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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Category Archives: calvados

The Calvados:  Christian DrouinPays d’Auge – Pomme Prisonnière

http://www.calvados-drouin-boutique.com

The Book:  Madame BovaryGustave Flaubert

Could one liken Madame Bovary, psychologically imprisoned in rural Normandy, to an apple captive in a bottle of Norman calvados? Ummm, yes, at the risk of sounding banal.

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THE CALVADOS

Light straw in colour, with a golden glow. Apple (of course!) coming through on the nose. Warm and fruit-forward. Light on the palate, but with a reassuring lilt of creamy stewed pomme, its goodness now freed. Yet not without a subtle alcoholic bite.  (40% abv)

So, to get directly to the point, how did that apple get in the carafe? Very carefully.

In 1980 Christian Drouin, after 20 years of calvados production, began a partnership with Didier Alleaume, an arborist who lives near Honfleur, not far from the Drouin estate. Alleaume had for years been capturing pears inside bottles and filling them with calvados as special gifts, especially for weddings. (Bride beware.) Drouin persuaded him to experiment with apples. And after testing some 28 varieties, they found success.

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The key is timing. The growing apple embryo must be placed through the neck of the carafe at just the right time. That means Didier Alleaume and his son Thibault must work furiously over a few days in May. With the embryo inside the carafe, it is inverted, then attached to the tree branches by two wires. Through the days of summer sun, the apples grow. And then at the end of August, the bottles are unhooked and the apples snipped carefully away from the branch. About 50-60% are well formed enough to take the carafe to next step of cleaning and transport to the Drouin estate.

There they are filled with 3-year-old Calvados Pays d’ Auge, and allowed to macerate for a year, giving the apple flavours a chance to blend with those of the calvados. Several thousand bottles are produced each year.

The history of Christian Drouin Calvados goes back to 1960 when Christian Drouin senior, an industrialist from Rouen, bought a farm in the Pays d’Auge region of Normandy, with the express purpose of distilling premium calvados. Soon his son Christian was part of the enterprise and now Guillaume Drouin, representing the third generation, shares the reins.

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This “Coeur de Lion” estate is traditional in its approach — in the low-yielding, high stemmed apple trees (balancing bitter, bittersweet, sweet and acidulous varieties); in the fact that there is just a single pressing of the fruit mash. Once distilled, the spirit is aged in oak casks of various sizes, and carefully stored under optimal conditions. Christian Drouin is one of the France’s most prodigious calvados estates, esteemed for its vintage calvados, winner of numerous medals, and awarded a European Prestige Grand Prix for the whole of its production. Its calvados is sold in 40 countries world-wide.

THE BOOK

For Madame Bovary, my bookshelves offered up three choices of translator: Eleanor Marx-Aveling (1886), Geoffrey Wall (1992), and Lydia Davis (2010). I kept returning to the Davis translation. And occasionally to that of Marx-Aveling, if mostly for the wonderful illustrations in the Limited Editions Club edition of 1938.

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Flaubert set forth no simple task for a translator, considering he worked on the novel for up to 12 hours a day for months on end, abandoning far more of the writing than he kept. He was in a constant struggle for exactly the right phrase. Sometimes he had to be content with taking a week to produce a single page of manuscript. He once wrote, “A good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable.” And then again, “Writing this book I am like a man playing the piano with lead balls attached to his knuckles.” Woe the translator.

It took Davis three years, and while any translation has its detractors, that of Davis (a very fine writer herself) has been much-admired. I felt an ease of writing, a spirit in the prose that gave it a contemporary feel, without sacrificing the 19th century sensibility.

Flaubert strives for us to appreciate the plight of Emma Bovary, if not to admire her character. She swirls though the habits and obsessions of the provincial  bourgeoise society with an indifference that would be endearing were she not so self-absorbed. She seems constantly and hopelessly in love with anyone but her doctor husband, Charles. She has little time for the dullard and even less for her young daughter. She is eager to give up everything to the promise of romance, but when her lovers turn out to be more often cads than gentlemen, the heartbreak sends her spiralling to an excruciating early demise.

220px-Gustave_Flaubert_youngEven if we tire of Emma’s narcissism, we still relish the writing. That literary doggedness on the part of Flaubert paid off wonderfully. The woman and the world surrounding her are rendered with exacting prose unmatched by any novel that came before it. It is a seminal work of realism, a novel that changed the way novels were written.

