Although calvados can be dated back to Napoleonic times when it was used both as an anaesthetic and antiseptic in Napoleon’s navy, most calvados is relatively modern. However, you can still buy rare calvados which dates from the first half of the twentieth century. Calvados is made from a cidre which is produced from the apple orchards in Normandy. Apples are not generally acidic enough to start the distillation and so most firms also combine a small quantity of an acidic pear known as a Perry Pear. It is for this reason that most young calvados carry a distinctive pear drop aroma but this will start to mellow after 10 or 12 years and provide a richer apple flavour. Calvados distilled before 1960 are considered as very rare and can therefore attract quite high prices.
The History of Calvados
Of all the areas of France affected by the war, Normandy suffered the most . The neglecting of the farms and orchard were miner to the mass destruction and devastation of houses, factories and transport not to mention the death of civilians and famine in the area. Huge support was poured into the area by the allies and the region returned to a relatively rapid industrial recovery. In 1949 there were 29 larger cider houses and distilleries in the Pays d’Auge but even into 1950 the alcohol required by the government for munitions was more than 50% of that produced. However by 1953 the governments need had declined and a political decision was made to cut down on production and concentrate on quality. By 1956 the government stopped supporting the calvados industry and combined with land redistribution and rural depopulation resulted in the decline of traditional farmhouse production. There was little will to produce quality products, partly as a result of bad decisions having been made concerning varieties, distillation and ageing including State decisions to dig up and replant varieties. However, in the Pays d’Auge the tradition remains quite strong and the area produces more than a third of the apples in Lower Normandy.
Modern agriculture has changed the Pays d’Auge from the 1980’s with the replacement of the “haut-tiges”, (high stem), trees with low stem orchards which are more productive and provide a faster return on the investment at the expense in some cases of quality. In most cases these are used for cider production. Significantly though some familial orchards still plant the high stem trees where quality is still part of the family calvados tradition thus maintaining the quality calvados from the region and in 1984 the remake of the appellation system agreed to provide guarantees to the quality of the calvados and all the companies were obliged to follow the appellation rules to guarantee a level of quality of both the calvados and Pommeau, the little known sweet aperitif made from the distilled eau de vie and cidre which when served cold is not dissimilar to the Pineau from Cognac and Flox from Armagnac regions.
The German occupation of Normandy was centred around the town of Caen in the north. They set up a sort of control centre called a “Kommandantur” in the Town Hall, which was able to make systematic requisitions of alcohols produced in France. However the system bypassed cognac and armagnac as they were “Labels of Origin” – even in wartime one needs a good drink! However the calvados image was not good and in an effort to improve it and to withdraw the regionally produced calvados from the requisitions, it became recognised with an appellation d’origine in 1942. The industry was protected and effectively became the third great brandy of France from that point.
The system created three types of appellation. Firstly there was calvados from the Pays d’Auge or Calvados d’appellation controlee Pays d’Auge made of apples from controlled orchards in Pays d’Auge. Then came the second type being AOR which came from ten selected areas, the best known being calvados du Domfrontais followed by calvados du Peche, calvados du Merlerault, calvados du Cotentin, calvados de l’Avranchin, calvados du Pays de la Risle, calvados du Pays de Bray, calvados du Montainais, and calvados du Pays du Merlerault. All of these areas were combined into one appellation in 1984 known as AOC. There was however a third type for the remaining brandy and cider production from other areas which also included Brittany called the Eaux de Vie de Cidre Réglementée (cider brandy from regulated and controlled origin).
The war had a serious effect on Normandy, especially the cider and calvados producing area. Apart from the damage caused by bombing and shelling of the towns (especially Caen), the orchards became neglected. The importance of the orchards fades into oblivion when compared to the huge military operations such as Overlord and the huge loss of life in the area. Despite the horrors of war veterans witnessed pleasant encounters with the locals who dug up barrels and bottles which had been hidden from the Germans to share with the troops. Some went through the rest of the campaign with two canteens, one for water, the other for wounds.
