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In Search of Camut Calvados; Or, the Right Way to Be French

Famed San Francisco bartender Thad Vogler visits the Camut brothers, arguably Normandy’s finest producers of calvados.

camut calvados normandy thad vogler

The following is a condensed excerpt from Thad Vogler’s debut book, By the Smoke and the Smell, which follows the author on a globetrotting journey in search of the world’s true artisan spirits. Here he visits the Camut brothers, arguably Normandy’s finest producers of calvados.

The Camut brothers are Vikings, literally. They are lumbering, huge descendants of the northern invaders who came centuries ago. Jean Gabrielle is almost my size, and I’m six foot eight and well over two hundred fifty pounds. Emanuelle is also far from tiny. This is the time in France—here, now, with the towering Camuts—when I feel most at home. We hug each other mightily. They wear boots, broad-brimmed hats tipped at great, French angles, perfect winter coats. A small, handsome dog is always within arm’s reach. They show us around the estate: a Napoleonic farmhouse with a fireplace big enough to stand in is at the center of several other eighteenth-century structures, which include a couple of caves and the stillroom. The Camuts maintain all of their own equipment, unlike many grower-producers who might need to share a press or traveling still with others in the community.

These fellows are French in the way I want them to be. They smoke and wear watches, but they are also farmers. A charming mixture of urbane and rustic, they both have traveled much more than most farmer-producers in this part of the world. They are diffident and would never comprehend that we actually see them as celebrities.

The brothers take turns leading the quick tour. One remembers he needs to grab bread for dinner. He leaves and returns; then the other goes to get tobacco. Then one is off to start dinner.

The property is in perfect disarray, which is to say that each room looks like a junk shop. The pot still is a hundred years old and is encased in brick. There’s clutter on every surface. Old wrenches. Ancient tools I can’t recognize, in pieces. Calendars. A pot of wax solidified in the cold. This is that quality exhibited by the French restaurateur: nothing is wasted, every carrot top needs to be used. Someone, after all, will pay for it. Everything has value, everything can be made tasty. In a place like the Camut estate, I feel lazy and wasteful. After all, I’m the kind of person who never takes the time to take something apart once it’s broken. I lease new cars for three years at a time. I put a cheap, engineered wood floor in our more recent bar.

The cult of the new holds no fascination for the Camut brothers. Is this why their calvados is one of the best spirits in the world? They grow apples. They pick them up off the ground and make a naturally fermented cider that they distill in an ancient pot still. The only thing they add to any stage of this process is fire, which is used to heat the still that converts cider into clear, new make spirit—meaning, unaged or right off of the still—that will be aged in oak barrels before honoring our glasses. Wine can happen accidentally, but it takes humans to make spirits; that said, the Camuts intervene as little as possible. It is unrealistic to expect that everyone will make spirits in this way, but it was once more standard.

We pass forty-five minutes tasting really old barrels from the cave—thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy years old. The family has been making calvados since the 1800s. The pleasure of tasting these older vintages isn’t so much in the prestige of the old spirit as it is in growing your intimacy with this great producer. Like great age-worthy wines, these brandies retain bright acidity and good tannic structure. With each older vintage you enjoy the greater interaction with the oak barrel and fungus of the cave, the cellar where their brandies are aged; the more you enjoy the changes with age, though, the more you come to grasp what’s at the heart of this flavor: the trees, the earth, and the still that are unique to this square mile. They don’t break out the hundred-year-old calvados this trip, though we did get to taste it last time. My fantasy is they’ve withheld the most valuable stuff because we brought these new guys along.

Finished with the tour, we get back in the van and drive five minutes to a chambre d’hote (bed and breakfast) nearby, where Charles gives us fifteen minutes to drop our stuff in our room and take a shit or have a very quick shower. On these trips, you are constantly exhausted. Your whole body cries out for just twenty minutes of sleep. You look at your bed, maybe lie down and close your eyes for five minutes, and then you have to go.

