Portrait of a neglected noble

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 July, 2014, 10:43pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 July, 2014, 10:43pm

Hong Kong has traditionally been an important market for expensive cognac, and armagnac has a smaller but well-established niche.

F&B managers, particularly in five-star hotel restaurants, like to be able to offer a few armagnacs, partly because vintage dated bottles are readily available - not generally the case with old cognacs - and high prices can be charged for them.

Calvados, for some reason, has never been as well represented. Yet it, too, is a noble spirit with a long history, and likewise enjoys French protected Appellation D'Origine Controllee (AOC) status.

Possibly the problem is that it is made from apples, not grapes. Cognac and armagnac are distilled wines, and calvados is distilled from cider, a practice first recorded in Normandy in the mid-16th century.

The fiery apple spirit takes its name from the Calvados Department in Lower Normandy, one of 83 in France that were created in 1790 by the French revolutionary government.

Apple brandies are made elsewhere in France, and calvados has become a generic term for them, but only three calvados appellations are recognised by the AOC system.

AOC Calvados, which accounts for the majority of the spirit, comes from Calvados itself, but also from parts of other neighbouring departments. Like AOC Bordeaux, it can be of good or indifferent quality.

AOC Calvados Pays D'Auge comes from a delimited area in the east of Calvados and some adjoining areas outside the department, and has stricter rules governing its production.

AOC Calvados Domfrontais, named after the Domfront commune, differs from other apple-based eaux de vie made in the Calvados region in that it also contains pears, a longstanding local tradition which the AOC system finally recognised in 1997.

The spirits from Calvados Pays D'Auge are generally considered to be the finest, but Calvados Domfrontais is also appreciated by connoisseurs who like its pear element.

"Calvados Fermier" is analogous to "Grower Champagne" and denotes an artisanal approach to distillation and small production. Not much of that, sadly, makes its way to Hong Kong.

Fortunately, some importers are taking a more lively interest in the category, and things may be looking up. Some very good bottles are available if you know where to look.

Not surprisingly, much of the calvados available here comes from large producers which dominate the industry, much as they do with cognac and armagnac, although, the same as in that industry, that isn't to say that their spirits aren't good. Boulard and Père Magloire are examples.

However, some more interesting calvados expressions are available from Fine Vintage (Far East), which imports spirits from the house of Christian Drouin.

Unusually among calvados producers, Drouin has a vintage-dated range, which offers an alternative to vintage armagnac.

The house is a relatively young one, established in 1960, by comparison with Boulard which dates back to 1825, and Père Magloire, which was established in 1821.

The Drouin family's Calvados business began when Christian Drouin the elder, an industrialist, bought a farm with cider apple orchards and decided that he'd like to use the crop to make calvados of a higher quality than was generally available in Normandy at the time.

His son, also called Christian Drouin, inherited what he calls "the calvados virus" and built the business into a significant exporter. Drouin Calvados is now available in more than 40 countries. Most apples used come from the Pays D'Auge, but the house also makes some calvados with apples and pears from Domfront.

In Hong Kong, Fine Vintage has represented Christian Drouin for more than 25 years, but according to general manager Howard Palmes, building a following for the brand has not been easy.

"Calvados has been notoriously difficult to sell over the years, probably because it is very much an after-dinner drink. However, Christian makes an aperitif style called Pommeau, bottled at 17 per cent alcohol by volume - 2/3 apple juice to 1/3 calvados," he says.

"One of Christian Drouin's strengths is his range of back vintages, of which we offer 1962, 1963, 1969, 1972, 1973, 1974, and 1988, with others available upon request."

It is true that, internationally, calvados has been regarded - by those who know about it at all - as an after-dinner drink, but in Normandy it is perceived as much more versatile.

As well as being used extensively in Pays d'Auge cooking, it is served as a mixed drink with tonic water (much as the Portuguese drink white port these days) and as an accompaniment to local cheeses, particularly Livarot - a pungent cow's milk cheese perhaps best described as an acquired taste.

Coeur de Camembert au Calvados is soaked in the spirit as part of its production process, and is an altogether less daunting proposition.

The drink's most notable role in gastronomy, though, is perhaps as the "Trou Normand" - a shot of spirit served between the courses of a heavy meal to restore a flagging appetite.

Barmen have discovered that calvados can be a useful cocktail ingredient, a development which in recent years has moved export sales gradually upward, particularly in the US.

However, it is as an after-dinner drink, on its own or with chocolate or a cigar, that high-end calvados truly come into its own.

Finding the good stuff can be a challenge though. Palmes recommends the bars at the Island Shangri-La, The Peninsula, The InterContinental and The Ritz-Carlton as the best places to sample high quality calvados, and says that a good selection is also available at The Tasting Room in Macau's City of Dreams.

As a change from cognac, armagnac or single malt whisky, calvados is certainly worth a postprandial try - and because it doesn't exactly fly off the shelves, it is often quite competitively priced.