Calvados Busnel, a family affair

Did you know that until the beginning of the 19th century, Calvados was just a drink that was produced on farms to be enjoyed with the family rather than sold? I was keen to learn all about this most Norman of tipples, and decided to pay a visit to the Busnel Distillery, the first major Calvados distillery in France, found in 1820 by Ernest Busnel in Pont-l’Evêque.

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Ernest started out his career by distilling apple eau de vie in his cellars, producing what would eventually become the apple brandy we know today as Calvados. Some time later, his son Georges took over the business and gave his name to the distillery and brand. Somewhat of a perfectionist, Georges was keen to select the very best apples for his Calvados. ‘No good Calvados without good apples,’ he would say. Every day he would oversee the complex distilling process and scour Normandy countryside for new spirits. It is said that Georges went as far as to mix twelve spirits together, all of different vintages, on his quest to find the perfect blend.

George’s son Pierre was also to fall under the spell of Calvados. At an early age, he developed a passion for distilling, and in 1927 he started running the family business with his father. By this point, Calvados Busnel was being distributed throughout France. In 1938, the Busnel distillery became the sole supplier of Calvados to the famous transatlantic liner the Queen Mary. Already a national brand in France, bottles of Calvados Busnel started crossing the Atlantic to be enjoyed by American consumers. By 1960, Busnell was the premiere Calvados supplier in France.

At the end of the 1970s, the Busnel Distillery expanded and took over a cider factory in the village of Cormeilles. Here it has remained ever since, the result of four generations of skilled Calvados producers which has evolved into a successful tourist attraction offering a unique insight into the family business through a guided tour of the distillery.

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We started our tour with a short film telling the story of the Busnel family. Next, we were shown the cider apples as they were gathered in the yard, waiting to be washed and pressed into apple juice.

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We were then taken to the fermentation and distillation room. After pressing, the juice is poured into the tanks in this room, where it remains for 3 to 6 months. Thanks to the natural yeast found in the apple skins, the apple juice ferments (i.e. the sugar gradually turns into alcohol) to become cider. Fermentation depends mainly on the climate. The milder the winter, the faster the fermentation is, and vice versa. Although the cider produced during this process is not intended to be sold, it is important that it is of a high quality, otherwise it will not produce good Calvados.

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Distillation begins once the apple juice has turned into cider (which contains around 6% alcohol) Between January and June, the smell of hot apples lingers in the air, as the cider is heated and then condensed in order to filter out all of the alcohol and aromatic flavours. The longer you distill the cider in the still, the more complex its flavour will be and the more you can sell it for. Single continuous distillation takes place in what is know as a column still, whereas double distillation takes place in a traditional alembic pot. More prestigious vintages such as the AOC Calvados Pays d’Auge are distilled twice to produce more complex flavours, whereas other types of Calvados are only distilled once, and retain a fresh, clean apple flavour as a result.

The liquid that emerges from the still is known as eau de vie, and contains about 70% alcohol. It can only be bottled two years after distillation (or even later than that, as mentioned above) so during this period, it ages in oak casks and becomes more aromatic, thus turning into Calvados. As time passes, floral and fruity notes mix with almond, vanilla, dried fruit flavours and hues of liquorice. Unlike many types of Calvados, the Calvados produced at the Busnel distillery does not have a very woody taste, as this was thought to mask other flavours. Once bottled, the Calvados does not develop any more in taste and can be stored for more years without going off. We took a wander around the barrel room, which stores both AOC Calvados and AOC Calvados Pays d’Auge varieties.

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Once we reached the end of our tour, we were treated to a tasting session, during which we tried the AOC Calvados, AOC Calvados Pays d’Auge, Pommeau de Normandie and the Busnel Distillery’s very own appley take on Bailey, Liqueur Crème au Calvados – I was so good I bought bttles of everything to take home!

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The Distillerie Busnel is open from 10am-12.30pm and 2.30pm-7pm every day from March to mid-November, and on weekends from November to the end of December. The guided tour can be in French, English or German and lasts about 90 minutes with a tasting session included, and costs €2 per person.

For more information on food and drink in Normandy, visit the Normandy Tourist Board website.

