Archive for April, 2011
Le Cannonball Run – the Calvados Connection

As I write, a small lonely bottle of Calvados sloshes its way cross country in the back of a UPS truck. Will it make it intact? Will rough treatment do it in? Will its liquid state make it suspect, leading to its destruction at the hands of the ATF or homeland security, hauled away on the last leg of its long journey?

Plucked from an apple orchard in the brilliant green and yellow Norman countryside where it was grown, distilled, and aged to eight years, it made the journey to Paris with a few of its brothers in the back of a rental car. Wrapped tenderly in dirty socks, scarves and coats cast off in the early spring heat, it was gently nestled into luggage, dragged across cobbles to the #68 Clichy bus, to l’Opera and the Roissybus, to CDG and into the hands of uncaring baggage handlers, into Iceland, over the pole, and landing in the Pacific Northwest to become a US citizen. One bottle stayed in the rainy NW, while the other still has 2,400 miles to travel, over mountains, across prairies, past cornfields…into the open arms of its adoring new papa.

How did this intercontinental adoption story start?

As with all great love stories of the 21st century, it began with the internet.

Obsessively planning (as I do) for two weeks in France led me to the Chowhound board (of course…the first stop for food obsessed travelers to get a local community’s first-hand advice and opinions), and searches for Bayeux / Normandy / Caen led me to this August 2010 cry for help:

Alert: I am in need of a favor from anyone traveling to Bayeux
To whom it may concern;
There is a farmhouse (dds note: more like an impossibly ramshackle chateau) outside of Bayeux where I bought a bottle of Calvados some time ago. I am now down to my last glass and I am in desperate need. I know precisely where the farm is but I am unable to contact the owner as he speaks no English. For anyone traveling there from the States, please help me procure another few bottles. If you are interested or able to help, I will happily furnish you with the requisite info and capital. If you are unfamiliar with the area, I can also provide you with some favorite places in the area and meals that I enjoyed.
My sincere thanks! E. Diamond

Several Chowhound posts ensued, with helpful advice, possible couriers, aborted trips and Google satellite identification of the farm. Six months later I happen along. (You can see the whole string on Chowhound here.) Hmm, think I. Our Normandy/Brittany to-do list looks something like this:
- Mont St. Michel
- Calvados
- Omaha Beach
- Oysters
- Scallops
- Galettes de Pleyben
- Salt-marsh lamb

Calvados is already on the agenda, maybe I can help.

I fell in love with Calvados as a college freshmen in a basement restaurant in Les Halles—I even remember the glassware: tiny white ceramic cups, akin to a thimble-sized sake set. “Down the hatch!” says Dad, “To burn a hole and make way for the rest of meal.” It was smooth and appley, and the taste coupled with the surprise and ceremony of this fiery amuse bouche cemented the Trou Normand in my memory and affections.

This was 1981, and let me tell you, Calvados was cheap back then. Maybe it was the franc-to-dollar rate, maybe it was more commonly produced, maybe we were drinking younger stuff, but even back in the States I remember being able to buy it for the price of a mediocre brandy. Fast-forward 30 years and our classic cocktail habit (see Dr. Cocktail, see Boozehound) had us scouring Oregon liquor store shelves for Calvados again, only to find $70 French stuff and more affordable but not-quite-right Clear Creek Distillery apple eau de vie (sorry guys, I respect what you’re doing but you still have a ways to go, imho) made right in our own back yard.

So of course, E. Diamond’s request caught my eye.

“I’ll take the recommendation and the adventure on,” says I, “but selfishly, we may not be able to give your bottle any precious luggage space, since I anticipate stuffing our extra suitcase with cheap eau de vies of varying fruits, Galettes de Pleyben (a story for another post), and calvados.” “No worries,” says E., “do what you can. Enjoy, take some pics, and eat here, here, here and here.” (All his restaurant recs were closed on the Wednesday night we were in town…of course…oh those wacky French. But I’ve posted his email below, for anyone else traveling to Bayeux.)

