NORMANDY BY THE GLASS
A short drive from the ferry brought Lara Dunn to a verdant land of blossom, cows and every sort of apple-based drink imaginable.
Famed for its seafood and cheeses, Normandy also has great drinks.
Think of Normandy and one of the first things that may spring to mind is cheese. Home to Camembert, Livarot, Pont l’évêque and Neufchâtel, Normandy certainly has plenty to choose from. And what is the best thing to enjoy with a tasty bit of cheese? Something apple-y should do the trick nicely. I’d been familiar with French cider for a while, and I’d heard of the famous apple brandy known as Calvados, but on arriving in the Pays d’auge area, I realised what an embarrassment of pomaceous riches actually existed.
One of the easiest, and most pleasant, ways to really get under the skin of this area is to follow the signposted Cider Route. It’s a great way of discovering small traditional producers whose orchards are still home to the cows and sheep that help manage the grass beneath the trees, and the quality of the crop. These are still family run enterprises for the most part, many handed down through the generations. The Manoir de
Grandouet in Cambremer (manoir-de-grandouet.fr) and La Galotière in Crouttes (lagalotiere.fr) were both fascinating for their stories and individual approach to making Norman cider a profitable commodity without losing the intimacy of their product. A tasting at La Galotière made me realise that my favourite drink from home on the Herefordshire/worcestershire border was also popular here in Pays d’auge, going by the name of poirée instead of perry, and with a bit of natural fizz as part of the package. The visit also brought pommeau into my lexicon of apple drinks. Like Pineau des Charentes, but made from apple spirit and juice rather than the grape products of Charente, it was delicious, and a bottle swiftly added to the ever growing haul to take home. Thank goodness for the ferry!
The apotheosis of the apple was something I’d never really experienced before, though. A visit to the incredibly scenic half-timbered farm at Calvados Christian Drouin (calvados-drouin.com/ en) explained the distilling process to me. Using a cider base sourced only from local apples, Pays d’auge Calvados must be distilled twice to meet rigorous AOC criteria, before ageing. A visit to the cellar filled with oak barrels, followed by a tasting gave an insight into the vast differences in flavour that the ageing process can bestow. There was a world of difference between a young Calvados designed to be mixed in cocktails and one from the year of my birth which was smooth and made for sipping. Christian Drouin have not rested on their laurels, however. In addition to the area’s traditional spirit, they have embraced the huge international rise in the popularity of gin. Not to be pipped at the post, Le Gin uses a clear apple spirit as the basis for the distiller’s gin recipe, which also includes other apple elements to go with the various botanicals that give it its subtle and unique flavour. Having purchased a very reasonably priced bottle (by gin standards) I was seriously wishing I had a porter, and was wandering whether a visit to AA might be in order.
After the pastoral atmosphere of Christian Drouin, a visit to the Calvados Experience (calvados-experience. com) in Pont l’évêque was quite a contrast. The brand new tourist hotspot opened earlier this year, and aims to educate the visitor as well as celebrate the not-sohumble apple and its products. The hi-tech audio-visual tour is available in several languages, and takes the visitor on a fascinating journey through the history of Calvados and its distillation processes. There was almost a Calvados theme park feel about the place as projected leaves rustled beneath our feet as we walked. A tasting area and well-stocked shop made that need for a pack-mule and a spell drying out ever more pressing.
Regrettably, but probably for the best for my health, this marked the end of my Pays d’auge alcoholic odyssey. It was time to take my bounty back home to the UK. One thing is for sure, the spirit of Normandy is certainly intoxicating.
MAIN: Rural serenity at the Manoir de Grandouet;INSERT: Cows grazing in cider orchards are a Norman tradition;TOP RIGHT: Apple blossom in spring