Bénédictine and Calvados

in the drinkTwo good reasons for Normandy landings

The Normandy Baie de la Seine is a popular cruising ground for UK sailors. At its eastern end is Fécamp, an achievable start point after a passage from the Solent for a summer cruise – thence on to Honfleur, Deauville and beyond. Fécamp has a visitor-friendly marina, a fishing museum and a beach but, of greater interest, it is the birth place and home of Bénédictine liqueur and the gateway to Calvados-land.

In 1500, Bénédictine monks had a monastery at Fécamp, and historical documents claim that in 1510 Don Bernardo Vincelli created an ‘elixer’ to sustain the monks in their work and as an antidote to malaria. Malaria cure? Pretty unlikely, but it was evidently sustaining enough to gain the letters ‘DOM’ on the label. This is not a dénomination d’appellation, but stands for ‘Deo Optimo Maximo’ – ‘to God, most good, most great’. I think we can drink to that, as the monks clearly did.

The recipe was lost during the French Revolution but rediscovered in 1863 by Alexandre le Grand who began distilling it again in a grand Palais Bénédictine he established in Fécamp town. Visit the Palais to get the full story, see the hand-hammered copper stills and other art treasures. Although now owned by the Bacardi drinks company, the recipe remains a secret, but is essentially herbs, roots, sugar and brandy. The end result is a viscose sweet liqueur, 41 percent abv, deep amber with a green-gold meniscus and a complex nose of spice, fruit, cloves, liquorice and a hint of orange. Excellent after dinner and also enjoyed in France over an ice cube as a short apéritif.

On to Deauville and Calvados territory. It, too, emanates from the 1500s, with an Appellation Contrôllée since 1942.

“We could all be in Paradise,” a Deauville sailor once  told me, “if Adam had told Eve not to eat the apples but to crush them, make cider, distil it and make beautiful eau-de-vie.” Sipping Calvados in the cockpit on a warm evening in a Normandy port gets close to it.

Calvados is simply made by double distilling cider made from bitter apples, then a minimum of two years’ oak-barrel maturation. The younger brews have a yellow-gold colour and are distinctly apple flavour. The French use this for cooking and doctoring their coffee. Ages go up to 25 years, by which time the spirit is dark brown, expensive (£50 plus per bottle) and, having lost the apple flavour, easily mistaken for brandy.

A two-year-old gets three stars on the label and a three-year-old is already called ‘vieux’. By six years it can be called ‘Napolean’ or bizarrely ‘age inconnu’. After that just go by the age number on the label.

The best for drinking at a reasonable price are around five to ten years old. Anything which says Pays d’Auge, the area south of Deauville, will be very acceptable.

It is a beautiful after-dinner sipper, especially in the summer, but also over ice as a brisk apéritif. Very useful to serve with cheeses or to dash on chocolate desserts, ice cream or French crèpes.

The best place to buy is over there. Here, a well distributed brand is Père Magloire, 40 percent, a safe choice but not cheap at about £19 a 50cl bottle. There are usually others and own labels on the shelves, too. Bénédictine is about £15.90 for 50cl at Tesco or Sainsbury’s. Own label not possible for a secret recipe, of course!

AASRead In The Drink every month in All At Sea

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