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The soil of coastal Normandy produces the tannic cider apples that make Calvados one of the world's great brandies.

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Spirit Stories

Thanks for the Memory: An Unforgettable Drink

by Michael Jackson

     Barely 20 years old and looking for La Belle France, I had ventured no farther than the American Drugstore on the Champs-Elysées. I was sitting on the terrace drinking an unmemorable red wine. I had been told that's what people did in Paris.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]A young woman came around selling the Herald-Tribune from a hefty canvas bag slung over her shoulder. She had red hair, green eyes and an engaging smile. She was a student at the Sorbonne. We exchanged a little banter about the news. She knew something about the pieds noir, whatever they were, and I offered some worldly wisdoms from Washington, D.C. I tried to sound as though it were the 1930s and I worked for The Kansas City Star.
I took her to the Blue Note to hear Chet Baker. She taught me to drink Calvados with my morning coffee. We were an item for three weeks -- "a news item," she laughed. I was as hip as Hemingway until she discovered that I did not know how to eat artichokes. In an affair of the heart, that was terminal.
A sympathetic friend suggested that I vanquish her from my mind and drop Calvados from my repertoire. I can forget neither, and the girl with the red hair still haunts my dreams.
My well-intentioned confidant knew little more than I did. He had been told that the morning "café-calva" was a peasant's drink, introduced to the city by drones in need of a kick-start. His informant said it was "a cheap, harsh hit of warming alcohol." I had heard that said of other good drinks. In my heart, I knew that such dismissive comments usually came from people whose noses were too far from the earth.
Soil, sea and sweat are elemental to good food and drink. The soil of coastal Normandy, especially the clay and limestone of the Pays d'Auge, south of Deauville, produces the tannic cider apples that make Calvados one of the world's great brandies.
Since my failed attempt to be a hipster, Calvados has itself become more sophisticated, refining its system of appellations in 1984 and 1998. Around 500 varieties of apple, some unique to one village, are registered for use. They are categorised into four styles according to acidity, bitterness and sweetness. All four styles must be represented, with a minimum of 10 percent being acid styles. Calvados bearing the appellation Pays d'Auge is run twice through a pot still similar to that used for cognac. Other Calvados may be column-distilled. Combine the tannins of the apples with those of the oak used in maturation, and you have an interplay of flavours that is powerful and intense yet has great complexity.
One new idea in Calvados has been adapted from another spirit much enjoyed by the French: the malt whisky of Scotland. Like the whisky distillers, some Calvados houses are beginning to use casks that previously matured sherry, port or Malaga. A particular proponent of this technique is grower, distiller and negotiant Christian Drouin, whom I visited not long ago. His Distillerie des Fiefs Sainte-Anne Coudray-Rabut is near Pont-Lévque on the road from Deauville.
Drouin is active also in the region around Domfront, which produces Calvados with a blend of apples and pears. Drouin's father produced Calvados, and as a child Drouin wanted to be a farmer. Instead he somehow became an economist in Montreal. Now, "memories of youth" have brought him back.
Drouin is one of the new generation of producers featured in a new book, Le Calvados (published in French by Flammarion, at 40 euros). "Norman roots are deep," writes author Martine Nouet. "I can't stand 'golden' apples. Give me the real thing, and I feel emotional even making a pie. When I was a child, there would be family Sunday lunches, finishing with Calvados and coffee. When everyone had retired to play cards, I would go round the table drinking the dregs. I was about six at the time."

World copyright Michael Jackson. This article appeared in a slightly different form in The Observer, London.

Michael Jackson is a world-renowned beer authority and author and a longtime contributor to the Celebrator Beer News.

Copyright 2003, Celebrator No material herein may be reprinted without permission of the Celebrator Distributed On the W3 For personal, non-commercial enjoyment and use only. Cheers!

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