‘So, shall we leave?’ Pam asked, placing her teacup on the garden table outside the half-timbered cottage we'd rented for the week. ‘We ought to be off soon if we’re going to get parking near the beach.’ The children rose, dusting off croissant crumbs, suddenly animated by the prospect. Oscar folded the corner of the page of his book and set it down, normally an action only arrived at after persistent requests. There had been talk of the beach earlier in the week and, at the time, I’d meant to mention I had already made an appointment with a Calvados producer at noon. I now regretted having left it to this moment to bring it up; after all, it was an unnecessary procrastination.
On each of our holidays I would meet with one or two producers of wine, or the drink of the region, as an opportunity to glean knowledge for our tastings; it was a balance that had to be struck as soon as the children were old enough to negotiate the addition of pursuits, other than those olfactory, into our holidays. With hindsight, I may have subconsciously engineered the clash so I could spend my afternoon in the company of vats, barrels and artisan alcohol, rather than smearing sand-encrusted factor fifty over my torso. Had my appointment not been with Jean-Roger Groult, one of the finest creators of Normandy’s apple brandy and the producer responsible for my fascination with barrel aged spirits (an introduction to his Calvados on a sales call in the early nineties had left me overnighting in the wine shop's car park), then I might have forgone the fallout and opted for the beach. Instead, I found myself walking to my appointment, the car now coast-bound.
The hedgerows beside me already radiated the day’s heat and the layers I’d set off with were now tied around my waist. I stopped and plucked at the shoulders of my shirt to introduce a little air to my back. I was using my phone to navigate the high-sided lanes through the ‘bocage’, Normandy’s patchwork of orchard, pasture and woodland, and once again I pulled it from my pocket to check the progress of the blue dot. Instead I saw a black screen indicating that the map within the silent circuitry was now impenetrable, as was the address and any means of contacting my host. I would have to rely on my ability to recall the route. Having no faith in that whatsoever, I hoped I'd accost someone for directions.
I pressed on; first taking a turn I was certain of, followed by another two less so. Normally I relish the quiet France's countryside offers in August, but now I cursed it, wondering where the French went on holiday. They couldn’t all fit into Provence, surely? Another three direction choices, taken with the confidence of a nervous gambler, left me wondering whether to turn back. Then a cyclist clad in phosphorescent Lycra rounded the corner. I made an attempt to flag him down, but he was either powered by one of his sponsors (EDF) or fleeing another (Credit Lyonnais), as he jinked to one side, pace unchecked, leaving me in a slipstream of deodorant – gone too quickly to hear my opinion of men in skintight DayGlo.
I began to jog, partly in the belief that if I made more navigation choices I might increase the likelihood of success, but also because the thought of a glass of Calvados in a cellar was becoming more attractive by the moment. Minutes later, at the start of a long straight, a gate swung out into the road, discharging cows onto the tarmac before me. Mindful of my lesson the night before, I checked what type of protuberances they had and was relieved to find that none were bulls. These were definitely girls. I pressed myself against the hedge as the procession began to pass, their warm musky smell not unpleasant. Having also forgone a watch in place of my phone, I had no idea of the time. With each minute of the herd’s progress any hope of making the meeting faded. By the time the last cow ambled by I had given up. Even the sight of an old herdsman closing the gate did little to rekindle it. I approached anyway and asked him whether he knew of the distillery.
‘Of course, everyone knows Calvados Groult,’ he beamed, leaning on his stick. ‘I sell apples from my orchard there.’
‘Great, what’s the time?’ I asked, hoping I might still make it.
He squinted at the watch on his leathery wrist. ‘11:45.'
This was good news. ‘I have an appointment there at 12:00, can I make it?’
‘Certainly! It will only take you ten minutes.’
This was even better news. I asked the way. Not normally able to memorise more than the first two points of any set of directions before wondering what I was having for my next meal, or marvelling at some unconnected minutiae, I frequently had to ask him to pause to allow the route to sink in. ‘Ten minutes?’ I said finally, a little surprised.
‘Certainly my friend! Maybe quicker.’ I thanked him and he caught up with his herd. Buoyed by the news and not wishing to waste another moment, I sprinted off; but before I had covered more than a few yards a whistle came from behind me. I stopped and made my way back to the herdsman. He scratched at his forehead. ‘You have no car, monsieur?’
I banished the thought of making my meeting and walked with him back the way I’d come, following the swaying hips of his rearguard. I asked him about his apples and whether he’d ever wanted to make Calvados or cider, the area’s other speciality. He laughed. ‘No monsieur, there’s too much to do with my cows.’ He explained that most apples for Calvados came from mixed farms, which simply sold them to the distiller. It was a dual use of the land, he said. His herd could graze the rich grass in his orchard and mop up early windfalls, while providing natural fertiliser to enrich the crop above. He claimed that the apples were tastier for it, as was the cheese made by his milk. I asked him what type of cheese he made. ‘Ah! Again, I have no time for making cheese.’ He prodded his stick at a trailing rump. ‘My milk goes into France’s finest…’ he said, kissing the tips of his fingers. ‘Livarot from Fromagerie Graindorge.’ Then he noticed a man who’d materialised from an orchard at the head of the herd. He waved at him then clapped a hand on my shoulder. ‘I must go now,’ he said. He pushed his way between the cows and then helped the man guide the herd under the trees. ‘Graindorge!’ he shouted from beneath the boughs as I passed. ‘Go and visit them instead, better for your health than Calvados!’
I came to a village I’d earlier passed through, with two dozen or more houses surrounding a church whose size suggested a more substantial catchment area. The village was deserted except for laughter coming from a side street. Curious, I followed the sound to a point where the road afforded a view of the valley we were staying in. A couple of miles off I could see the river we’d dined beside and some way beyond, our cottage.
The laughter was coming from a doorway, outside of which stood a metal table and folding chair. I peered in to what appeared to be a bar devoid of any pretensions at self-promotion. I entered, interrupting the flow of what seemed to be jocular insults directed at a ruddy faced man at one end of the bar. After a moment of appraisal, one of the drinkers placed her glass of pastis on the counter and beckoned me in. I looked about for the usual signs: fruit machines, beer pumps, a till, but there was nothing to suggest I wasn’t in someone’s house. The ruddy faced man rolled a cigarette. The woman stood up and rounded the counter. ‘What would you like?’ she said. I thought of ordering an espresso, but there was no sign of a machine. There was also no sign of anything weaker than the pastis among the few bottles behind her, so I asked whether they did food. ‘What were you thinking of?’ I didn’t wish to suggest that I was thinking of a menu and said perhaps a sandwich. She smiled. ‘You are from England. Well, what would you like in your sandwich, monsieur?’ My answer drew a murmur of approval and the woman returned with a plate of three cheeses, one of which, an orange disk banded with reeds, I recognised as Livarot. I singled it out and received a wedge with a chunk of baguette and the invitation to craft the sandwich for myself. Sitting outside, crunching into the fresh crusty loaf and allowing my senses to be overtaken by the earthy taste of the cheese, I resolved to take up the herdsman’s advice.