The Norman Holemaker.  

An apple a day may be good for you, but in Normandy, France, the home of Calvados they prefer to take their medicine in liquid form. It is a  tradition that during the evening meal, a glass of local apple brandy is drunk in one gulp. This is the trou Normand, or "Norman holemaker" to settle the stomach and re-awaken the appetite in between dishes. As Norman gastronomy is rich in butter and cream, and the local cheeses Camembert, Livarot and Pont I'Eveque, the trou Normand seems a sensible suggestion. 

Throughout its history the apple has been a pillar in the economic and cultural welfare of Normandy,  symbolised on the flag of the general council of Calvados. Today, the region's orchards continue to flourish,  totalling over nine million trees. Orchards vary from those with tall, well established apple trees in  traditional  countryside, where cows graze in their shade;  to those orchards with shorter, younger plantings devoted solely to the production of fruit. Here, the grass is regularly machine-mowed so as to form a lawn which will cushion the fall of the apples. The locals will tell you that the best seasons to visit are the Spring (just imagine a bouquet of nine million trees covered with pink and white blossom)and the Autumn, when the air is heavy with the scent of ripening apples. This scent is also captured in every bottle of Calvados, even at a venerable age, Calvados never loses the bouquet of ripe apples. While over ten million bottles of Calvados are sold each year (with 50% exported), this classic spirit is only beginning to enjoy a well deserved revival as one of the world's great after dinner drinks.

The first  written reference to the distillation of cider with a view to obtaining  brandy dates back to the 28th  March 1553, in a diary by an agronomist and gastronomer from the Cotentin, the Lord of Gouberville. He commissioned the blacksmith in Mesnil-au-Val on the Cotentin Peninsula to build him a still for the making of brandy from apples.  Whether Gouberville was a forerunner or whether he was referring to something which was common practice is not known, but it was during the same period, in 1600, that the apple brandy distillers guild was established. This was how apple brandy first obtained its birth certificate. Its Christening, however, did not take place for another 200 years when the "El Calvador", a vessel from the Spanish Armada shipwrecked on the rocks off the coast of Normandy. One of the coastal villages in apple country took the French version of this name of the galleon before it was adopted for the region's now-famous spirit.

Norman apple brandy gradually caught on around Europe to the extent that in 1684 the English apple growers were challenged to produce brandy from their cider to stop the flood of 'foreign brandy.'  In France, before the Revolution, the sale of Norman apple brandy was limited to the area in which it was produced as a way of protecting the market held by the long established wine-based brandies, Armagnac & Cognac. In 1792 and 1793 these rules were liberalised and apple brandy from the production area nearest to Paris benefited. Calvados reached a new level of popularity in the French Capital in 1942, the same year the spirit was granted the "Appellation d'Origine Controlee" status, a set of rules designed to guarantee and maintain the  quality of the product and its century-old traditions. 

Calvados Appellations

The designated area where apple trees for making brandy are grown is overall quite large,  running south of the mouth of the Seine (with one pocket to the north) down to the Cotentin peninsula and inland for around 95kms. However the growing area has been further subdivided into one appellation and 10 regulamentee areas, and only parts of each can be planted. The best area is the appellation Pays d'Auge, around and inland from Lisieux. Whereas in the other ten regions the calvados can be made in a continuous still, in Pays d'Auge it must be made in the double distillation pot still. The varieties of apples used; the type of pressing and fermentation; the distillation and the ageing process are also regulated. Apple brandy that does not fill the criteria is called 'Eau de vie de cidre'. These are usually produced outside of the A.O.C. area, mainly in Brittany, but can also be of high quality.

There are three named types of A.O.C. with slightly different regulations:

1. 'AOC calvados' - the basic appellation making over 70% of  total production.
- Spirits are required a minimum of two years ageing in oak barrels.
- The 'terroir' (geographical / climatic characteristics) is defined.
- The apples and pears are specific cider varieties.
- Production processes like pressing, fermentation, distillation and ageing are regulated.
- Distillation is usually by single column still.

