorials and the sombre national cemeteries that so vividly attest to the folly of war.
Bayeux itself is no slouch when it comes to points of interest. There is the famed Bayeux Tapestry, almost 70 metres of embroidered cloth depicting in great detail the winner’s version of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. This battle not only changed forever the course of English history, but also the name of the victorious leader: from William the Bastard to William the Conqueror – a decided improvement. Then there is the majestic Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux with its gothic façade hiding its Romanesque origins. The cathedral was consecrated in 1077 in the presence of William the Conqueror by his half-brother Bishop Odo. And strolls along the Aure River that transects the heart of old Bayeux are a most delightful way to while away an hour or two.
However, one can neither live by bread nor tourist attractions alone. This brought to mind the four C’s of Normandy – Camembert, cream, cider and Calvados. Now the first three are all very well and good, but it was the Calvados I was after. Calvados is crafted by distilling (once or twice) cider from specially grown and selected apples. The first recorded distillation was carried out by Gilles Picot, Lord de Gouberville, in the middle of the 16th century. I first came to delight in Calvados thanks to Cousin Robert. Every time we visited him in Provence, he would insist on a shot or two during and after long dinners to create the trou Normand (the Norman hole) to aid the digestion and make room for yet another course.
Although there are hundreds of Calvados producers, usually only one can be found on the shelves at the LCBO and at best it can be described as very ordinary. I wanted to learn more about this potable and was determined to try as many as I could reasonably endure (or Hélène would permit me) while in its region of production.
After visiting many Calvados shops in Bayeux and surrounds and studiously sampling their wares, we happened upon a small place specialising in the artisanal delights of the region called ‘Normandie Savoir-Faire’ located in the shadows of the Bayeux cathedral. I had spied a promising looking display at the back of the place and ambled in full of apple-flavoured anticipation. I was not to be disappointed. The affable shopkeeper smiled knowingly when I explained my quest and guided me towards the Calvados display case.
“The Calvados you have been looking for is lovingly crafted by the Pitrou family at Domaine des Cinq Autels,” he said. “Let me tell you what makes their Calvados so special. It was more than 30 years ago that Maurice Pitrou noticed that he and his apple orchard workers often felt unwell immediately after ridding the foliage and fruit of insects or enhancing the surrounding soil. So he stopped using chemical sprays and fertilizers, substituting natural alternatives. This not only put an end to the feelings of sickness, but in time Maurice noticed that his apples and hence his Calvados tasted better and better. Domaine des Cinq Autels was truly in the vanguard of organic farming.”
Calvados, like most distilled spirits, improves markedly with age. And, with age it increases markedly in price. The elixirs from Domaine des Cinq Autels were no exception. There were three ages on display – eight years, 15 years and 25 years old. Which one should I select? What was the price-enjoyment relationship? “Would you like to try them?” the shopkeeper asked. Now that was truly music to my ears. I enthusiastically accepted his kind offer. The eight year old was a very nice digestif, lots of apple on the nose along with nostril-clearing alcoholic vapours. But it did burn a tad on the way down and would no doubt create a true trou Normand, hopefully leaving my stomach-lining intact. The 15 year old was significantly more subtle, all the same flavours with a touch of caramel. It didn’t exactly burn as it assaulted my digestive track, but there was definitely a bit of fire there. Last came the 25 year old. Sheer ambrosia. Smooth as a baby’s bottom as my ole mammy used to say. It was like delicately apple-flavoured fine old cognac that warmed on the way down – no fire in the least.
So, in spite of its breath-taking price, I decided to splurge on the 25 year old. As I reached for the full-sized bottle, the ever practical (except when it comes to buying designer label togs for our granddaughter) Hélène decreed that I should instead select the half-bottle. In desperation I pointed out that we still had six days remaining in Bayeux which meant just a little over two ounces each per evening … unless, of course, she wasn’t going to have her lady’s portion. She reluctantly acquiesced and off I happily trotted with my treasure in tow.
What is truly amazing is that our 25 year old Calvados evaporated in but four evenings. “You know,” Hélène purred as the last dram sadly disappeared. “I think Calvados is even better than Cognac!”
Here’s a little hint to make your Calvados or any other distilled spirit more enjoyable. Nuke it in the microwave for 15 seconds or so. The sinus-clearing vapours are amazing.
Before I sign off for another month, I am delighted to let you to know that you can now order a couple of the wonderful champagnes from Champagne Forget-Brimont directly online at the LCBO. Read all about the winery in A Tale of Two Effervescent Cities. These are the very popular non-vintage Brut Premier Cru and Brut Rosé Premier Cru. Read all about them and how to order at Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club.