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Thank you for your interest in reading newly translated chapters from "Le Livre Des Calvados", published recently in France by Christian Drouin, one of the world's foremost experts on Calvados.
This blog features three separate excerpts from his book.
Christian Drouin: "Le livre des Calvados : Des Racines Normandes, Une Ambition Mondial". Published by Charles Corlet, 2020
Translated excerpts presented here with permission of Christian Drouin.
Introduction: Calvados, the quintessence of cider apples.
The small, highly aromatic cider apple is the fruit of sun, rain and wind, a fruit that is the very soul of Normandy: yellow, red, green, russet, with a smooth skin and white flesh. It bears pretty French names – petit jaune, argile grise, argile rouge, frequin rouge, binet rouge, rouge duret, joly rouge, rouge mulot, rouge folie, pomme de cheval, pomme de Rouen, doux-évêque, belle-cauchoise, cuisse-madame, and many others.
Cider (hard cider for the American) is a beverage born from the slow fermentation of cider apple juice during the winter. This healthy, joyful drink is sweet, semi-dry, or dry.
Calvados is the quintessence of the apple. It delights both soul and palate. It is perhaps the finest eau-de-vie in the world!
If you have doubts, pour an old Calvados into a tulip-shaped wine glass, preferably made of crystal. Turn it slowly so it coats the sides of the glass, admire it, and then warm it slowly, slightly, in the palm of your hand; hold it up, but not too close, to your nose, and take the time to fall under its spell.
Calvados long remained a well-kept secret. It is now found in most of the big cities in this globalized world: Paris, London, Stockholm, Milan, New York, Tokyo, Moscow, Singapore, Hong Kong and many others. The name resonates in all four corners of the world like a standard-bearer of the Norman flag. It draws tribute in various languages from columnists and sommeliers; it is the subject of books; starred chefs and mixologists place it with talent at the heart of their art.
For Calvados to have become a product recognized by all lovers of venerable eaux-de-vie, it took know-how and telling – in other words, distilling cider and distilling words.
The know-how or savoir faire is age-old. It is both a science and an art. The history that transformed wild apples from the ancient forests of Normandy into the Calvados we now know spans centuries. It was necessary to identify the soils, select the varieties, improve them through successive grafting, care for and prune the apple trees. Then it was necessary to establish subtle combinations of bitter, bitter-sweet, sweet, tart, sour, early, mid-season, late apples, and harvest them by shaking and beating the tree; then gather, mash, crush or grate, squeeze the pulp to extract the juice, place in tanks, barrel, and rack.
Once fermentation is over, the must that has turned into fermented cider enters the mysterious world of stills and retorts. The distiller, heir to the alchemists, exposes the cider to flames in pot stills in the Pays d’Auge, and column stills in the Domfrontais; then cuts the heads and the tails to keep only the heart - the "Coeur de chauffe", a colorless, ardent, scented eau-de-vie, « la blanche », destined to spend a long time in oak casks: casks made from Normandy oak, Limousin oak, Hungarian oak, new wood from which the sap has been removed, and wood used to age Port, sherry or Madeira wines. With the discrete complicity of the wood, the air and time, the eau-de-vie acquires color, bouquet and body: yellow, gold, orange, topaz, amber, mahogany, and weak or strong, refined, distinguished, ordinary or coarse smells of fresh fruit, apple, pear, dry fruit, flowers, and spices. And then the next step is to top up, barrel, blend (assemblage) or vintage (millesime), filter, bottle, transport, pay various taxes before drinking!
Calvados in all its forms: Sélection, Vieux, VSOP, XO, Hors d’Age, Age Inconnu; and also in long drink, short drink, flambage, déglaçage, à la Normande, Vallée d’Auge, Trou Normand, sorbet, granité, digestif. Calvados makes for good digestion just as it fires the senses.
Long confined to its area of production owing to an iniquitous decree of King Louis XIV, Normandy cider apples transmuted by the magic of alchemists have resumed their glorious march. Strengthened by their know-how, distillers have turned into communicators.
They talk about Normandy eau-de-vie as though it were a beautiful woman, admiring her robe, legs, brilliance, scent, an eau-de-vie you kiss squarely on the mouth in an endless embrace! An eau-de-vie that monopolizes our senses.
Calvados, great lord of a hedonistic culture, holds out the promise of voluptuousness.
And maybe that is the fourth state of the Normandy cider apple, that of a potion, a marvelous beverage, similar to the one drunk by Tristan and Isolde, who thereby became lovers.
Chapter 1 - CALVADOS, THE SOUL OF NORMANDY
Calvados, the apple spirit world’s granddaddy is born in Normandy, and is the product of its soil, its climate, its inhabitants’ work, and history.