After a beautiful albeit drizzly night in Bayeux (where we broke into an okay but young Calvados from Honfleur), we piled into the car, wrinkled directions clutched in sweaty fists, four navigators hollering directions to one poor, mussel-poisoned driver. “It says exactly three miles from where the D6 and the N13/E46 intersect, on the left.” “Yeah but I googled it and only saw a farm on the right there. Maybe it’s 3 kilometers.” Maybe it’s on the right.” “Wait! There’s a bunch of trees!” “No, those are elms.” “Okay, we’re at 3 km…nothing here.” “Wait! There it is there it is! On the left! We’re at exactly three miles! There’s the orchard! Here’s the sign!”

You’re right Ernie, we never would have been brave enough to get out of the car if not for your instructions.
Ramshackle, deserted, and save for THE sign, no sign of Calvados. But then the door opened, a sweet old dog trotted out, followed by a woman in her rubber boots, motioning us in while she changed into her slippers, and the 10 a.m. Calvados tasting ensued. It was everything I remembered and everything our local apple eau de vie is not, though with the weak dollar, it also wasn’t cheap at 30 euro a pop. In non-existent French my sister and I tried to convey the story of who and what brought us to her doorstep: food obsessions, a complete stranger seven states away, Chowhound, Google satellite…. Lord only knows what she understood, though the internet made it through the translation somewhere (her children use the internet, but not them, oh heavens not them).

Et voila, the deed was done, handshakes were made, did we want more to drink?, and back out into the light we stumbled. Adventure complete, a fun form to our French wanderings, and now all that’s left is to wait patiently to see if the-little-bottle-that-could finishes its journey intact. Ernie, let me know when it arrives, and we can raise a glass simultaneously on nearly opposite ends of the country. Maybe the old dog at the Calvados farm will prick up his ears, and Mme. and Mssr. Calvados will grow restless in their sleep, dreaming of strolling in an American apple orchard.

Bernard’s Postcard from Paris

Here’s how it goes in Paris. We remember the sour faces when we were young, and remember the changes after the turmoil of ’68. Those “young” people, now 60, have raised a generation, and what a difference! And then I look at us…returning in our 70s….

QUESTION: What happens in Paris when rain quits, drops stop, puddles dry, and sunshine explodes over the city of light? What happens in Paris when the spirit of winter retires and the spirit of spring arrives smiling and bright?

ANSWER: From nowhere people appear like blossoms on naked branches, from everywhere like green leaves on hibernating trees. In the midst of this fantasy, how to imbue the magic and join the festival of color and dance and extravaganza?

By taking to the streets old man! Bathe in the Paris fountain of everlasting youth, a Shangri-La youth still young at 900 years!
Walk! Walk along Boulevard de Clichy, but don’t stop for a dozen oysters at Wepler’s sidewalk cafe. Continue past the Moulin Rouge toward tawdry Pigalle down the four-lane park dividing cars and buses and raging motorcycles.

Find a street going south toward the center, always the center.
Maybe rue des Martyrs with Montmartre and the mushroomed domes of Sacre Coeur at your back, among mouthwatering, nosetempting, eyepealing shops—bright red strawberries neatly arranged in vertical boxes, cheeses of every region, color and odor, meats bold and red or subtly shaped, folded, encased in unidentified membrane, restaurants new and brash of plastic and neon or old and warm with scripted paneling set in shining walnut frames that say history, continuity, tradition.

Or perhaps sur le rue d’Amsterdam, cleaned up since Jacque Brel sang about it at the Gare St. Lazare,

Or turn left on rue Clichy at the corner near our apartment, pass theaters, wine shops, boutiques,

Always heading to l’Opera or Rivoli or the Louvre, Concorde, Tuileries among sun happy crowds walking with a spring or sitting-sipping in cafés released from the cold hold of winter rigor. Infused with heated vigor, the world opens like overenthusiastic tulips, pistils shooting skyward.

And if you’re lucky, pass through passages with exotic ware into tiny squares you’ve never stumbled on: this restaurant, that café or the other bistro tempting you with tongue teasing tidbits.