By the turn of the 20th century calvados production had increased from 56,300 hl in 1882 to well over 300,000hl in 1900. The area of Pays d’Auge was established as the major producing territory. Most of the cider production remained where the orchards were but several cider factories settled in larger cities. Practically every canton had a distillery making a total of around 50 at the beginning of the 20th century and rising to 70 in 1914. The quality was enhanced with new techniques such as centrifugation and filtration which was controlled by regulations. Many merchants bought calvados at the farms and sold it to traders and shippers at the ports. In the country, travelling stills moving from farm to farm were common. Names like Paulette, Desbouillons and Toutin were known and had several stills on the move.
The First World War brought to an end to the good times for calvados. The orchards were a long way from the war zones but the government requisitioned all the apples and cider to make the alcohol for the armament industry. Even though a lot of alcohol was made, the development in the farms and the quality of the cider and brandy came to a halt.
The war spread the word of calvados. In the shell holes and trenches soldiers from all over France and from other countries as well fought their common enemy. Occasionally they got some respite and foods and drinks were passed around. For the first time in their lives soldiers got to taste the Normandy speciality and those lucky enough to survive took the acquired taste home with them. For the cider industry the war was bad as the soldiers had developed a taste for stronger drinks like wine and brandy in the trenches and after the war years the cider and calvados industry failed to address their markets needs, wines had started to take the lion’s share of the local market. The guaranteed income generated by the sales of apples to the government had made most producers content. In 1923, parallel to the industrial production efforts, one Baron Leroy who was president of the National institute of Labels of Origin created a label of origin for the cider and calvados industry which was to become the industry standard in the next great war.
During the eighteenth century, industrialisation had started and people had started to take jobs in the towns and in 1831 an Irishman, A Coffey designed a still that revolutionised the making of quality spirits. The “columnstill” or Coffeystill consisted of columns with a series of vapourisation chambers stacked one on top of the other. The difference from the Alembic still was dramatic as the columnstill could produce a continuous never ending flow. The French author Rousel, specified that a good part of the production of cider and brandy was intended for the navy and ships which left for fishing cod in Newfoundland. The rural population was in decline but the towns were growing and the coffee culture were opening bars and bistros to serve the nearby factories where coffee calva was served to promote the working class comfort. To the majority of the French working class these cafés became far more than places to eat and drink, they were an escape from the hard working life and places where ideas could be exchanged.
During the nineteenth century, the interest for natural science grew and the local worthies became fascinated by apples orchards and cider. Much was written on the subjects and a man called Odolon-Desnos listed hundreds of varieties of apples and pears in his book published in 1829 Traité de la Culture des Pommiers et des Poiriers et de la Fabrication du cidre et du Poiré. The first pomological association was created in Rouen in 1852 and expanded in 1883 to Saint Lo with l’Association Pomologique de l’Ouest and in 15 years included the whole of France in l’Association Française Pomologique.
The big break for calvados was still to come and came with the help of a small louse named phylloxera vastatrix which around 1874 had started to chew the vine roots in Europe. It knocked out the competition from wine and wine brandies and suddenly calvados and cider became in high demand. The following years became the “Belle Epoque” or beautiful days. In Normandy hardly any vines were replanted and the market for cider and calvados would never be better. To meet demand the orchards almost quadrupled in thirty years from 4 million hectares in 1870 to 14 million hectares in 1900 and in 1889 Fabienne Cosset concluded that cider had replaced wine in Paris.
Louis XIV, often known as the Sun King, expanded the French colonies allowing trade to develop. Art and literature increased greatly but for many of his people these were bad times, due largely to wars, poverty and crippling levies and taxes. A further difficulty was to make life even harder in the seventeenth century in that Europe experienced severe climate changes, a period that was to become known as the little Ice Age.
In Normandy wine producers suffered greatly and most pulled up their vines which had died due to the severe frosts and disease. This proved to be a natural advantage to the cider producers since the apple trees were not affected by the extreme cold. Brandy had started to become big business - but a man called Colbert, who was finance director for Louis XIV, decided that the State would like a slice of the action. He believed that the richness of a country is in the richness of its reserves in cash. Two large ordinances in 1681 and 1687 imposed taxes and rigid controls on both production and sales of several kinds of products. Luckily for the wine brandies, the cider brandies were prohibited except where the production took place in Brittany, Maine and Normandy. The prohibition lasted until the French Revolution and gave cognac a head start in the domestic and export markets that calvados never regained.