Normandy was molded by North Men or Vikings; Scandinavian seafaring pirates and traders, who invaded both sides of the river Seine as well as the nearby northwestern coast of France in the 9th century. The first Viking leader to rule Normandy under the name of Count of Rouen was Rollo, the founding of Normandy being considered as effective in 911 when a treaty was signed between French King Charles Le Simple and Rollo. Later in 1066 at the battle of Hastings, Rollo’s descendant, William the Conqueror conquered England, which was ruled by Normans until the mid13th century.
More powerful than the kingdom of France in the Middle-Ages, the ancient Duchy of Normandy has remained a most striking region. Its wealth and glory mainly come from the versatility of its landscapes mingling the pale blue of the sky with the haze of white clouds, the beige of large sandy beaches, the white of steep chalky cliffs and the multiple shades of its fields and meadows where cows and horses graze in the shade of orchards. The quality of the soil combined with the influence of humid, damp weather on a region where the sun often shines several times a day explains why cattle and horse breeding and apple orchards are on equal footing in Normandy.
The rich, thick, green grass of Pays d’Auge and Manche which « Normande » cows pasture enables them to produce some of the best milk and dairy products France has to offer. There is nothing like fresh Norman butter or double cream, the ivory colored, thick, velvety cream. The same cow milk is used to produce Norman cheese, among which four have an « Appellation d’Origine Protégée »: Neufchâtel, produced in Pays de Bray, in the North of Normandy, Camembert de Normandie, the world-famous Norman cheese, Pont-L’Evêque and Livarot produced in the heart of Pays d’Auge.
115,000 horses are bred in Normandy. Le Haras National du Pin, created by King Louis XIV and famous for being the Château de Versailles of horses, is just one of the many sites for horse lovers as is the « Pôle International du Cheval » in Deauville. Deauville-Normandy Airport’s growing traffic is partially due to horses – and their owners – travelling back and forth from one country to another. Indeed, most French champions are raised in the Pays d’ Auge on stud estates whose owners come from all over the world and who spend time in the summer jet-setting in the area on racing fields, the most famous of all being Deauville. They also play or watch Polo games, walk and sun bathe on lovely sandy beaches such as Trouville, Cabourg, Deauville and Granville, play golf on one of the numerous golf clubs in Normandy, smash balls on Norman tennis courts and admire the most gorgeous sunsets on the sea while sipping a cocktail or having dinner on the seashore in one of the places to be.
There is one constant all around Normandy: its orchards of apple trees, almost all composed of cider apple trees of many different varieties, and large, majestic pear trees, often one or two centuries old, mostly set in the Domfromtais area, around the lovely middle-aged city of Domfront.
Famous Norman apple cider and pear cider are made from the juice of these bitter, bitter-sweet, sour or sweet apples, not good for eating but savory and full of flavor as a sparkling drink, or from the juice of small tart pears, quite different from William pears. Mostly cider but also “poiré” are used not only to pair with food but also to flavor it in delicious creamy sauces, typical of Norman food. They are also increasingly used to top cocktails.
Alongside with Camembert cheese and cider, Calvados, a centuries old cider spirit, is one of the symbols of Normandy that has reached consumers all around the world.
Chapter 2.5: A production regulated under the AOC system.
Although Baron Leroy, who was to become President of INAO (National Institute of Origin and Quality), suggested, as early as 1923, to create Appellations d’Origine for ciders, pear ciders (Poiré) and cider spirits, nothing had been done by 1939 when France went to war. In 1941, the law of January 13th, 1941 was passed reserving the entire French production of spirits for the state except for brandies carrying an AOC. Only Cognac and Armagnac qualified as AOC at that time. All other spirits, including Calvados, were affected by this new law. The French Minister of Agriculture, Jacques Le Roy Ladurie, from Norman origin, wanted to protect the stock of Calvados, and undertook to formulate regulations to cover these products so as to preserve the characteristics and qualities of “noble” French wines and brandies. This regulatory mission was assigned to INAO, a public administrative institution with legal authority, under the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry Authority. INAO ensures the recognition and protection of official signs identifying the quality and origin of agricultural and food products.
Since 1942, a series of Ministerial Decrees have set strict regulations on the production of Calvados. In 1942, the AOC was granted only to those products possessing distinctive and specific characteristics, and special notoriety. Calvados du Pays d’Auge was the only Calvados admitted to this category. In addition, a new category of Appellation of Origin was created: Appellation Réglementée. Ten areas were allowed an Appellation Calvados d’Origine Réglementée, one of them being Domfrontais. Three areas were acknowledged as Appellation Réglementées « Eaux-de-vie de cidre » : Normandie, Maine and Bretagne.
