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
- Omaha Beach
- 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.