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Cover photo © Shutterstock | All other photos © F. Lambert / Normandy Tourist Board | Writer: Fran Lambert

Eat like a king at the Étape Louis XIII

I love a good restaurant recommendation, especially when it comes from a local. I was planning a trip deep into rural Normandy in search of a new Norman foodie trend – red flesh apples – and needed a stop for lunch. My local partner Capucine suggested the restaurant Etape Louis XIII in the village of Beaumesnil, approximately halfway between Lisieux and Bernay. Chef Sébastien is part of a chef’s association, the Toques Normandes, who are passionate about working with Norman produce and exist to promote Norman cuisine.

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© M. McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board

No sooner do I arrive in the village when I round a corner and am suddenly awe-struck by the magnificent Château de Beaumesnil. It may be lunchtime but I have to stop for a photo.

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© M. McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board

I see a sign for a potager (kitchen garden to you and me) just down a path from the entrance to the chateau so I go to have a look. I learn later that they grow over 500 varieties of vegetables here, including some that are near extinction, and they host a vegetable festival every September.

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© M. McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board

Back in the car and in no time at all, I pass through the main hub of the village, and arrive at my destination. I park up and walk through a beautifully kept garden to reach a very pretty traditional Norman building with half-timbered façades and geraniums spilling out of the window boxes. The building dates from 1612 and was originally intended as a rectory – I then realise that the name alludes to this building dating to the reign of Louis XIII!

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© M. McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board

I step through the front door into a dimly lit wood-paneled entrance hall and am greeted by the lovely Aurélie, who ushers me into the dining room. A huge fire place dominates the room and acts as a divider between what must once have been two smaller rooms. The fire is lit and the room is cosy and intimate with a touch of sophistication.

There’s a very calm atmosphere as classical music plays gently in the background and the restaurant’s diners have hushed conversations across tables.  The service is equally discreet and attentive.

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© M. McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board

There’s a good selection on the menu and the starters and deserts feature quite a few French and Norman classics with a bit of a twist. For starters there are warm oysters with Camembert, Saint-Jacques scallops or Andouille tart with apples and creamy Pommeau sauce, home-made foie gras on toast with a cinnamon biscuit.

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© M. McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board

I go straight in for the main and choose the plat du jour: salmon with a carrot purée and seasonal vegetables. It is deliciously tender and I detect cumin, a squeeze of orange and a garnish of fennel that liven the accompanying vegetables. It’s rich, flavoursome and just the right amount.

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© M. McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board

I would have been more than satisfied to stop there but when I declined a desert, the gentleman on the table next to me intervened and said that I couldn’t leave the restaurant without trying the calvados soufflé – he always orders two! My arm is sufficiently twisted…

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© M. McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board

Wow! I’ve tried calvados is a few culinary forms but this by far tops them all. It’s light, fluffy, melts in your mouth and emits a heavenly aroma. When I meet Chef Sébastien after my meal he tells me that when he took over the restaurant a few years ago, he learnt this recipe from his predecessor as it was a firm favourite with previous clients.

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© M. McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board

So there you have it, the Etape Louis XIII is well worth the journey, if only for the calvados soufflé! I expect you’ll be won over with the rest of the menu too. Two courses are priced at €25 and three are €33. Given the quality of my meal, this strikes me as excellent value.  L’Etape Louis XIII is open for lunch and dinner every day except for Tuesday and Monday evenings. And while you’re there, why not pop by the Château de Beaumesnil? It’s known locally as the little Versailles and with its beautiful gardens, it’s well worth a visit.

For more details on food and drink in Normandy, visit the Normandy Tourist Board website.

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Cover photo © M. McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board | Writer: Maggie McNulty

 

Cidre de Glace, the new Norman aperitif

Cidre de Glace is the new aperitif that’s been taking the Normandy foodie world by storm. Originating in Quebec, this new apple tipple is stronger than traditional Norman cider, is lightly syrupy in texture and has a delicious aromatic flavour.

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© Normandy Tourist Board / M. McNulty

In the Eure and Seine-Maritime regions of Normandy, an association of cider farmers has been working together to develop and promote a Norman Cidre de Glace. I visited two of these producers – Gérard Lenormand at his farm, Le Clos des Citots in Heurteauville across the Seine River from Jumièges Abbey and Marie Bourut at le Manoir du Val farm near Beaumesnil – to find out more about the new drink that everyone’s talking about.