These legal provisions were adopted in haste in 1942, then were revised and improved in 1984 and 1997. The disciplines that producers impose upon themselves to produce Calvados which are the quintessence of the flavor and fragrance of the cider apples grown in Normandy were also revised and strengthened.
Today, the French « Institut National des Appellations Contrôlées » recognizes the three following « Appellations d’Origine Contrôlées » :
Calvados AOC Pays d’Auge: the first AOC in Normandy
Pays d’Auge is the oldest and most famous Calvados appellation and the first Appellation Contrôlée in Normandy. Calvados Pays d’Auge is mellow and full bodied. Different types of soil can be identified in the Pays d’Auge: clay and flint, clay and green chalk, clay and limestone, silt. Clay is common throughout the Pays d’Auge. It offers ideal conditions for the shallow root system of apple trees. Cider used to make Calvados Pays d’Auge is produced exclusively using cider apples harvested in Pays d’Auge. Pear trees are also found in Pays d’Auge, mostly in hedges protecting apple orchards. No more than 30% pears can be used in Calvados Pays d’Auge. Calvados Pays d’Auge must be distilled twice in copper pot stills and aged for at least two years in oak casks.
Calvados AOC Domfrontais: mixing apples and pears
In 1984, the ten regulated appellations of the Appellation Calvados d’Origine Réglementée, were replaced by one Appellation Contrôlée named AOC Calvados. Domfrontais had the opportunity to be recognized as a specific AOC but the producers were not interested at that time. Some clandestine distillation still existed, and some producers thought they had more to lose than to gain from the constraints of an AOC. However, the national president of INAO, Jean Pinchon, and the director of BNICE (now IDAC), Alain Lecornu, thought Domfrontais deserved to be a specific AOC as this is the last surviving traditional cider pear orchard in France - and even in Europe.
Since I was deeply involved in the recognition of Domfrontais as a specific AOC, I prefer to let Charles Neal tell the story as he did in « Calvados, The Spirit of Normandy » published by Flame Grape Press. Here is the excerpt.
« In 1984 a reform was introduced that replaced the 10 regulated appellations with one appellation contrôlée simply called AOC Calvados. The Domfrontais became part of this AOC. The President of INAO, Jean Pinchon, felt the Domfrontais producers merited even more; what held them back, he felt, was their lack of initiative…Bureau national du Calvados director Alain Lecornu felt the same way… Pinchon approached Maurice Chevret, the President of the Domfront based cooperative « Les chais du verger normand » and asked if he could get behind a push for a Domfrontais appellation. Chevret responded that while he could manage the members of the cooperative, organizing the other producers in the area was far beyond his ability. Pinchon and Lecornu, observing the international success that Christian Drouin had with his Pays d’Auge brand, encouraged him to take an interest in Calvados from the Domfront region as well. Drouin suggested that Comte Louis de Lauriston, the level-headed gentleman who had brought the area together in the past, be summoned to once again unite the producers. In 1991, he was elected by the producers as the President of the Syndicat Professionnel des Producteurs de Calvados du Domfrontais… the next year the official papers were turned into the INAO proposing the creation of Appellation Calvados Domfrontais Contrôlée… but it was not until the last day of 1997 that the AOC was officially recognized ».
Unfortunately, Comte Louis de Lauriston died a few months before the official recognition, on the eve of a trip we had planned together to promote Domfrontais Calvados in Switzerland. This was a sad day.
The soil in Domfrontais contains beds of granite, buried beneath layers of clay and shale. The earth is very thin and apple trees do not grow well. The root system of pear trees finds its way within this soil, which is the reason why pear trees grow more easily. The high percentage of pear trees in the Domfrontais and the use of pears in Calvados set Domfrontais apart. Calvados Domfrontais must be produced from a minimum of 30% pears, and the apples and pears must be grown in Domfrontais. Distilled once in a column still, it must be aged for a minimum of three years in casks.
Calvados Domfrontais develops an exuberant fruity nose, a lighter and aerial style as well as some minerality.
The Calvados AOC regulation is the least strict, allowing for the spirit to come from anywhere within the designated area. It is usually produced by column distillation although no regulation forbids producing it by batch distillation in pot stills. It must be aged for at least two years.
Age and labels
Control of ageing is overseen by IDAC, which guarantees the age and authenticates the regulatory names.
Blended Calvados: the age indicated on the label is the age of the youngest component of the blend:
Trois étoiles, Trois pommes, VS (Very Special): aged more than 2 years in oak barrels.
Vieux, Réserve: aged more than 3 years.
Vieille Réserve, VO (Very Old), VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale): aged more than 4 years.
Hors d’Age, XO, Extra, Age Inconnu, Très Vieux, Très Vieille Réserve: aged more than 6 years.
