CALVADOS CLOSE-UP: ON MOVIEMAKING AS TASTING TRIP

The origin of Around the Sun is this. My friend Oliver and I had been trying to make a movie together for years. The plan was for me to write a script that he’d direct. After a false start with one project that couldn’t achieve liftoff, austere frugality seemed like the only way forward. I tried to think up some idea involving very few characters in mostly one locale. It was like the Mystery Box challenge: to take a few choice luck-of-the-draw ingredients, and a finite amount of time, and prepare a dish that Gordon Ramsay won’t spit out and yell at you for. 

Except maybe that’s not a good analogy because instead of a global TV audience there’s widespread indifference, instead of prize money there’s debt, and instead of a hot-tempered celebrity chef rooting for you there are your own personal demons rooting against you. Anyway, at some point Oliver mentioned free access to a “mini dilapidated château” in Normandy, and I liked the sound of that. I also reasoned that this sort of challenge would be pointless if some manner of deliciousness wasn’t also a goal. The most essential ingredient, demons be damned, always is one’s own enthusiasm.

Normandy is a coastal region in the northwest of France, best known for impressionism, momentous invasions, that one huge medieval abbey on a tidal island, and exquisitely distilled apple brandy. It was the latter that I chose to work into the movie, as all that other stuff gets pretty expensive pretty quickly. But look, being at the budget level of obligation to available materials doesn’t mean you can’t live well. And so the gastronomical approach became literal. Our movie’s characters spend some time drinking together, and what they drink is the aforementioned brandy, known locally by the name of its regional address: Calvados. 

Warmly meaning business at around 84 proof, this spry little tipple comes into being from barrel-aging distilled cider for at least a couple of years, sometimes many more. In Calvados the place, the making of Calvados the beverage has been going on for close to five hundred years now, with nearly as many varieties of apple (and some pears too). They’ve got it down to both an art and a science: fruitful without being sugary, fancy without being pretentious. A reliable cocktail or cuisine ingredient, it also works alone as an apéritif, a digéstif, or both. Older locals describe Le trou normand as the hole burned into one’s stomach, by way of Calvados shot, to make room for more food between the courses of a lengthy meal. To put it a tad more appetizingly, I might say — now from copious experience — that it’s an all-occasion palate cleanser.

Calvados the beverage is rumored to first have been discovered by Americans when our armed forces helped purge the Nazis from France in 1944. (If ever someone finally purges the Nazis from America, I can only hope we’ll have commensurate delicacies to offer in gratitude.) Since then, in the drinking culture of the US, it has registered somewhere between the cheap hard cider you’d be ridiculed for choosing over shitty beer and the expensive cognac you’d be ridiculed for using to prop up poseur noblesse.

a weekend calvados
How we relaxed during the off hours of production

But in the drinking culture of Around the Sun, aside from being a plot point, Calvados was a bonding agent. It lubricated everything from production workflow milestones to off-hours poker games to an elaborate feast of very locally sourced wild boar. Its charms were highly and reliably infectious. For instance: Our sound recordist, a boisterous Transylvanian, arrived on set without ever having tried the stuff, but keen on new experiences. Detecting my enthusiasm, he started on the cheap end and worked his way up through all the available price points. Each time, touchingly, he’d track me down to make sure I didn’t miss out. Eventually, beyond the available price points, a special reserve stash was made available by our gracious chateau hosts, and roundly appreciated.  

“Peculiar stuff” is how the actor Helen Hayes once described Calvados: “Veteran French boozers limit themselves to a tablespoonful, and at that, end up licking policemen and setting fire to the Arc de Triomphe.” Though unable to vouch for this personally, I can believe it, and would only add that what Calvados lacks in intoxication-onset warning signals it makes up for, mysteriously, in hangover prevention. Or at least that has been my experience. Our sound guy might have a different story. 

More importantly, the dearness of this spirit to my heart now is permanent. A couple of years ago I couldn’t have imagined my longstanding passion for the greatest of all art forms might be so beautifully entwined with a nearly equal passion for fruit-based fire water. Now I know better, and therefore will be fleshing out some microbudget-achievable scenarios having to do with Piedmont grappa, Speyside whisky, Nagano sake, and Jalisco tequila, just in case.

Originally published in EatDrinkFilms