In the beginning of the eighteenth century the state set up nurseries and showed its interest in Normandy’s orchards, even encouraging competitions to stimulate the cider apple varieties. In 1758, the Canon of Caen, Charles Gabriel Porée made the first methodical classification of apples according to their flowering and harvesting periods. The majority of abbeys and convents had orchards and a press and produced ciders and cider brandies. Despite the Norman nobles and higher middle class who had prospered, the parliament in Rouen failed to set out its case against the prohibition regulations. In the eighteenth century, many of the French lived like villains and inspired by the Sun King kept a decadent lifestyle. The Revolution caused prices of food to rise rapidly and the Revolutionary Government promulgated “Tableaux de Maximum or the law of the maximum price but was abolished a year later due to the fight against inflation.
France and particularly Normandy was ravaged by battles and desolation from the mid fourteenth century right through to the nineteenth century. The Black Death killed millions of people and the climate was turning colder. Farmers were ruined and people had to carefully store their food for the winter months, but apples provided the perfect food. Different varieties would fruit at different times, they could be dried and better still, ciders were made and stored. At the beginning of this period there were more than three hundred varieties of apples.
The port of Cherbourg became important and was a regular trading post for traders who travelled from Spain and further afield to the ports around the English and Dutch coasts. Spices, perfumes, timber and even dried meats were regularly traded with the fishermen and farmers in return for food and cider to help the sailors on their way with their cargoes. It soon became clear that different varieties of apple provided ciders of different colours and flavours which became classified by the apple name and producer.
One of the pioneers of the industry was a man from the Basque Provinces, Guillaume d’Ursus. He brought new grafts of apples that were rich in tannin and acid, ideal for fermentation and together with Marin Onfrey, another pioneer, worked with Julien Le Paulmier, known as the Father of Cider Pomology, to make the area of Cotentin the cradle of the cider evolution.
Le Paulmier wrote in the sixteenth century the treaty De Vino and Pomaco (Treaty of wine and cider). The book describes in detail around eighty varieties of apple and the techniques for pressing. He also pointed out that Cotentin “have the best soil for making excellent ciders while those produced in Pays d’Auge are potent and vigorous, but very often dense and badly clarified”, a reference to apples from the Domfrontais area or cru rather than the better known today, Pays d’Auge. Le Palmier had a great influence on the people, not least because he was the Kings physician, he praised the medical properties of apples. The health aspect combined with improved flavours made the ciders increasingly more popular and even the King was greatly impressed. Indeed Le Paulmier was probably the most influential name in the early history of calvados and beliefs in the medicinal benefits of the drink are still upheld today.
We see apples today as very much part of our stable diet and thousands of varieties are available in the shops. In all probability these varieties have developed from the basic fruits cultivated by the Romans. Agronomists who lived in the third century BC talk of seven varieties and Pliny in the first century AD talks of 36 varieties. However many different apples there were, cross fertilisation has developed and greatly improved the fruits over the years into a fruit we enjoy to eat. Of course all this is fine if that is what we are going to do, simply eat the apples and indeed even turning them into a cider as we know it produces an agreeable mildly sweet drink which will ferment into an alcoholic beverage in a relatively short space of time.
But that is no good for making calvados where distillation is required to reduce the cidre to a spirit and a level of acidity, usually undesirable in apple varieties grown for eating is used. Indeed so undesirable was this phenomenon that any apples found with this characteristic were sidelined for the sweeter and more pleasant eating fruits. Help was however at hand in the pear of which some varieties are known to have a higher level of acidity but even these were preferred sweeter and the Gallo-Roman Palladius tells us how the Romans prepared pear wines which they enjoyed with their cooking, there is mention in the Gourmand Apicius of a recipe of diced pork and Matien apples. There are still a few apples in existence which have a relatively high acidic value and indeed there is still at least one AOC calvados which is claimed to be made from only apples. The flavour is not one which is easily enjoyed, lacking in depth and complexity and it is easy to see how modern distillates have created greater depth of style and flavour.