Back at Camut, they are cooking a comically French meal. A leg of lamb on a little manual spit that sits amongst the coals in the enormous Napoleonic fireplace. A pot of flageolet. A simple endive salad and a scallop appetizer. Normandy is the north coast, so seafood figures heavily, as well as the Vache Normand. The famous Belon oyster is harvested in this part of the world. The cheese is already out, tempering. It looks as if we’re going to get each of the big three cheeses.

During the aperitif, we get our first glimpse of andouillette this trip. This charcuterie is a cold cut made from pig’s colon. It is literally fetid. It smells and tastes like shit. We are hungry and standing in front of a Napoleonic hearth, and we are wearing boots against the cold, so we of course eat it. I have convinced myself I love it, as has Craig. Eric is a vegetarian. Marx’s nephew politely tries it, and Leon from Marx Importers has a bit. The first three trips we made to France, Craig spent the morning after the Camut dinner vomiting.

Eric and I are rooting for him this trip, and we all study him wondering and theorizing what he’ll consume that will lead to his almost inevitable illness. The andouillette is everyone’s first and best guess. Other possibilities are the rustic, unpasteurized cider the Camut brothers make for their own consumption. Of course, Craig will drink a great deal of calvados as well. And we are all vastly dehydrated from a day and a night of travel. Strangely, one of my more pleasant memories of any of these brandy trips is of the previous year when we’d stopped for Craig to vomit. It was midmorning on a bright, sunny January day; we’d paused on a narrow road that split a huge field. Light bounced from the dew on the long blades of meadow grass as we listened to Craig puking discreetly. We couldn’t see him, only hear. Between spasms he said, “The cool air feels nice.” It was true.

The wonder of this evening says more of the place than it does of the participants: the food, the sleeping winter fruit trees, the laughter, the dog under the old table, the medieval hearth, the Viking brothers, the brandies. This is all in the bottle.

One of the most lovely, and at times maddening qualities of most of our hosts on these trips is that they insist upon an extended aperitif. The term “aperitif” refers not only to the category of beverage—vermouth, sherry, sparkling wine, dry cocktails—with which we’re familiar; it also delineates the period of time when we relax and have a drink before dinner. It generally lasts an hour or so and usually there are snacks on the table. At its best, this time allows you to leave behind the stress of the day and clean the mind and palate before dining. Americans do it, too: it’s the time standing around the kitchen with a glass of wine while your friend finishes chopping or braising something.

The brothers offer calvados and Schweppes, probably our favorite discovery from these trips, which is simply room-temperature apple brandy and tonic. Shit sausage and room-temp highballs with Vikings: life is good. The aperitif can be misery when you are subject to three in a day. Two hours late for your next tasting and a producer is holding you hostage with reheated frozen snacks and their pommeau (rhymes with “homo”), which is simply apple juice from the region fortified with calvados. Producers each have their own, just as each generally makes their own cider. The most hellish aperitifs we’ve passed were at the inn of Charles’s brother-in-law, who sadistically makes you wait until midnight before feeding you. (Bernard, with his gout and his insults, waits for us at the end of the trip. He is a complete bastard and deserves greater description, which will come.)

The meal is great. After the scallops, the endive, and the aperitif, we pause for le trou normand, our palate cleanser before the meat course. Rather than what some call the more conventional marriage of sorbet and calvados, the Camut brothers pour a large glass of very old calvados for each of the dinner’s participants. Seventy year, the first time. This time, they share their bottled blend of brandies that average around thirty-five years.

The previous year, Emanuelle’s ten-year-old daughter joined us. She was the only female guest, and she was very welcome. Now that I’m in my forties, I’m not enchanted by extended periods of time only in the company of men, and this is only worsened by protracted bouts of van travel. I worry Emanuelle’s young daughter didn’t enjoy our company the year before; maybe that’s why we’re getting younger calvados.