2. 'AOC calvados Pays d'Auge', the most quality-oriented appellation. When labelled calvados Pays d'Auge the calvados have fulfilled  the basic requirements of the  A.O.C. together with several additional requirements, including:
- Ageing for minimum of two years in oak barrels.
- Double distillation in an alembic pot-still.
- Production within a designated area.
- A minimum of six weeks fermentation of the cider before distillation.
- Control of flavouring elements.

3. 'AOC calvados Domfrontais'. Brandies from this region are made of at least 30% pears. The appellation was created in 1997 and reflects the long tradition of pear orchards in the area.  In contrast to the Pays d'Auge, the southern appellation of Calvados  has clay and limestone soil better suited to the strong, deep roots of pear trees.   The inclusion of pears makes not only for a lighter-coloured spirit, but also one which emits a more feminine and elegant bouquet. The regulations are similar to the A.O.C. calvados and require:
- A minimum of 30% pears to be used from the designated areas.
- A three-year minimum of ageing in oak barrels.
- Orchards to consist of at least 15% pear trees (25% from the sixteenth harvest).
- The column still is used.

Lastly, 'farm-made' (fermier) calvados is still occassionaly encountered  both inside and outside the Pays d'Auge, a descriptor which indicates that the calvados is made entirely  on a farm in a traditional agricultural way according to high quality demands. Pommeau - a sweet blend of two-thirds apple juice and one-third calvados aged in oak, produced for centuries by Norman farmers, is also officially recognised and gained its own Appellation d'Origine Controlee in 1991. Appellation information partly sourced from:

Production of Calvados

After the devastation of World War II, many cider-houses and distilleries were reconstructed, mainly in the Pays d'Auge region of Normandy. Some traditional farmhouse structures have been replaced by modern agriculture with high volume output, although many ancient cider presses with circular millstones made of granite [right] can still be seen throughout the Normandy countryside, standing like monoliths to the region's heritage.

Today,  there are generally four parts to the calvados story: the farmer, the co-operative, the distiller and the merchant. But before the farmer delivers his crop of apples to the local co-operative for processing into cider, (though some also distil), we must return to the orchards. For the production of quality Calvados begins with the apple - and not just any apple. Normandy's cider apples  tend to be small and tart, closer in type to powerfully aromatic crab apples, than to modern table apples. Some are sweet (Rouge Duret), others are acid (Rambault) or bitter sweet (Argile rouge, Binet rouge, Saint Martin, Mettais and Frequin). Traditional producers grow 20 to 40 varieties of apple, ensuring the production of a juice containing the necessary sugar, tannins and acidity. The secret of the flavour is said to be in the fruit size. As a rule, the smaller the apples, the greater the aromatic intensity. 

There are three different periods of ripening: Early season apples (which ripen in September); mid season apples (ripening from October to mid-November) and late-season apples, (harvested in December and generally stored until January). The mid and later season apples are used for the production of Calvados. Early season apples would have to be mashed when temperatures are still too high for the production of quality cider for distillation. Traditionally the harvest was carried out by shaking the branches of high stem trees. The apples would fall onto tarpaulins spread out below then gathered by hand and placed in sacks. Quality producers will hand pick and hand sort apples to avoid  damaging  the fruit and produce the most desirable cider (1).  Apples to be used for calvados would be stored on the floor, piled to a height of about 70 centimetres or kept in open worked wooden boxes called 'padox' (2)

The apples must all be equally ripe when the crusher transforms the apples into a homogeneous pulp.  The pulp is left to work for a few hours allowing the apples to soften, making it easier to extract the juice, tannins and aromas once the pulp is conveyed to a hydraulic batch press, which extracts the juice by squeezing. Most of the flavour is extracted from the skin and not from the pulp. Compared with cider for drinking, cider used for distillation is fermented until crisp dry. The fermentation takes place in large oak barrels or stainless steel tanks (3) taking anything from six weeks to a year depending on the producer. The juice can then be aged for a further year before distillation.

 1.  2.  3.

As in Armagnac, many early stills were mounted on wheels so they could travel the countryside bringing their skills  to farms, and this is still practised today. Pot stills are used for the production of AOC Calvados Pays d'Auge. During distillation, only the pure middle part, the alcools de coeur is kept, and this is distilled a second time, with again only the middle part kept, and the remainder going back for redistillation. The liquid produced is not called calvados but "eau de vie de cider" and is colourless with strength in the region of 70% Alc./Vol. In general the flavour of calvados distilled in double distillation is more complex compared to that distilled in a continuous still.

