I grew up with two elder brothers and so my childhood TV viewing consisted of Bottom, Red Dwarf, and, of course Blackadder. The third series, set in the Regency period, with Hugh Laurie as the magnificent, bonkers Prince George, is the best. And the episode “Nob and Nobility”, about the French Revolution is pure gold: ‘Ah, le Adder Noir, come a nous in’.
The episode uses every French stereotype, poking fun with acerbic wit; and ball achingly funny it is, too. But the fact is, I love the French and I love France. I love that their citizens have strength and power – striking Air Traffic Controllers and farmers blockading ports with Alpine-sized mounds of steaming manure will attest to that. It also is a country of breath taking scenery and large areas of true wilderness – something the UK is in short supply of.
And, of course there’s the food and drink. It’s not just an important part of life – it is life. Whether it be fabulous cheese (ancient, crystallised Comté and Reblochon so ‘wild’ you have to chase it around the room, are guaranteed winners), glorious wines (I will celebrate with an inordinately expensive bottle of White Burgundy when The Ciderologist turns a year old) or the birthright that is daily fresh bread.
I used to go to Brittany as a child every summer with my parents and aforementioned brothers. I have wonderful memories of these days (my folks may disagree – my propensity for vomiting on every car journey must have become somewhat taxing), yet other than a brief trip to Nice in 2008, I haven’t explored over the other side of La Manche in 20 years.
I know New Zealand, on the other side of the world, far better than our nearest neighbour. This is especially incongruous given my chosen profession (or was it a calling?). For France’s heritage, tradition and culture of cider making is much more embedded in its heartland regions than in the UK. The traditional high tannin, West Country cider apples are mostly the descendants or, indeed, direct imports, of Norman and Breton varieties. I have an image in my mind’s eye of Guillame le Conquerant and his marauding hordes all armed with sharpened saplings, and firing volleys of flaming apples upon King Alfred’s doomed troops. I should probably lay off the Reblochon.
Therefore, this summer I decided that my lack of Frenchiness must be amended. Time for a little road trip. So, armed with several cases of cider and perry swapsies and a bumper pack of Immodium, I caught the early ferry from Portsmouth to Caen. France has two primary cider regions: Normandy and Brittany. Alas, I only have enough time for Normandy on this occasion – Brittany, I’ll be seeing you next year.
Normandy’s traditional extends not solely to the fermentation of cider, but also to its subsequent distillation and ageing to make Calvados, and to further back-sweetening with juice to make Pommeau (my personal fave). Normandy has an official Route du Cidre, with some 20 plus producers, centring around the village of Cambremer. First on the hit list was Christian Drouin.
Wowzers! It was a mix of drinks producer and heritage centre, for the buildings were exquisite exponents of the classic Norman timbered style. But this place is not simply for show. Angry Orchard cider maker Ryan Burk (someone not unknown to sample the odd spirit or two) reckons Christian Drouin’s Calvados to be the best. Owing to driving duties I wasn’t able to imbibe too much, but it was certainly a taste sensation: bold and rich, but with a smoothness and honeycomb spice. Yum.
French cider can have somewhat of a reputation for Camenbert-eqsue aromas and flavours, owing to the wild and slow fermentation they traditionally go through. I found the Christian Drouin cider to be starting down this road, but on the whole, the traditional cidre fermier I tried along the way to be fresh and fruity, clean and exceedingly palatable. Some exuded Sly and the Family stone levels of funk, but mercifully all in proportion to the boldness of the tannins, the fruit expression and the natural carbonation. The ciders also displayed a greater presence of acidity that I was expecting, and this made for a pleasing balance with the natural sweetness. Pick of the bunch was Manoir de Grandouet.
I was surprised by how cheap these ciders were – normally in the €3,00 – €4,50 range. I’m not particularly au fait with the French excise duty system for cider (I do have a modicum of a life, you know), but unless it’s an incredibly low rate, the producers can’t be making much money from their cider (cider makers around the world reading this are nodding in empathy at this point I suspect!).
A visit to Le Pere Jules in Lisieux was a particular highlight. I used to purchase their cider from Regional Wines and Spirits in Wellington, just down the road from my old house, as my Friday night treat to go with my Nasi Goreng from Noodle Canteen – a fantastic food match I can assure you, and the height of haute cuisine.
It was fabulous to meet Guillaume, the current generation of the Desfrieches family to take on the reigns, and get a guided tour through the process. I found their set up to be a classic mix of old meets new – vats from 1781 combining with super filtration and bottling technology. And like with so many of these producers, it’s a real family affair with uncles and cousins involved in the business. There are 50 acres of traditional, standard orchards surrounding the production facility (the original farm) with beautiful white cattle underneath.
Speaking of orchards, there’s flipping loads of them! Most interesting, however, is that they are almost exclusively in the traditional style, like at Le Pere Jules. I only saw two bush orchards on my whole visit. That isn’t to say that they don’t exist, but their presence isn’t felt anywhere near as greatly as in Herefordshire. Or maybe there are simply a far greater acreage of standard orchards in France? I’ll have to nerd up.
Because of the nature of the French market, historically there hasn’t been a necessity for the high volumes of fruit to be squeezed out of an acre. There was never the emergence of the equivalent of Bulmers – one giant dominating company – so the majority of cider making remained small, manageable; market garden almost.
These standard orchards aren’t necessarily super old, it’s just that the demand is for fruit grown in this way. These cider makers need trees with low nutrient input and high light access to create the type and quality of fruit that they need, and this quality will only improve over time as the roots tap into richer minerals deep into the earth.
The standout producer of my visit to Normandy was Domaine Dupont. A gravelled driveway lined with whitewashed walls and with orchards beyond give the impression that cider, calvados and pommeau are taken very seriously here. One is naturally led up to the tasting room – all cedar wood and brilliant white and clean lines – this is a space that exudes class. Calvados is the big thing here and a bottle of 1969 will set you back €300 plus, but the exquisite intensity, perfume, breadth and depth make it worth every centime.
But it was the ciders that were of greatest intrigue, for the latest generation of Dupont cider maker, Jérôme, is taking his cues from wine and embedding real added value perception to his products. You won’t any cidre fermier here. They presented a full methode champenoise, a triple fermented and a Calvados barrel matured. All were impeccably presented in seductively curvaceous punted bottles in full dress and entirely appropriately they were priced at 2 or 3 times the norm for the cidre fermier found elsewhere.
But for all of this envelope pushing and quality crusading, Jérôme’s eight year old daughter was pot washing, chopping great hunks of Camenbert and Livarot and dishing out (much to the dismay of Papa) great sloshes of Calvados for tasting. This epitomised the familial nature of cider making of this region and it really is rather charming. I like the pace of these places and the scale they operate at. They seem viable, sustainable, multi-generational, enduring.
There will never be any extravagant or wild cider experimentations here – the concept of the addition red berries would be considered heresy; you’d probably actually be burned at the stake. The old traditions will be kept alive. But this new generation sees the opportunity to present products as something more than simply a farmhouse cider, and with this they are part of the great wave of cider innovation swathing the globe.
Rest assured, I’ll be back. The French connection has been well and truly established. À bientôt!