That last visit, we made great strides in our relationship with the Camut brothers. We were treated to tours of two additional facilities. As though their flawlessly curated calvados production weren’t enough, Emanuelle has been in development on an apple balsamic vinegar cellar for about ten years. He is accumulating inventory, which is as essential for balsamic as it is for the suc­cessful sale of spirits. The cellar for the balsamic is above ground and stuns us: hundreds of small casks, perfectly old and charming, in a lovely order. We taste many vintages of the vinegar and beg to buy it, but it won’t be ready for sale for years. They tease you, the Camuts. Taste this and that, but we probably won’t sell it to you. We learned later that there is some contention with regard to the Camut estate. Other absent siblings are sharing in the revenue while Emanuelle and Jean-Gab do all the work. As a result, they seem to be selling the minimum to stay afloat while they reposition themselves.

This year we see the garage, which gratifies Eric, my partner, who is obsessed with engines. After I’d known him for years, he let it slip that after graduating from Bard College, he’d driven eighteen-wheelers for a couple of years. I hang back and work on my cigar, a Romeo y Julieta robusto, a habit I indulge when I am outside the United States. Engines roar. Eric and Emanuelle drive off for a bit. I see the end of memory in Craig’s eyes. His body contin­ues on affably, but he may not have great recollection of these last moments. This is probably true of several of us. I avoid being drunk because when I am my personality shifts dramatically and terribly. Fortunately, all my travel companions remain themselves. Charles jokes and shouts in unintelligible French. Marx’s nephew corners Jean-Gab and questions him with bearded intensity about the dif­ferent vintages poured at dinner. Everyone is engaged.

The wonder of this evening, which is always the best of the trip, says more of the place than it does of the participants: the food, the sleeping winter fruit trees, the laughter, the dog under the old table, the medieval hearth, the Viking brothers, the brandies. This is all in the bottle. And when we pour calvados, especially Camut, we are connected to all this. This is the supply chain in which we want to be a link.

For years, buying spirits was limited to visits from distributors. They would present bottles to you, always drawing attention to the appearance of the bottle and how lovely it would appear on your back bar. This is one of the large distillers’ key forms of marketing, placement in view of the guest. The distributor lets you taste and answers what questions he or she can. Maybe they’ve visited the producer, maybe not. You taste in a vacuum, with no understanding of a broader context, relying on one person rather than on an experience of where it was made, who made it, what they made it from. If you believe tasting is an objective experience then this may be fine, but I believe that this process of selection could not be more subjective. I don’t want to be an expert; I want to be an enthusiast. With each bottle I choose, I am building community, connecting myself to people for whom I advocate every time I open one of their bottles to pour for a guest, like bringing a friend to a party at another friend’s home. I need to be sure of my companion’s character before subjecting the host to it.

I’ve given up worrying about Charles driving after hours on black French country roads. He gets us to the chambre d’hote by about 2:30 a.m. He’ll be back in five hours. He drives back to the Camuts, where he’ll probably drink some wine and maybe smoke a joint with the Vikings before getting a couple of hours of sleep and collecting us.

I am glad to see my bed. I force myself to shower because I haven’t bathed in close to forty-eight hours and I want the experience of clean skin on new sheets. I close my eyes and wake four and half hours later. This is the jet lag waking me, but it’s perfect because the alarm will sound in about five minutes. I dress and head downstairs to check my email and drink coffee while we wait for Charles. Even eighteenth-century French B&B’s have Wi-Fi.

Charles is about a half hour late and Marx’s nephew is still not downstairs. Charles can be late, but not us. If it had been Eric or Craig or myself who had been late, one of us would have his balls broken, but Charles is strangely sweet and patient with Marx’s nephew, who is (I reflect) actually young enough to be my son. I resolve to take the same position. These trips are hard. Being so close to people, you lose perspective, seeing a person’s worst qualities, and this myopia can lead to tension and conflict.

During our drive later today, the landscape will shift from a lush, open, agricultural landscape to the stonier, more barren region of Cognac. The architecture will become more mercantile. Cognac is farther from Paris geographically, but it feels closer; it is more urbane and commercial. We leave Calvados more convinced than ever that we have found our niche in this business. We will miss it for the year we are away.

Reprinted with permission from By the Smoke and the Smell by Thad Vogler, copyright © 2017. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.