The continuous still or column still is used for the production of "AOC Calvados" and "AOC Calvados Domfrontais." It is easier to control and runs continuously, making it a safer and cheaper choice. Distillation takes place in a single operation. The cider enters the top of one column, passing downwards from plate to plate. The more volatile compounds evaporate out due to the heat and the vapour given off. These vapours condense in a second column producing a liquid with again strength in the region of 70% Alc./Vol.

Maturing & Blending
The fiery young spirit is then sold to a merchant who ages it, usually in Limousin casks, though used port and sherry casks are also employed (these yield fewer bitter tannins and  gives finer colour, more body and greater aromatic richness). A  minimum of two years or three years in the case of Calvados Domfrontais is required but much spirit is aged for a great deal longer - some between 20 - 60 years -  often firstly in small new casks and then in older larger barrels. As time goes by the most volatile compounds that give the young calvados its burning mouthfeel disappear. The spirit extracts various substances from the wood, including tannins that give it colour and body. Its bouquet intensifies and its colour changes from golden to deeper and deeper shades of amber.  Whilst in the cask the calvados evaporates through pores of the wood and this is known as the "Angels share", representing an annual loss of between 1 and 3 percent in volume. (This can rise to 6 percent from smaller casks). This loss is compensated for by the concentration and complexing of aromas in particular, improving overall quality. Hence big casks are often half filled to increase evaporation. Once deemed mature, the merchant blends the spirit before selling it under his own name.

With blended Calvados, the age indicated on the bottle is that of the youngest Calvados in the blend. Thus a Calvados labelled as 20 years old may contain Calvados which is still older. Remember that once the Calvados is bottled it evolves no more. So it's the length of time in the cask that is the critical factor. When the label states a year it indicates that the Calvados originates from a lone distillation during the stated year. There are several basic designations of quality: 

  • 1.    * Fine * Three Apples * Three Stars * Original
    Refers to Calvados aged for a minimum of 2 years in oak casks. The product is generally a pale shade of yellow, has a straight-forward fruity flavour and can be enjoyed in cooking, cocktails, well chilled as a shot or with ice as an aperitif.
  •  2.   * Reserves  * Vieux   * Young Domfrontais
    The Calvados has been aged for a minimum of 3 years in oak casks, is the colour of straw and light amber with a flavour of fresh fruit. It can be enjoyed as an aperitif, in cocktails, as a shot or as a digestive.
  •  3.   * VO * VSOP * Old Reserve
    The Calvados has been aged for a minimum of 4 years in oak casks and is yellow with darker strokes of amber and gold. The typical flavour profile will consist of tangy apples, dried fruits, balanced with nut and chocolate. Enjoyed as a digestive.
  •  4.   * XO * Napoleon  * Hors d' age   * Age Inconnu   * Extra and First Rate
    The Calvados has been aged for a minimum of 6 years or up to 60 years+ in oak casks. It is dark gold or brown with an orange, ruby or mahogany hue. It generally has a round, smooth texture, a delicate flavour and aromas reminiscing of its origins - wood and ripe fruit. To be enjoyed on rare occassions.

Note: Apple Brandy is also produced in other countries where these labeling requirements will not apply. For example, in the United States we find "Applejack", as Apple Brandy is called there.  

Enjoying Calvados

Calvados is most typically served straight and at room temperature. The more common aromas are ripe apple, peach, apricot, vanilla, wood, caramel, tobacco and leather. These characteristics are often echoed on the palate. Calvados is also amongst the most versatile of spirits. It can be served as an aperitif, blended in drinks,  as a digestive and has a long tradition of culinary use in Normandy. 

