THROUGH THE DRINKING GLASS
Spirit of Normandy
How calvados, the apple brandy from the region, found its ardent followers
Normandy, France. The place witnessed the largest seaborne invasion in history when Allied troupes landed on its shores on June 6, 1944, surprising the seemingly indomitable German forces in what would later be called D-day operations. It was the beginning of the end of World War II.
Normandy had witnessed other invasions as well, including that of the Vikings. Through all those turbulent times, something else mellowed peacefully and unperturbedly under its skies — its apples.
The apple grew in enormous variety in Normandy’s undulating landscape, in its pastures and farms. It isn’t recorded when exactly but one day they must have had a surplus harvest, pressed the excess fruit, drank the juice and stored away the leftover perhaps for drier times.
The juice fermented and the mildly alcoholic cider was born. When the Arabs discovered the art of distillation, people of Normandy threw its cider into the cauldron to see how it would evolve. What came out as vapour, from distilling the apple beer, condensed into “eau de vie cidre”, soon to become their liquid heritage, Calvados.
One theory says that Calvados was named after a ship that was part of the Spanish Armada sent to conquer England in 1588. When the English Navy routed the armada, a Spanish galleon, San El Salvador, that tried to get away, wrecked on the shores of Normandy. Over the years, the place came to be known as Calvados. The new drink was to be named after the place.
Normandy has many varieties of apples but not all go into calvados. Small fruits with enough aroma to power its way through the crushing and pummelling and fermenting and distilling into the final drink are used. There are nearly 200 varieties and you can see the sheer diversity in the taste calvados can offer to a sensitive palate.
The harvest usually falls in autumn when apples are picked and pressed to juice. The “eau de vie cidre”, the distilled cider, which has a clear fruity taste, can be sipped right away, but for calvados you have to wait patiently for some more years.
Like whisky, this fascinating drink too has to sit in oak casks, brooding for a long time, breathing through and occasionally conversing with the wood, imbibing its character and colour.
As the drink gets older (a minumum of two years is needed to call it calvados), the fruity aromas blend with the subtle flavours of oak. Once the cask is opened the drink demands the care of an expert distiller. Younger calvadoses are fierier but the distiller knows better as he tames them down by ladling older ones to them, giving the final drink character.
How to Drink Calvados
The French apple brandy can be taken in more ways than one. If you want to drink it like the people of Normandy, sip it short and quick between your meals. The locals call it “le trou Normand” or the Norman hole. For they believe that calvados, if sipped between food, can magically create a hole in your stomach, where you can stuff more food. You can also hop through cafes to catch calvados in another avatar: cafe-calva, which is the drink ladled into coffee.
Calvados warms the hearts of many cocktail drinks too. James Bond, in the 1963 book, Her Majesty’s Secret Service, goes for half a bottle of Mouton Rothschild ’53 and a glass of 10-year-old calvados.
So what to do with a glass of calvados? Where to begin?
Swirl the drink gently in a balloon glass warming it with your hand. Appreciate the colour imagining the years it sat inside the oak; lift it to your nose and inhale how autumn conspired with sun on how “to bend with apples... and fill all fruit with ripeness to the core,” as Keats had sung in his ode to the season, perhaps watching “the last oozings” from a cider-press, “hours by hours”.
As your eyes feast on the amber liquid the subtle aromas of apple will take you to a distant orchard where the drink was born. The symphony orchestrated by a variety of apples and the wood can be complex for your poor taste buds, but the thrill you get from the experience is unparallelled.
Young calvados speak more of the fruits while the aged ones, especially the VSOP and XO, chatter in a woody tone. They all have ardent followers Today Calvados stands for class and elegance. If you are in Normandy, visit small distilleries that will treat you to a bottle of their brandy.
Normandy was ravaged in World War II. However, after the liberation of Normans, Allied soldiers encountered locals who unearthed barrels and bottles of calvados for them. That was how the world came to know about Normandy’s secret. It was D-day for calvados too.