It was during the thirteenth century that the skills of press and crushing techniques were enhanced. Around Caen people drank cider but the first drink was ale or wines, however cider was regarded as a better drink than water. In addition cider was sold as “cider” yet suspicious names like Succus Malorium (malus is latin for apple), “succus pomis”, “pomatium”, and “piratium”. These reminded people of potions rather than a refreshing drink but little by little the term “cidre” would start to find its way back into the language until by the Renaissance it had become the word most used for the beverage.
The apple is probably one of the oldest fruits known to man and belongs to the rose family probably easier to see by studying the rose like flower of the tree. It is believed that the ancestors of the apple originated from a tree still found wild in Kazakhstan between the Caspian and the Black Sea. The Pear belongs to the same family as the apple, the ancestor of the cider pear is the “poirasse”, found in the wild forests in the west of France. The lush valleys of Seine and Eure were home to some of the first humans, the Cro-Magnons, they ate wild apples and pears and preserved them in slices by drying them in the sun. The early writings of the Egyptians, Babylonians and Chinese talk of the gardens of Ramses II and the gardens of the Nile were planted with apples. The Romans planted many varieties recorded by agronomists like Cato Pliny and Palladius who lived in the third century BC and it is said that the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was the apple and symbolised as the fruit of love, beauty and health. The term “apple of our eye” is used when referring to someone we prize or love.
The exact origin of pressing fruit and fermenting the juice is not certain. Historians believe that the Egyptian and Byzantine civilisations made a sort of cider in the times before Christ and other civilisations had developed a form of alcoholic beverage from the simplicity of the spontaneous fermentation. The ingredients are of course simple, liquids with sugar from the fruits, grains or honey, natural yeast and air, a combination which can often occur together where quantities of fruits and their juice are stored. The areas of Normandy, Basque Provinces and the southern part of England have a tradition of making cider. The Celts and Gallic tribes are known to have cultivated wild apple trees, maintaining them in the forests and considering them as sacred. In 56 BC Caesar’s Roman legions fought their way north through France and eventually invaded Britain. With the Romans came major developments, Christianity and the opening of major new trade routes and in the centuries that followed orchards including apple trees and vines were appropriated by monasteries all over Normandy and Europe. Stabon, a Greek historian, describes the abundance of apple trees in Gaul, an area of Normandy but also mentions the “phitarra”, in the Basque regions – a beverage made by boiling sliced apples with honey.
Throughout history apples have been closely related to Normandy, the large section of coast facing north across the English Chanel stretching from Cherbourg in the west to Rouen in the east and encompassing five departments, Manche, Calvados, Orne, Eure and Seine Maritime covering thousands of square kilometres. Of course the area is famous for its coast and the pastures and farmlands like the Bocage with its gentle hills and hedgerows. The coastal Cliffs of Etretat and further along towards the peninsulas of Manche and Cotentin are of course the famous areas of the D Day landings, where the sea has carved out small coves among the granite cliffs. Gigantic tides sometimes reaching several metres high give way to wonderful sea foods and in particular oysters.
The soil unlike that of the Cognacaise is rich and fertile, the humid climate and rainfall is relatively predictable. It is a land of food in particular cheese, cream and butter and is sometimes referred to as the Paris Larder. It is the land of the Camembert, the famous soft cheese but many other rich foods such as meats and fruits are grown in abundance and shipped throughout the world from the ports along the coast such as Le Havre, Cherbourg and some of the smaller ports Deauville, Honfleur and Caen. But of course it is the cidres and the distilled Cidre of Calvados that the region is most famous for that is produced from the many varieties of apples and pears grown in the orchards seen along the roads as you drive south from the ports.
The department of Calvados is situated in the middle of Normandy and includes the towns of Cambremer, Lisieux, Livarot and Pont l’Eveque. The green hills and valleys of the main Calvados region, the Pays d’Auge is the finest region for what many Normans will call the healthiest of the French brandies for no other reason than it is made from apples, deemed healthy by the Normans who have lived off the land and its rich pickings for centuries. It is a land of history with the footprints of great names such as William the Conqueror, Joan of Arc, Monet and Marcel Proust. It is the land of the Normans, perhaps the most closely related to the English and where many of our ancestors have crossed the Channel and set up over the centuries. Over the coming months we will explore the land, the history and product.