Norman conquest

What better fate could befall an apple than to end up as a fine, 15-year-old calvados
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I think it's obligatory under French law for a farmer to operate machinery with a cigarette in his mouth. The cider makers take this particular law especially seriously. They wait until their pile of apples is high, and then they pulp it - only adding the cigarette ash at the last minute. After six weeks, they have cider. Or else they turn it into calvados. I discovered why that really isn't a hard choice to make on a motoring holiday in Normandy.

I think it's obligatory under French law for a farmer to operate machinery with a cigarette in his mouth. The cider makers take this particular law especially seriously. They wait until their pile of apples is high, and then they pulp it - only adding the cigarette ash at the last minute. After six weeks, they have cider. Or else they turn it into calvados. I discovered why that really isn't a hard choice to make on a motoring holiday in Normandy.

My first taste of calvados was in a tiny 17th-century distillery, built by ship's carpenters, where the smell of oak - some of the tonneaux (casks) were 100-years-old - melded with the warm apple vapour. It was autumn, and the evaporation of alcohol had left a fine-smelling mildew on the walls. The French, being the French, had a name for it - "the angel's share". It was the calvados reclaimed by God. I took my share home in a bottle. I hope God has forgiven me.

So I was delighted to discover that the magnificent Roussillon restaurant in London (which, oddly, displays a large pumpkin in the dining area) serves a five, 12 and 15-year-old calvados. At least I think that is what the sommelier said. Communication was a problem. He spoke English like Antoine de Caunes, and my understanding dragged along a few seconds behind him. His introduction to the Lecompte calvados, from the Pays D'Auge, was admirable. I'm just not sure what language it was in.

It took me back to France - the Normandy woods, patchworked with thousands of irregular fields. The lanes were surprisingly busy. According to the Code Napoleon, inherited property is shared between children in equal parts. So land is split up, and farmers have to trawl from pillar to post. Which is why I spent an entire holiday stuck behind tractors full of apples.

Roussillon made me feel like the Sun King. The table linen was heavier than a winter coat, and the food they laid on it elevated taste to the power of sound and vision. Whether it was the slow-cooked John Dory or the chrysanthemum soufflé, Neris and I felt thoroughly spoilt. I liked it that my four boiled potatoes were placed at north, south, east and west on the plate. And that my ice-cream arrived spoon-ready. Perhaps a man was employed to soften it in his mouth.

I expected to regret my five courses. But no. I had the warm glow of food, drink and love that I only tend to get at Christmas. I even decided to do justice to a cheese board that laughed in the face of EU pasteurisation guidelines. With another glass of calvados. French calvados buyers pour a couple of drops on their palms, leave it for a few moments, rub and inhale. Like testing perfume. But I'm not French. I'm English. And I wasn't going to waste another drop.

Roussillon Restaurant, 16 St Barnabas Street, London SW1 (020-7730 5550)

drinkwithrichardjohnson@yahoo.co.uk

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