Take this passage, coming after Emma has been seduced by one of the aforementioned cads:

“The evening shadows were coming down; the horizontal sun, passing between the branches, dazzled her eyes. Here and there, all around her, patches of light shimmered in the leaves or on the ground, as if hummingbirds in flight had scattered their feathers there. Silence was everywhere; something mild seemed to be coming forth from the trees; she could feel her heart beginning to beat again, and her blood flowing through her flesh like a river of milk. Then, from far away beyond the woods, on the other hills, she heard a vague, prolonged cry, a voice that lingered, and she listened to it in silence as it lost itself like a kind of music in the last vibrations of her tingling nerves. Rodolphe, a cigar between his teeth, was mending with his penknife one of the bridles, which had broken.”

Or, more in keeping with thoughts of an apple imprisoned in calvados, there’s Flaubert’s rending of the feast laid for the doomed marriage of Emma and Charles:

“It was in the cart shed that the table had been set up. On it there were four roasts of beef, six fricassées of chicken, stewed veal, three legs of mutton, and, in the middle, a nice roast suckling pig, flanked by four andouille sausages flavored with sorrel. At the corners stood the eau-de-vie, in carafes. Sweet cider in bottles pushed its thick foam up around the corks, and every glass had been filled to the brim, beforehand, with wine. Large plates of yellow custard that quivered at the slightest knock to the table displayed, on their smooth surfaces, the initials of the newlyweds drawn in arabesques of nonpareils.”

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The Calvados:  Lecompte – 12 years

www.calvados-lecompte.com

The Book:  In Search of Lost Time, Vol. I & II by Marcel Proust

There is nothing like a 7-volume / 3,000-page book to enlighten the dark days of winter. For this reading marathon I’ll need three months and three bottles of something wonderfully French. Since much of the first two volumes of Proust’s masterpiece is set in or near Normandy, the first pour will be a time-honoured calvados.

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THE CALVADOS

Nut brown in the glass, the contents release roasted hazelnut aromas infused with spice, notably cinnamon and nutmeg. Creamy and mouth-rich, it’s a caramelized apple, peppery compote showing a touch of fire. Complex and flavoursome. A delight.

No time lost here. All dozen years have worked together to bring this calvados to perfection. Lecompte certainly knows what it’s about.

Its history began in 1923 when Alexandre Lecompte, local trader in wine and spirits, decided to forgo his other holdings and focus on his store of well-aged calvados. Decades later, in 1980, Lecompte was purchased by Yves Pellerin, and is now one of the most acclaimed Maisons de Calvados in the Pays d’Auge, the region of Normandy which bears A.O.C. status for calvados.

3731933081Lecompte distillery, La Morinière, is located in the picturesque village of Notre-Dame de Courson, surrounded by apple orchards that produce some of the finest fruit in Normandy.  It uses double distillation in two traditional Charentais stills. Its eight cellars hold some 800 oak casks, all under the watchful eye of Richard Prével, a third-generation Cellar Master who has overseen operations at Lecompte for a quarter century.

The Lecompte line-up includes 5, 12, 18, and 25-year-olds, a couple of limited editions, and the ultra-premium Secret, a blend of over 100 individual batches, none any younger than 42 years, and with a few casks laid down at the time Lecompte was founded in 1923!

That’s just one year after the death of Marcel Proust.

THE BOOKS

Volume I: The Way by Swann’s (or Swann’s Way)

To understand In Search of Lost Time it helps to know something of the life of its author. From childhood to his death at age 51 Proust was plagued with asthma, and was seriously ill for much of his life, the last three years of which he spent confined to his cork-lined bedroom, sleeping by day and completing his monumental novel at night, propped up in bed, using his knees for a desk. (The bedroom has been recreated in the Musée Carnavalet in Paris.)

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He was something of a misfit. He embraced writing as his sole employment, a situation made less daunting by the fact he lived at home into adulthood and when, in his early 30s, his parents died he received a substantial inheritance. It gave him lots of time to read and contemplate the artistic life.

In his youth he spent long holidays in the village of Illiers (the model for the fictional Combray) and his student days gave him access to the upper levels of French society. He became enamoured with the so-called “salons” of the rich, earning him the reputation of being a social-climbing elitist. He was homosexual, but denied it throughout his life. All material for his fiction, of course. It could never reflect the life of the ordinary Frenchman, but would allow him penetrating analysis of upper crust of society in fin-de-siècle France.

