Generally French like red wine with their meals, as well ad on its own. White wine, they say, are for weak and inconsequential people.
When it comes to spirits, northern French are well known for their Calvados (apple brandy), the southerners for their Cognac, and Alsatians for their fruit brandies. They produce these delectable spirits and consume them in large quantities with abandon. Of course, much is exported to many countries around the world.
Around Marseille and in general in Provence, that supernatural part of France where food tastes super delicious, and wine glides down smoothly, people favour pastis – a liquorice and herb flavoured alcoholic beverage that turns milky white when mixed with water. Normandy is apple and cream country. Seafood, pork and chicken are always well prepared and presented. When capable French chefs start cooking with prime ingredients, there is no denying the food can be heavenly and memorable.
In Normandy, where people eat well, there is a tradition that calls for downing a good shot (at least one ounce and often more) of calvados in the middle of an extended meal just before the main course. This is called “le trou Normanne” .It is supposed to help digest better and settle the stomach.
Normandy’s fame covers Camembert, superlative butter, cream, lamb, exquisitely fresh seafood, and a cuisine to honour all fine ingredients.
Calvados is distilled from up to 100 different highly acid apples with an aroma of baked apples leaving a dry and firm palate but still with a fine underlying fruitiness.
Calvados must come from Pays d’Auge (a department within Normandy), and adhere to set rules that are strictly enforced, In other words its an Appellation Controlee product
Boulard, and Pere Magloire are the two large producers, although there exist hundreds of family operations with possibly even more refined products than the aforementioned.
Regardless, if you like pork, try to incorporate some Calvados while cooking. You will be amazed how the taste improves.
Of course, you can enjoy Calvados on its own, in pastries and coffee. It can be used to flame fruits and making ice cream! The possibilities are endless for the cook with a vivid imagination.
Cognac, the most famous of all grape brandies, must be distilled from, grapes grown in Charente Maritime, and from a well defined region sub-divided into five well defined terroirs. They are – Grande Champagne, Petit Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois and Bon Bois. Only three grape varieties may be employed (Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Colombard). Once the grapes are harvested and pressed, the must is fermented to approximately 9 per cent ABV and distilled in Alembic style copper stills, at least twice. Subsequently, this fierce brandy distilled out at approximately 65 per cent ABV is aged in Limousin or Troncais barrels for a minimum of three years, often much longer.
Cognac is always blended to achieve uniformity of style and taste. The regisseur is in charge of blending and must be experienced enough to blend correctly and consistently all the time.
Cognac quality depends on the sub-region on which grapes grew (Grand Champagne is the best and Fine Bois the least) and on the length of aging. V S (Very Superior) means three years of aging, V S O P (Very Superior Old Pale) five. Beyond that, descriptions depend on the integrity of the distiller. Hors d’age or Napoleon simply means that the product is older than five years, but not much else.
Well-established firms maintain huge inventories and blend their brands for consistency. All are reliable – Hennessy, Courvoisier, Hine, Bisquit, Monet, Lapostolle-Marnier, Larsen, and Prince de Polignac are only some of the better known Cognac shippers.
Just south of Bordeaux another brandy producing region; Armagnac lays claim to be older than Cognac, but definitely less well known. Gascons are hardy people who like to distil their brandy once and age it in Gascon oak barrels. Armagnac is produced from the same grapes as Cognac, but here the soil is less chalky, the stills different in shape, and the climate age the product differently.
There are those who prefer Armagnac to Cognac, because the former is more natural, and hardy. It packs a punch and goes very well with chunky country pates, actually terrines, semi-soft unctuous cheeses, and creamy foods.
After an extended meal, there is nothing better than a well-aged Armagnac to help you digest, and contemplate the political happenings of the day!
In Bordeaux, Champagne and Burgundy they produce marc (a. k. a grappa in Italy). Some like a good marc, but quantities are small and quality spotty. If you want to try a bottle, buy Vieille marc de Bourgogne when you are there.
Alsace has been the home of fruit brandies since time immemorial. They distil any fruit they grow; cherries, peach, all kinds of berries, apricots, quinces even gooseberries.
Fruit brandies are colourless smell delightfully of the fruit from which they are distilled and should be chilled before service in a snifter!