6.29.2014

Wine column no. 51: Calvados in celebration and in war

June 15, 2014: I am not sure what happened to the foot-tall glass jar of macerated cherries that my French grandmother would remove from her cabinet to offer guests on days when things were going especially well.

But I do know that jar, and its cherries, have a permanent place in my memory.

Victorine Bon is 94 now. A resident of an assisted living facility in St. Servan, France, she is in poor health and spends most of her time dozing in her armchair. But less than 10 years ago, my namesake who struggled through World War II and gave birth to, and raised, three children was a spry, independent woman who lived on her own, drove her own car and danced the night away at nightclubs with her friends.

And if she really liked you — if you really got her to laugh — she made sure that you tried some of her homemade macerated sour cherries from that foot-tall glass jar.

Since it’s easy to be inspired by my grandmother, we made our own version of macerated cherries using sugar and Menorval Calvados Prestige, a type of apple brandy from Normandy, France, here in Evansville on Dec. 31, 2011.

Many Evansville residents are likely familiar with Normandy as a result of the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion that ultimately led to Germany’s defeat during World War II. Just recently, in fact, the United States and France celebrated the 70th anniversary of that invasion which, beyond the beaches of Omaha, stretched into wide expanses of apple orchards and large cities like Caen.

“The tales of danger, heroism and sacrifice are many,” Henrik Mattsson wrote in “Calvados: The World’s Premier Apple Brandy: Tasting, Facts and Travel.” “The importance of cider and Calvados fades into oblivion in comparison. Despite the horrors of war, many veterans can witness pleasant encounters when liberating the Normans, who dug up barrels and bottles to give or share with the passing troops. Some went through the rest of the campaign with two canteens, one for water, the other for wounds.”

When the war ended, the troops who were able to return to their home countries told others about Calvados, and word of this deliciously potent apple brandy spread. Yet Calvados remains a relatively obscure after-dinner drink. In fact, here in Evansville, it is more often an ingredient in a complicated dinner recipe than it is a treasure to be shared, by itself, in a glass.

While there are other apple brandies, French law states that only apple brandies produced in Normandy may be called Calvados. According to Karen MacNeil’s “The Wine Bible,” the apple varieties used for Calvados include Clos Renaux, Petit Jaune, Rouge Buret and more than 115 other types of apples. These apples are either sweet, bittersweet, bitter or acidic.

About 17 pounds of apples are needed to produce this powerful elixir that many French residents choose to use as a macerating device.

Recently, I had the very last cherry from the Dec. 31, 2011, Mason jar. Firm yet simultaneously sweet and tart, the cherry still had its stem and had turned brown from its original dark red. But the remaining cherry-and-sugar infused syrup was mellow, smooth and a welcome digestif after a heavy meal. The double-distilled brandy blended from the Pays d’Auge district of Normandy, which is known for its chalky soil and superior apples, had 40 percent alcohol. I had purchased it at The Winetree on Washington Avenue, though it is no longer sold there.

The Winetree now sells a Domaine Coeur de Lion Calvados Selection by Christian Drouin for about $19 that, as is typical with Calvados, produces a slight burning sensation on the tongue. It appears delicate, with noticeable but not overt apple flavors. Yet don’t be fooled by its small, 375 mL bottle, or by the liquid within it. It has 40 percent alcohol, and just the aroma can leave you sitting on the couch for hours.

According to calvados-drouin.com, the Coeur de Lion (Heart of a Lion) orchard is planted with only traditional low-yield varieties carefully selected to ensure a proper balance between the four types of sweet, bittersweet, bitter and acidic apples. These apples are harvested by shaking the branches of the trees.

While there are three different ripening periods, the website adds, only midseason and late-season apples are used to make Calvados. After a complicated distilling process, the Coeur de Lion Calvados is then aged in oak casks, many of which were previously used to produce sherry or port.

“It was observed that these reused casks yielded fewer bitter tannins and helped to give a finer color, more body and greater aromatic richness,” the website states.

In any case, it’s apparently common in Normandy to imbibe a shot of Calvados in the middle of a long, rich meal. “The shot, called a trou Normand (Norman hole), supposedly creates a hole in the stomach, temporarily halting digestion and allowing even more food to be eaten,” MacNeil wrote.

Is it true? I wouldn’t know. My family is from Brittany, not Normandy.

Victoria Grabner is a freelancer who has blogged about wine for several years.


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