The reader is fifty pages into the book before coming upon the famous scene when the petite scallop-shaped cake, the madeleine, is dipped in lime blossom tea. It triggers a flood of memories of his childhood holidays in the home of his eccentric great-aunt Léonie. He escapes to time past, to reflection well beyond surface detail, to extended moments of deep introspection.

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The opening section of Volume One unfolds over a summer in Combray, ostensibly from the perspective of young Marcel, although the viewpoint often switches, as it does throughout the novel, to that of an older narrator. The boy takes near daily walks in the direction of property belonging to Charles Swann, a rich stockbroker and friend of the family, or in the direction of a summer residence of the Guermantes, a bizarre family who inhabit the pinnacle of French society. Paris is where they live most of the year and it is there the reader will meet them again.

The book turns to the story of how Swann became entangled with Odette de Crécy, the woman who will eventually become his wife. Here we see to what lengths Proust will go to create a picture of personal relationships and their implications for shaping the society in which the characters are immersed. Proust is the master of intricate, though readable sentences, some of which go on for a half page or more. The reader enters the labyrinth, never knowing what verbal contortions the author will take before nicely disentangling himself and coming to a full stop. As a reader, there is no notion of resisting; you take the ride and learn to appreciate the multiple diversions along the way.

The fruit of the Swann marriage, the red-headed Gilberte, who made a brief appearance in Combray, resurfaces in Paris, in the Jardin des Champs Élysées, pursued by the now teenaged Marcel. It will be one of his many infatuations that never seem to go anywhere. Then again, plot was generally secondary to Proust. His concern was the passage of time, and our attempts to hold to what is invariably lost. Remember the author Proust spent much of his life resting, often in bed. He himself wasn’t going anywhere. He had vast amounts of time to reflect on where his limited life had taken him.

Volume II: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower

C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust’s masterwork, which the translator called “Remembrance of Things Past” (now much discredited as a title), remained the standard for several decades after it was published in the 1920s. It is considered a classic of English translation and is still widely read. But recently other translators have taken on the task, with results that have been praised by critics who feel the newer versions are closer to what Proust intended.

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I started with Moncrieff (updated by Terence Kilmartin), augmenting the experience with a recent graphic novel version of Volume I, and  “Paintings in Proust” by Eric Karpeles, a book which brings together the multitude of artwork referenced through the six volumes.

Then, partway through reading the second volume, I switched to the James Grieve version, part of a multi-translator edition first published in the UK in 2002. Though I occasionally found the word choice too current, I took to it immediately. To me the book breathed more easily.

“In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,” the title Grieve gave his Volume II  (a mindset away from Moncrieff’s awkward “Within a Budding Grove”), immediately sets the focus. Marcel is in love, especially with a troop of adolescent girls who wander about the beach at Balbec, in Normandy, where much of this segment of the book is set.

First though there is his further pursuit of the Swann daughter, Gilberte. The love is unrequited and eventually Marcel comes to his senses (or as much as he is capable) and sets her aside, turning instead to his friendship with her parents, who continue to prove to be an enigmatic pair.

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The scene changes to Balbec (based on the resort town of Cabourg, and above depicted in Nina Companeez’s 2011 television adaptation of the novel). In Balbec an older, though seemingly no wiser, Marcel (still under the wing of his grandmother) quickly turns to a new love interest, several in fact. The “gang,” as Grieve calls them, are an inducement for Marcel to schedule outings beyond the hotel that will give him the best chance of encountering the girls. The painter Elstir is something of a help in getting to know them. A newfound aristocratic friend Robert de Saint-Loup, as much as Marcel admires him, proves a distraction. As does the reemergence of another acquaintance from Volume I, Albert Bloch. Bloch is Jewish and threads of anti-Semitism begin to take hold in the novel, another angle in the depiction of the French bourgeoisie at the time of Proust.

Marcel has settled on Albertine Simonet as his love for life. She has not settled on him. The narrative weaves in and out of the relationship, Proust using any incident that arises along the way as a route to an ever wider analysis of it, analysis that is at times so far-ranging that we can easily lose sight of where Proust is taking us.

Marcel Proust

Of course he is taking us anywhere he wants, and that is sometimes the frustration, but more often the pleasure of the book. Incident evokes conjecture, which turns into scrutiny of character, and thus speculation on the direction the French society was headed.

Encasing it all is the masterly Proust prose. Two thousand pages of which remain. I’m eager to press on.

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