The association produced its first line of Cidre de Glace in 2013. Marie explained that part of their motivation for developing this new drink was that cidre fermier is always popular in Normandy but is considered a rustic, country drink and sales remain static. With Cidre de Glace, the association wanted to create a high-end product that would spark a new interest in apple-based drinks.

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© Normandy Tourist Board / M. McNulty

Cidre de Glace was first discovered in Quebec in the 1990s when, instead of picking apples in the autumn before the frosts came, the apples were left on the tree to endure temperatures that could fall as low as -40°C. In January, the apples were picked in still freezing conditions, by which time the fruit was completely dehydrated. When the frozen apples were pressed and the juice slowly fermented, the result was a more concentrated, alcoholic cider.

With Norman winters much milder than in Quebec, the association worked on an alternative way to create a similar product. In late autumn, the apples are picked and pressed. Their juice is then frozen to -22°C and left for three weeks to form a giant ice cube where the water settles in the centre and the apple concentrate forms an outer layer. When this is slowly defrosted, the apple concentrate is collected and then slowly fermented cold to produce an alcohol at 11.4%.

When seven of the association’s cider farmers worked together to launch Upper Normandy’s Cidre de Glace in 2013, they produced 3,000 bottles. Two months later, they were sold out. Gérard told me that the success was in part, thanks to the French media taking great interest in their product. When people tried it for themselves, they loved it.

In 2014, another three farmers from the association joined the Cidre de Glace campaign and this time round, they collectively produced 10,000 bottles to sell in farm shops, restaurants and shops throughout the region.

All farmers in the association use the same packaging and work collaboratively on the promotion of the drink, but their farm is clearly identified on the label. From one farm to another, the flavour of the drink can vary greatly. Gérard told me that in his second year of production, he experimented by producing the concentrated alcohol of three separate types of apple – sweet, bitter and sharp – and finally mixed them together to create a balanced and harmonious flavour.

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© Normandy Tourist Board / M. McNulty

Finally, it was time to try some Cidre de Glace and see for myself what made it so special. Light, delicious, rich and yet not too sweet, I could imagine drinking this very chilled, yet Gérard assured me that it is best served between 8°C and 10°C and is particularly good paired with foie gras, cheese or an appley dessert. I brought back several bottles and friends have been thrilled with this new discovery. I just hope stocks last for my next visit to Normandy!log_normandie_gb1

For more information on food and drink in Normandy, visit the Normandy Tourist Board website.

In the lap of luxury at the Château de la Puisaye

For foodies travelling to Normandy one of the best ways to sample local cuisine and learn about life in the region is by staying at a B&B and dining with your hosts at a table d’hôtes. For those who want to learn how to prepare local specialties for themselves, there are a number of B&Bs that offer cooking workshops.

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© Normandy Tourist Board / M. McNulty

On a beautiful autumnal morning, I travelled to Château de la Puisaye near the medieval town of Verneuil-sur-Avre to meet B&B owner, British-born Diane, who offers her guests the full foodie experience.

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After marrying her French husband Bruno, Diane worked for many years in the French capital as a lawyer in the film industry. Diane had longed to move to the countryside to spend more time horse riding and had a dream of opening a B&B. In 2002, Diane and Bruno bought the beautiful Château de la Puisaye in Normandy and made the move.

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© Normandy Tourist Board / M. McNulty

The chateau dates back to 1760 and is set in magnificent grounds where guests can explore 27 hectares of parkland and many trails that run through a beech and oak wood. Diane keeps a huge vegetable garden that provides plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables between June and November for her table d’hôtes. When I visited last October we found plenty of ripe fruit on the trees that we picked for Diane to transform into jam.

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© Normandy Tourist Board / M. McNulty

A keen cook and expert in classic dishes from both sides of the Channel, Diane offers her guests a gourmet table d’hôtes. Wherever possible she uses fresh produce from her garden for delicious soups and salads. What she doesn’t grow herself, she buys locally – she told me that there’s an excellent foie gras farm, free-range pork farm, poultry farm and even an escargot farm in the area. She now also has her own flock of sheep so in season you might be lucky enough to enjoy roast garlic and rosemary lamb that boasts almost zero food miles!

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© Normandy Tourist Board / M. McNulty

In the autumn, wild mushrooms can be found in the acres of woodland in the grounds. For those lucky enough to be here at the right time of the year, which is completely unpredictable, Diane enjoys taking guests to the best spots to pick fresh mushrooms.

