Visiting the French Countryside
While I wouldn’t call it a common question, I’ve started to get more and more email requests over the last few years from K&L customers and blog readers who want to make their own spirited pilgrimage to France. They’ve been drinking all these wonderful small production brandies we’ve been buying for the last eight years and now they're considering visiting the actual “distilleries." There’s only one problem: most of the producers we buy Calvados, Cognac, and Armagnac from are not places of business one can visit; rather they’re private farms, residences, or simply warehouses without staff on hand. Most producers don’t even own their own still; they pay someone to do the distillation for them. So when I read a new message that asks: “David, can you help me set up a tour at Camut in Normandy?” I have to politely explain to them that not only is there is no tour, most of these places are empty or abandoned unless you have an appointment. Of course, the only reason you would make an appointment would be to buy something or set up an export order. If you wanted them to meet you at the property, open up the barn, and walk you around the orchard/vineyard just so you can taste, take some photos, and create a positive memory they’d be a bit confused.
That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of places you can visit throughout France’s spirit-producing regions because there are. As long as you have a car, a very good GPS system, and at least an intermediate grasp of the French language, you can do just fine. It's just that the places that are set up for tourism are generally the negotiants or larger producers who can afford to man a gift shop during retail hours. If you can imagine driving around the California Central Valley, looking for handwritten cardboard signs that say “peaches” or “fresh produce,” it’s a bit like that. Not only can you buy brandy from these roadside stops, there are small jars of confit, jams and jellies, and other local delicacies on hand to round out the selection. The producers we generally buy from, however, do not fall into that category. When we make an appointment we’re almost always sitting in the quaint living room of the farmer (who speaks absolutely zero English), tasting through barrel samples in order to put together a shipment. I’m sure if you knocked on their front door, explained who you were and offered to buy a case of cider or a few bottles of brandy, they would happily receive you. It’s just that the potential for a very uncomfortable encounter is incredibly high if you’re not there to buy something and that potential is doubled if you can't explain your rather odd request in the local tongue. Imagine a K&L super fan from Poland coming into the store unannounced, trying his best to communicate his love of our company, and asking for a tour of the wine warehouse and the office space because he wanted to see how our operation worked. We would probably oblige him after figuring out what exactly he wanted, but it would be totally unexpected and definitely a bit awkward.
I can see why many folks might assume that regions like Calvados would be user friendly, however. In America today just about every brewery, winery, and distillery has a robust tourism program, equipped with tasting room managers and tour guides, fully-stocked gift shops along with social media outreach ready at your beckon call. Many of them now offer lodging on site to make sure you keep coming back! Therefore, we assume it’s like that everywhere. Rather than continue to disappoint people by crushing their dreams of a romantic trip through the French countryside, I thought I’d spend some time this trip seeking out a few places you can visit and that are worth traveling to. One of the biggest buzzkills I regularly lay upon potential travelers is the distance between producers and the major French hubs. Simply put: in order to spend twenty minutes tasting with one small producer you’re going to spend hours driving to nowhere, only to have to turn around and drive hours back to where you came from. I'm getting paid to do this, so I can't complain, but for the vacationing tourist I think it would be nice if there were a few other interesting sites in the area to make the drive worth doing, right? That's why I'm recommending to anyone interested in Calvados a visit to the Norman town of Bayeux. It's not only a great little village with plenty of historical hotspots (like the Nôtre Dame cathedral above originally built in 1077), it's on the way to another important site that I think every American should experience.
When you look at Omaha Beach and down the stunning Norman coastline, such a peaceful and tranquil place to sit and think, it's difficult to juxtapose the setting with thousands upon thousands of young soldiers laying motionless upon the sand. The World War II museum at the infamous battle site does an incredible job of helping you understand the gravity of what happened, however. I was particularly moved while watching a short documentary about some of the heroes of that day; one of them was a pilot from Ceres, California, right next to where I grew up in Modesto. It was hard not to tear up.
I would recommend starting in Bayeux, getting a bite to eat and at any of the lovely bistros in town (there's a nice one next to the church called Le P'tit Resto, not to be confused with the one next to it called Au P'tit Bistro), and having a look at the famous tapestry woven in the 11th century to document the accounts of William the Conquerer. After that, spend a few hours at the Omaha Beach museum and cemetery because I can promise you you're going to have a better appreciation for Calvados and the special bond that will forever unite America with Normandy. Even generations later, there are few who have forgotten what the American soldiers sacrificed on D-Day and the liberation of the region that followed soon after. You're going to need a strong drink after working through some of those powerful emotions.
When you're ready for some Calvados, you can drive about two minutes down the road from the cemetery parking lot over to la Ferme de la Sapinière, one of the best brandy producers in the area. Not only are the cider and spirits delicious, there's a great shop and warehouse you can visit to get a better understanding of the process. There's at least one person there who speaks English if your French isn't adequate, and they're set up for visitors with no appointment necessary. Charles and I spent a good half hour there, talking with the family that owns the property and tasting through the various selections. We both thought the quality was high.
The orchards at Sapinière are right next to the water, so when you buy a bottle that says "Omaha Beach" on the label it's not some petty marketing attempt to capitalize on the historical significance of the locale. The apples are literally grown and harvested less than a kilometer from the shore and you can see the trees from the cemetery are you look south away from the water. If you're heading to Normandy for some booze tourism, I'd create an entire day on your agenda just to take in the sites in Bayeux, Omaha Beach, and Sapinière. For me, it was one of the most complete and moving afternoons I've ever spent abroad; the full spectrum of food, drink, work, and play, along with a better understanding and appreciation for the world we live in.