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Guide to Calvados – the drink and the place

Calvados is both a place and a drink. It is a department that lies in the heart of Normandy and includes amongst its many jewels the pretty harbour town of Honfleur, swanky Deauville, and the port town of Caen, capital of Calvados as well as William the conqueror’s last home town.

This area is known as the garden of Paris, rich in fruit, vegetables, fish and meat products. It’s also home to some of the best apple orchards in the world from which Calvados the drink is made…

Normandy Eau de Vie

They’ve been making cider in Normandy for centuries and from cider comes Calvados, a sort of apple brandy known as a “drink fit for kings and farmers alike”.

The first official reference regarding cider distillation in Normandy was described by Sir Gilles de Gouberville in his diaries on 28 of March 1553.

Four different types of apple are grown in Calvados – sweet, bitter sweet, bitter and acidic – the perfect combination for cider. To create Calvados, the cider is distilled twice creating eau de vie. The liquid is matured in wood barrels and blended. The result is a strong and rather subtle taste that can blow your socks off.

One of the best known and most important Calvados producers is Pere Magloire, founded in 1821. Their range includes several bottles of differing ages and you’ll find Calvados easily in shops in France as well as overseas.

The Calvados Experience

You can find out all about Calvados at the Calvados Experience, part museum, part show. This brand-new experience opened in 2018 at Pont-L’Eveque on the site of France’s oldest and most famous distillery.

It’s a celebration of and homage to Calvados and I really don’t want to spoil it by giving too much away but this is a fully immersive “experience” with some awesome special effects. One minute you’ll find yourself in a centuries old Norman town on a misty morning listening to bird song, peeking at a farmer and his rosy cheeked wife picking apples. The next minute you’ll find yourself watching an apple mountain tumble and fill the air with the scent of crushed apples. It’s very artistic and very well done, educational as well as fun, telling the history of Calvados – and it’s quite a story.

The Calvados Experience is great for the whole family and there’s a tasting included in the visit (though not for kids) and a very smart shop selling Calvados and cider products plus a picnic area and a café on site.

Tours are available in 8 languages: www.calvados-experience.com

Calvados Cocktail Competition

Normandy folk love Calvados so much that each year they hold an International Calvados cocktail competition with a different theme, for instance in 2018 competitors had to include a vegetable element. It’s an event that’s taken seriously with entrants from around the world flying in to participate. They are the winners of best bartender competitions from countries like Russia, UK, Estonia, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy and Poland as well as of course France. Student bar tenders also take part. And, if you thought Calvados was just for drinking neat with ice, you couldn’t be more wrong, it makes an excellent base for cocktails.

The competition has been emceed for several years by possibly the world’s most famous bartender, the legendary Colin Field of the Ritz, Paris. “Hotel bars are where it’s at these days” he says. He’s seen Calvados make a splash and move into the sexy world of cocktails and says he’s been working with it since 1982 – always ahead of his time.

In days of old Calvados was a popular tipple with coffee in the morning – and at night. In fact, it’s still drunk this way in some places. But these days it’s far more popular mixed with all sorts of things to create the most delicious cocktails. In Normandy they take their mixes seriously. The International Calvados Cocktail Competition is fun but surprisingly sober, winning is a serious business.

“A good bartender can make the reputation of a bar”, says Colin, “they’re a representative who can convert a bar’s attitude with their deft mix, gift of the gab and their image”.

Next time you’re in a bar – ask for a Calvados cocktail and prepare to be surprised…

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