 

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© Normandy Tourist Board / M. McNulty

For guests who want to learn how to cook some local dishes much as I believe Diane would be more than qualified, she calls on the services of a bilingual professional chef, Philippe Legrendre. Philippe spends half-day at the chateau teaching guests how to prepare four-courses of Norman specialties that they then dine on. If the class falls on the local market day, guests can also accompany Philippe on a market visit where they will learn how to select the best produce.

So, if you’re looking for a gourmet stay with bags of character, Château de la Puisaye might just be the place for you.

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For more information on food and drink in Normandy, and for a list of all of the main food festivals in the region, please visit the Normandy Tourist Board website.

 

Make mine a macaroon

It’s true, macaroons are très a la mode not only in France – they’ve made their way across the Channel too. Vanilla, pistachio, chocolate, coffee and lemon are all delicious flavours but I doubt you’ve tried or even heard of escargot, marshmallow or even salted caramel and calvados flavour. Until now of course…

Meet Patricia. Once a clown and children’s entertainer – she can sculpt a balloon into 40 different animal shapes – now a macaroon maker extraordinaire. Driven by her sizzling curiosity and tireless creativity, she’s mastered over 90 flavours and keeps inventing more. She’s entirely self-taught and happened upon her business venture, Aux Saveurs Retrouvées almost by accident.

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© Normandy Tourist Board / M. McNulty

Seeking adventure, Patricia left her native Paris almost ten years ago to move to Spain with her husband and young family. A keen baker, Patricia ran a coffee shop where she explored French cooking and baking, to the delight of her Spanish customers. Always looking for a challenge, when she heard that macaroons were particularly tricky to make, Patricia decided that this was next for her to master.

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© Normandy Tourist Board / M. McNulty

Returning to France just over two years ago, Patricia and her family decided to switch city life for the Normandy countryside. They made their home in Buis sur Damville, a hamlet surrounded by miles of farmland. Patricia had dreamt of being able to raise chickens to supply the eggs for her business and she now has a brood of 70 in her back garden.

Setting up a state of the art kitchen next door to the family house, Patricia works around the clock baking macaroons and inventing new flavours. It’s a labour intensive process – not only because she makes all the fillings herself but also because she only makes 80 at a time – more than that she says, and the quality is lost. With five children, Patricia’s grown accustomed to operating on little sleep and it’s not crying babies that keep her up at night now but having a head full of new flavours to create.

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Normandy Tourist Board / M. McNulty

Wanting to venture into savoury macaroons Patricia has developed escargot, mustard, cheese and caramelised onion flavour. She admits to having a sweet tooth and goes to town decorating the sweet macaroons and trying all variety of flavours: praline, rum and raison and my favourite, chocolate orange. She experiments with shape, colours, decoration… it’s clear she has great fun doing what she does.

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© Facebook / Aux Saveurs Retrouvées

In the two years since she moved her, Patricia’s macaroon business has grown from strength to strength. She started by selling at local markets and festivals and as soon people taste these little rounds of delight, word spreads. The week before I met her, she’d had a stall at the autumn apple festival, Fête de la Pomme in the nearby town of Conde-en-Auge. After a couple of days working long hours to get everything ready, all 1,500 macaroons were all gone in just three hours.

Patricia now supplies macaroons for weddings, businesses and several gourmet tea rooms throughout Normandy. In spite of being in deep rural countryside, Patricia’s always had a steady stream of visitors who make the journey to try her macaroons for themselves. She also recently opened her own on-site tea room and will be launching a new English menu this November.

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© Normandy Tourist Board / M. McNulty

For those wanting to try their hand at making their own macaroons, Patricia runs workshops every Friday evening (she can currently run these in French and Spanish, she’s working on the English so watch this space)! Participants make two flavours of macaroons – and each participant take home a box of their creations.

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© Normandy Tourist Board / M. McNulty

So what’s next for this restless macaroon chef? Well a lady from La Durée visited her shop a few months ago so who knows, perhaps we’ll soon be seeing escargot, mustard and calvados salted caramel macaroons in Paris’ most mouth-watering windows.

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© Normandy Tourist Board / M. McNulty

Visit the Aux Saveurs Retrouvées Facebook page by clicking herelog_normandie_gb1

For more information on food and drink in Normandy, and for a list of all of the main food festivals in the region, please visit the Normandy Tourist Board website.