Having friends in Normandy is kind of like finding a hundred, unexpected dollars in your wallet. We have friends in Normandy–Denise and Hughes and their two rapscallions Josephine and Georges. We went with our good friend Meg for a visit a week ago (was it only a week ago?) on the Friday train just in time for apero in the back garden. Kir Royale, olives, and chips. Some of us couldn’t stop eating the chips. Denise is from Australia and Hughes is French and grew up in the village in which they live. Denise coordinates a film festival (she’s worked in film for a long time) and Hughes is an artist. He can paint anything. Trompe l’oeil, portrait, landscape, abstract, surreal. You name it. He can paint it. They own a really beautiful, really old house with a walled garden. A really high wall. Ancient espaliered pear trees, flowering, thick-trunked wisteria, a hedge. Some roses and lilacs. If we didn’t love them so much….
The weather was perfect. Just warm enough to have drinks outside while the light was fading, then cold enough to come inside to sit by a roaring fire while Denise prepared a delicious paella. The red wine went down easy. Did anyone keep count of the bottles? We finished dinner with tarte au citron and pears poached in wine. Then we had Hughes’ father’s calvados, followed by two bottles of after-dinner stuff that we had made and brought: Caleb’s nocino and a wild blueberry liqueur I made inspired by a French perfume. There were a lot of glasses on the table.
While Caleb has a fascination with choucroute garnie, I have a fascination with things apple, things like sparkling hard cider and calvados. I’m trying to learn how to make Normand-style cidre and calvados, the old way. Having friends in Normandy whose father makes calva is like finding a second hundred, unexpected dollars in your wallet. So, with so much good fortune, we woke in the morning to ride our bikes (because one should ride bikes in Normandy–the roads are perfect, well, almost perfect, as in perfectly flat) to Hughes’ parents house for a formal degustation.
Colette and Roger are gems. They sparkle with such good cheer and hospitality. We sit down to the table with bottles of local Normand cidre and poire, and of course the calva. Colette has made delectable hors d’ouevres for us to have with our tastes: toasts with rillettes, tiny, shaped goat cheeses, and petite lasagne. I am delighted there are more chips just like the kind my grandmother used to serve for similar occasions. We have also brought some of my liqueur as a gift. Roger is keen to try it with the poire like a kir. We have never had poire, or perry in English, which is a pear cider. It is elegant, lighter than the apple cider, and dryer in taste. Sublime. Caleb is hooked, so we begin thinking of who we know back at home who has pear trees (ours are too small to bear fruit yet). We decide the jointly made kir–the poire and my wild blueberry liqueur–is rather fine and would make a very nice aperatif at the restaurant. Roger’s calvados, which we have sampled over the years, is at least thirty years old, and once again on this tasting is full of smooth and happy fire. Suddenly, there are many glasses on the table. Delicate, etched glasses for different styles of drink. Coupes for kirs and bubbles, and very small cordial glasses traditional to drinking calva during a meal. Colette tells us that it was always taken after the first main plate and before the second (think pork and fish) to help settle the meal.
Other decanters of calvados come out, some with gigantic pears in them. Roger tells us how the calva is made and how the cider is made. I am furiously taking notes. He brings out these incredible old-fashioned glass hydrometers that you used to buy at the apothecary to make sure your cidre and calva had enough alcohol in them, that you weren’t being cheated by your local, favorite farmer. We could have sat there all day, but because we had lunch to eat, and a train to catch, we adjourned to the cellar to see the barrels, and then had a quick lesson about the old stone apple presses. In our imaginations, or perhaps through the gauzy view of calva, we can just see the old work-horse turning the wheel, and pitchers of sweet cider ready for fermentation.