“C’est pour les bébés,” says the grizzled man as he pours us a taste of Calvados (44 percent alcohol). Grinning madly, he mimes a baby getting knocked out and falling asleep.
We laugh, partly at the idea of a baby drinking this heady digestif, and partly because, for a group with limited French, it was finally a joke we are in on.
My group and I are on Normandy’s famed La Route du Cidre, a circular drive on winding roads through dozens of apple orchards and idyllic French villages.
The idea is simple. You follow the signs for the route (they say La Route du Cidre and have a red apple) and stop at as many orchards as you desire to taste cidre, Pommeau, and Calvados. Some orchards also make cheeses or fiddle around with other types of alcohols or fruits.
For this trip, we had decided to stay at the delightful La Maison du Parc. Built in 1764, the house has been painstakingly restored by a Parisian couple Annick and Paul Coudrier. The individual rooms are decked out with the odds and ends of over forty years of collecting by the discerning couple.
Every traveler deserves to be hosted like we were at La Maison du Parc, but the real delight is in the morning.
It almost seems like a ritual – all the guests are seated around Annick’s dining room table. Experienced guests smile knowingly at first-timers reaching hungrily for the bread, unaware of the multi-course feast ahead of them. And a feast it is – yogurts with fresh squeezed fruits, salmon soufflé, raspberry flan, and always crepes to finish the meal.
And so, we entered the circular route of Le Route de Cidre at the town of Bonnebosq. with full stomachs, ready to embark on our tasting.
Our day began in the unfathomably picturesque seaside town of Honfleur. Like something out of a time capsule, Honfleur is graced with rows of beautiful homes and buildings in an array of styles and colors, a quaint harbor, and cobblestone streets. Unlike the neighboring city of Le Havre, Honfleur escaped World War II relatively unscathed and was able to retain much of its historic charm.
At each orchard along the route, visitors can usually taste three different types of alcohol. First, Pommeau, a sweet aperitif that’s made from a combination of Calvados and apple juice. Pommeau has a smooth almost velvety taste at first, but a strong kick after it’s swallowed.
Then some cidre, a bubbly alcoholic cider that can also be found in pubs in France and England. Most orchards usually have two types: Demi-Sec, or semi-sweet, and Cidre Brut, which is a dry cider. Cidre can be served at any time of day, although the best combinations I found were for brunch with savory galettes and at dinner with chicken.
And finally Calvados, a stomach-warming digestif particularly useful after a long, rich meal. There are a couple things to keep in mind when tasting Calvados. The first is the color. As Calvados is aged, it turns darker and richer. Swirl the liquid around in the glass for a bit, not just so you can pretend you know what you are looking for, but because as it ages Calvados turns to really beautiful colors. Also take in the aroma, both before and after swirling – it will give you a sense not only of how strong a drink Calvados is, but also its nuances. And finally take a sip! After letting it slowly pass through your mouth (don’t just gulp it down) get ready for the slow, warm, burn as it passes through your throat and into your stomach.
Despite the complexity of Calvados, not many people are digestif drinkers anymore, according to one of our guides. Historically, she explained, people would drink an aperitif in the evening, a glass of wine with dinner, and then a digestif like Calvados. If people drank that much nowadays, they wouldn’t be able to drive home, as laws and enforcement have become more strict. Of the trio of dinner drinks, digestives have been sacrificed, and now a bottle of Calvados may last a household a decade.
For the less adventurous on the route, the DuPont family estate just outside of Cambremer is a guaranteed bet, with a delicious variety of cidre and multiple vinatages of Calvados. Make sure to try both their Cidre Reserve and their Cidre Triple. The Reserve has a noticeable complexity due to six months aging in oak casks, and the Triple is an interesting bitter, almost dark beer-like cider made from bitter apples.
While traveling along the 40 kilometer route, make sure to stop in some of the quaint villages, particularly Beuvron-en-Auge. The village, which claims to be the most beautiful in France, has a several peculiar antique stores, art shops (for those with an equestrian obsession there is one devoted just to works of art related to horses), and restaurants. Fair warning, each and every building in town is photo worthy.
But most importantly, don’t forget to pick up a couple of bottles along the way to share with friends and family envious of your trip.