- Contributed by
- Jim Dillon - WW2 Site Helper
- People in story:
- James Dillon
- Location of story:
- Normandy in the '40s
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 01 February 2004
The story of Pierre's bottle of Calvados.
In the early '40s Pierre Frénée, my friend from Alençon, suffered under the Occupation of Normandy. He heard the bombers which flew north to bomb Britain. Too often I, the same age, living in Liverpool, was their target.
A few years ago he gave me a bottle of Calvados, the apple brandy from Normandy. Pierre was about eleven when his family made it in 1943. The apple trees from which it came grew on a peasant holding in the Suisse-Normande. They died before their time, their trunks torn to shreds by bursting shells. Human beings are not the only casualties in war.
They are all long dead, the women and old men who picked the apples, crushed them in the mill and supervised the fermentation of the cider. So is Pierre's father who was a spectator throughout, confined to the house after being gassed in 1917. So is Margot, the little Percheron mare who turned the granite stone of the mill.
The distillation, illegal during the Occupation, was done secretly among the steep, heavily-forested hills in a small still, easily taken to pieces and hidden. The young man in charge was a réfractaire, on the run from compulsory labour service, slave labour, in Germany. Later the Gestapo, French Gestapo from Caen, not Germans, caught him with a group of résistants and left him for dead. He survived only because a peasant women found and nursed him.
At the time of the D-Day landings, fearing the destruction and looting to come, the family dug a deep, wide trench inside the barn housing the farm carts. Into it they lowered a big, old barrel. This they filled with the things that grand-mère thought valuable: her sewing machine; household linen; china; and several milk churns, full of the new Calvados. They filled in the trench and moved back the carts.
Shortly afterwards the Germans, terrified of the Allied air forces, moved the carts out of the barn and hid an armoured half-track there, complete with a cannon and a couple of machine-guns.
Now the family lived in daily fear not only of the uncertain temper of the occupying troops and the bombing their presence might attract. They were concerned, too, that the weight of the vehicle, ten or twelve tons, might crush the barrel and what was in it. Luckily the tracks fitted neatly either side of the trench and there was no weight on the earth above the barrel.
The British troops advanced through the rugged hills and little boys slipped through the lines along the forest paths, taking information about the whereabouts of the Germans and bringing back English cigarettes. Some of these they gave to the Germans, turning their despondency into panic.
Not too soon after the Liberation, for even liberating troops pillage, especially when there is liquor to be had, the family dug out the barrel and its contents, quite unharmed. It is a bottle from one of those churns that I have.
Pierre prescribed how I am to open it in the company of good, discerning friends, preferably students of history, in the manner laid down by Talleyrand. I am to pour it and, as we raise it to the light, we will admire its transparency, its colours and tones, the reflections and glints as the light passes through it. We will raise it to our noses and savour the complexities of its perfumes. Then we will put it down so that we may talk about it, reminiscing as we do of other fine liquors we have known.
At this point Talleyrand's exquisite advice runs out and English common sense will take over, "A la bonne vôtre, Pierre!"
Two old men are linked by their wartime childhood.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.