For cocktails or mixing, younger examples of  Calvados are recommended. Calvados with Tonic Water at a ratio of 1 to 7 is a harmonious marriage.  A dash of Creme de Cassis Liqueur added to Calvados is deliciously different, sweet on the surface, dark and spirity underneath. An espresso or small strong black coffee with a shot of Calvados was for a some time the only way coffee was drunk in France. In the farmhouses and inns of Normandy, when people have drunk their coffee and while the cup is still warm, they pour a little Calvados on to what remains in the cup ; the Calvados takes warmth from the remaining heat and  captures the coffee flavour. The blend of tastes is apparently best experienced  with coffee made from beans from Haiti or from Permanbuco in Brazil, which have a hint of apple flavour.

Cocktails have a long tradition in Normandy and Calvados can suitably replace many spirits such as tequila, rum or whiskey. Here are two cocktails specifically created for Calvados:

Cocktail: Po Pomme 

  • Put in a mixing glass with some ice cubes:
    6/10 Calvados
    4/10 Cherry Brandy
    2 splashes of Angostura Bitters

Stir well long and serve in large tumbler glasses. Top off with cider (brut). Decorate to taste with some parts of apple and 3 preserved cherries.

Cocktail: Golden Dawn
Created at the Grosvenor House, Park Lane, London, and recipient of the top prize at the International Cocktail Competition in 1930

  • 1/4 gin
    1/4 Calvados
    1/4 orange juice
    1/4 Apricot Brandy

Shake with ice and strain into chilled cocktail glass; garnish with a cherry and drizzle a dash of grenadine into the bottom of the glass.

A Note on Apple Cider

The Australian market for cider is dominated by only a few brands and mostly owned and produced by the one brewery. Given the commercial, mass produced nature of these 'big few' it's easy to underestimate cider and write it off as 'innocuous swill.' All that's changing as quality European examples are beginning to reach our shores. Few realise what a wonderful history cider has had in many European cultures. Texts mention events such as Louis XI's ban on the production of beer, in order to use the barley to ease a famine stricken population. Farmers subsequently looked for alternative palliatives, and so a passion for cider was born. The Normans popularised cider after their conquest of England in 1066, and Spaniard Guillaume Dusus brought new apple varieties to Normandy in the 16th Century. With him, improvements in fermentation techniques lead to better quality cider. Later, in an effort to curb the dominance of imported brandy, cider was distilled, transforming into the divine spirit we know as Calvados!

European cider distinguishes those producers at the high end of the passion scale (Bress is one exception in Australia). Norman gastronomes have long known cider works brilliantly with a surprising variety of dishes. Consider the classic match of roast pork with crackling and apple sauce, braised pork or rabbit deglazed with cider or roast duck served with red cabbage and apples. Goats cheeses, especially chevre styles work particularly well with cider (a great Australian example is Holy Goat, not easy to find, but slowly making its way into Melbourne delicatessens). Slightly sweeter styles of cider, such as those produced from pears will accompany desserts like apple pie, tarte tartin, or quince flavoured ice cream.

Recipe: Pork Normandy Preparation time: 1.2 hours

For the meat
2 Pork Loins
2 tablespoons of olive oil
4 tablespoons of Butter
8 sprigs fresh thyme
Black pepper
1/4 cup of calvados

For the sauce
2 cups of calvados
2 apples peeled cored and thinly sliced
10 tablespoons sugar
1/2 stick of butter
Black pepper
1 pint of heavy cream
Preparation Method

1. Pre-heat the oven to 350F.
2. Rinse the pork; lay in roasting pan (on a rack). Rub with olive oil, salt and pepper. Pour a 1/4 cup of calvados over the pork. Lay sprigs of thyme on top. Put in oven and rotate every 20 minutes it should be medium-rare in approximately an hour and ten minutes.
3. While that's going on peel and slice the apples and put in a bowl, pour 1/2 the brandy over them and toss. Put in the fridge.
4. About 50 minutes into cooking the pork, in a sauté pan over medium-high heat melt the butter and put in the apples and calvados. Once the butter starts to caramelise, turn the heat up high then after a minute add the rest of the Calvados. Light a match and burn off the Calvados whilst shaking the pan. Once the calvados has burned off, pour in the heavy cream and mix with a wooden spoon.
5. Take out the roast and slice into medallions. Arrange them on a plate with perhaps garlic mashed potatoes and top them with the apple slices. Then drizzle the sauce over them and around the edge of the plate.