On the Trail

The Norman Invasion

David Driscoll

No region of France is as fairytale-esque in my opinion as Normandy, the northern territory that sits along the English Channel, famous for its role in WWI as well as its outstanding apple-based spirits and textural cheeses. Over the past five years I've been lucky enough to visit the region on five separate occasions, each time bonding a bit more with the small towns that scatter Normandy's bucolic landscape and the people who make it their home. As a result, I've been looking to bring a bit of Norman culture back with me to the K&L spirits selection.

The typical Norman house is also like something out of a bedtime tale. The architecture is usually half-timbered and half-thatched, creating an iconic country look that practically begs for a strong and warming beverage. There's something about the atmosphere and the environment that gets into your bones. It's like a dream of what you imagine Europe to be as a child.

When I travel Normandy on behalf of K&L, I'm generally on the hunt for one particular spirit: Calvados, the apple or pear-based brandy that's ubiquitous in the region. The apple beverages are plentiful, however, and extend far beyond distilled spirits. There's hard apple cider in a variety of different forms: sweet or dry, clean or funky, old or young, juicy or earthy. There's pommeau, a sweet apple wine-like beverage made by fortifying pressed apple juice with Calvados. There are pear ciders as well, as well as pear-based pommeaux. There are orchards everywhere, and usually there are a few cows staring back at you from within them if you venture to look. The livestock form a symbiotic relationship with the trees, eating the weeds around them, fertilizing the soils, and maintaining the fields. 

Most Calvados producers are farmers by trade, meaning they making a number of different agricultural products besides apple brandy. They're usually masters of cheese, butter, and other dairy-based products as well as distillers. There are few actual distilleries in Normandy, but rather traveling stills that make the rounds to each ranch during harvest and distillation time each Fall. I stopped by Michel Huard last December and caught the entire family gathering around the wood-fired alembic, feeding the boiling cider into the distillation pot.

This was my second trip to Michel Huard, but my first attempt to work out an exclusive K&L batch of Calvados with the rustic producer. While I had tasted single casks the last time around, this time I was determined to do some blending. I was looking for a very specific flavor profile and I was hoping to create it by combining young and old brandies together. They were more than happy to accommodate my requests and pulled a number of different samples for me to play with.

Since it happened to by my birthday, they also prepared a few snacks on my behalf. Fresh Norman cheeses, cider, pommeau, and a number of different casseroles and tarts. We sat outside next to the still and inhaled the smell of steaming apple vapors bubbling around us. It was as picturesque of a day as I've ever experienced abroad.

After lunch there were apple pastries, apple pies, apple tarts, and apples with ice cream. I washed them all down with a glass of Calvados and a second helping of pommeau. 

And, yes, we did work out that K&L exclusive Calvados blend: A mix of 7 and 17 year Huard brandies, this is the first Calvados we've imported that focuses more on the apple skin, the peel, the earth, and the complexities underneath the fruit. The nose is entirely contradictory, however. The brandy smells of delicious, juicy, pure apple flavor. The first sip is where the contrast makes itself known. Gone are the sweet apple notes, replaced by unmistakable flavors of bitter apple skin and earthy cider. You can almost taste yourself in a wet orchard just after the rain falls. In a sense, that's where we were when we put together this blend. The December weather was cold, the ground was wet and earthy, and this Calvados was just what we needed to fend off the piercing Norman air. This Vieux is a testament to that day and those influences.

-David Driscoll