Vintages: the vintage is the year of distillation. Traditionally, fruits are harvested in fall, cider ferments during winter and distillation is made the following year. For example, a vintage 1980 Calvados is produced from fruits harvested in 1979. If fermentation is completed before the end of the year, the distillation may take place in the same year. A producer may also keep his cider one more year in barrel before distilling it. Producers can sell vintages as long as they are able to prove that 100% of the content of the bottle was distilled in the year specified on the label. Controls are very strict.
The indication of « Calvados Fermier » on a label indicates that the farmer produces Calvados exclusively from fruits grown on his farm.
Chapter 4.2 New Rituals
Calvados is now riding the wave of new trends: food pairing, on the rocks and cocktails. With the development of a lighter style of cuisine and more casual types of meals (tapas, finger food), the digestive qualities of Calvados that used to be quite appreciated by hearty eaters are less in demand. Forbidding smoking in public places as well as alcohol tests have also induced lower consumption of digestives. However, the desire for Calvados has not disappeared and new trends are substituting traditional rituals.
- Pairing Calvados and Cheese
A good meal in Normandy features great cheese from the Pays d’Auge: Camembert, Pont- l’Evêque and Livarot. Round shaped, well-matured Camembert de Normandie gets slightly pale orange spots on its rind whereas the inside turns into a lovely fresh butter color. Square-shaped Pont-L’Evêque, one of the oldest cheeses from Normandy, is made of unpasteurized cow's milk and takes about six weeks to fully ripen. As for Livarot, likewise made of unpasteurized cow's milk and matured for about four weeks, its orange-colored rind is wrapped in five sedge rings. It is a cheese with a strong smell and delicious, specific flavor.
Yet, as cheese must never stand alone, the question often asked about cheeses that come from one of the few regions of France that does not produce wine is « Which wine should one serve?” Charles Quittanson, a writer and oenologist, claims that you will astonish your guests by serving not a great red wine, but a high-class Calvados. This is particularly important considering that well-matured cheese overpowers any wine you may care to serve. Livarot cheese can be paired harmoniously with older Calvados Pays d’Auge. This was recommended by Alain Senderens and written on the menu when he reigned over Lucas Carton restaurant in Paris with its three Michelin stars.
Normans are unanimous: for Martine Nouet, an expert in food and spirits pairing, « there is no wine that converses harmoniously with Norman cheese, whereas Calvados, depending on the kind of cheese, makes for a perfect alliance. Pont-L’Evêque, with its creamy texture, enhances the fruitiness of Calvados Hors d’Age. Calvados Domfrontais, lively and fruity, is the best match for Camembert, while Livarot, with a stronger flavor, goes very well with older Calvados and its overtones of spice and baked apples».
Pierre Androuet, who was viewed as the greatest cheese expert of the 20th century, also recommended Calvados with extra-ripe cheese such as Livarot. My wife and I asked him for advice on a book we were publishing under the name « Au Cœur de la Cuisine Normande ». In a letter he sent us, he also recommended Norman ciders: “ Given the range of Normandy cheese, their degree of maturity and the intensity of their flavor, one should serve a good, typical cider with mature Camembert, a slightly more robust cider with Pont-L’Evêque and an even more powerful cider with a Livarot worthy of the name”.
Matching such cheese and Calvados seems so obvious that it is sometimes celebrated by cheese-makers or those in charge of the last stages of the cheese maturing process: Camembert macerated in Calvados is exported all over the world! The crust of this Norman Camembert is slightly scratched and the cheese is then soaked in Calvados for a few hours. To keep the aromas, it is then covered with very fine breadcrumbs. Pont-L’Evêque can be treated in the same way. As for family cooking, at home, you can simply beat some spoonful of Calvados into the smooth paste of a cream cheese. Nowadays Norman cheeses are fortunately available in most American cities. With the development of international trade, Calvados and cheese combinations are no longer limited to Norman cheese. They are becoming increasingly subtle: Thomas Girard, chief bartender at Hexagone in Paris, recommends pairing « Calvados Pays d’Auge Christian Drouin finished in a Muscat de Rivesaltes cask » with Stilton, the king of British cheeses.
I was fortunate to meet Fabien Degoulet, the 2015 world champion cheese-monger. As he worked in Japan for 10 years as a specialist cheese-maker and has given lectures all over the world, his views on likely marriages between cheese and cider products are anything but regional. To quote him:
We currently distribute cider, poiré, Calvados, Armagnac and Cognac to fine restaurants, bars, clubs, wedding venues and specialty retailers in the states of WA, CA, NH and Maine through Beauchamp Imports, Inc. To request a tasting for your licensed establishment, or to inquire about distributing our products, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to sharing our portfolio of fine products with you!