But you have already stopped for lunch or coffee or beer to see what world passes by when you look.

Later sated, arrive at the river or perhaps Place St. Eustache, at the foot of a monumental church, filled with families sitting on grassy steps watching children kicking balls or just running for the joy of running,

Or a grassy tree-lined confine like Place des Vosges. Having stood in long lines to pick up a falafel in the Marais, spread out now in view of Victor Hugo’s home and not far from the intimate “hotel” filled with work by Picasso.

That’s when you might decide to head home: by bus through the crowded ways you’ve already passed, by speeding through dark tunnels of the Metro, or if your “dogs aren’t barking” you might just rewind the experience on foot.

Because finally, in the end, the heart of Paris for any visitor, is in the character of his sole.

Bernard della Santina
(aka Dad)

Ernie Diamond’s Generous Bayeux Rec’s

Addendum to the Calvados Connection, via email before the trip

DDS: Am I right in thinking (if you know, or have an opinion) that the place to eat in Bayeux is Le Pommier?

ED: Le Pommier was very good. I was trying to do the local thing as much as I could so I had the tripes a la mode du Caen there. Fantastic. I must say, though that if you are looking for good food and a quirky setting, Fringale is excellent. It is very casual and rustic in all the right ways. When we were there, the crowd was very small and so the owners spent as much time in the dining room with us as in the kitchens. I had the Andouillettes du Troyes (there are many different kinds of andouillettes) when I was there and won major points for my selection. The owner and I had a very impassioned pantomime conversation in equally broken French and English about andouillettes following the meal.

My meal at La Rapiere was good, very good actually but I didn’t find as many local (read rustic) offerings on the menu as I wanted. I did, however have a slice of foie gras from a terrine that was the inverse of the foie to bread ratio you generally see here; the foie was as big as a piece of texas toast, the bread came in the form of three small dominos. Outrageous.

In order of ambiance, from nicest to casual, it went;
Rapiere
Pommier
Fringale

In order of preference, from favorite to least, I may inverse the order. I liked Fringale. I desperately wanted to get to La Table du Terroir but wasn’t able.

If you are looking for provisions in Bayeux, there are two very good charcutiers in town. Just ask around, you can’t go wrong with either. My very first move when I arrived was to buy boudin noir, a bottle of cider and some pommeau (apple juice fortified with calvados). Boudin noir, by the way is very good cold. Oh! Just remembered! You may be able to find jars of babas au calvados, which is babas (little cakes) soaked in a syrup of sugar and calvados (think baba au rhum). These were an absolute treasure. They can be found in those clamp top mason type jars around town, maybe even at the charcutier. Save room for at least one jar as a souviner. I held mine for as long as I could before succumbing to temptation. They are dessert and a stiff shot all in one.

As far as cider, it is for sale everywhere as you might expect and the best kinds are cheap, local and light. If you snoop around, you will probably be able to find farms that sell it for far far less than what it is sold for in the stores and cafes. Not to be too gross here but if you drink solely cider, as I did then your pee will smell like apple skins. :) Don’t kill the messenger! It’s an interesting phenomenon! Cost from local producers might top out at four euro for a 750ml bottle. I paid almost half that for bottles that were still sticky from filling. The good stuff is only 3-4% alcohol, sometimes less so drink up!

(DDS: And so we did. Our favorite was the less sweet Brut, with a seriously funky smell that offset the apple sweetness. Fantastic! We paid about 4 euro a bottle and it was about 5% alcohol.)

On to calvados! The place was DEAD when I arrived. Don’t be put off if there is no one around or things appear closed. When we finally got the attention of someone, he was in the garage and came out covered in grease. I am still unclear if he was the owner or a caretaker or what but he happily let us in, showed us around and poured us samples (of which he took one or two) before selling us a bottle.

I hope you find this helpful. I LOVED my trip to Bayeux. It is a beautiful town in a fantastic setting. The best thing you can do there is get yourself hopelessley lost and then look around for good food. You can’t help but to find it.