Friday 28 September 2012

Les cidres Normandes.

The Normans have their own seat at table of the British psyche.

In fact, not only do they have their own seat, they arrived uninvited, confiscated the table, re-arranged the seating plan and put themselves at the head. The Norman Conquest of 1066 ensured that whatever Old English way we thought we were going in didn't matter as a new, Frenchier way would soon established. Under their yoke, our future changed forever. Many historians believe, and I have no reason to doubt them, that they were responsible for introducing widespread cider production throughout the UK.

Unlike their century of influence, I had a mere five days to explore some of Normandy's most celebrated cider and Calvados producers. My time was made up of talking about French apple varieties, discussing Gallic attitudes towards production, laws protecting tradition and the touchy subject of doing something new.

Looking back through the hurried photos, the visit has reaffirmed my beliefs that many of the best ciders are made by people who have a strong and binding tie to land; people who nurture their own crops; farmers out with their animals in the fields everyday. Being out there in the orchards and amongst the beasts allows you to experience nature more physically -to connect with it more deeply. There, the human understanding of 'season' and 'place' surpasses the obvious and becomes more visceral, more instinctive intensifying your relationship with the land. Being at the mercy of the elements daily breeds patience and reminds us, as clever as we can be, that we're not in charge.

In keeping with visits I've done all over the world, a Norman ciderie offers visitors a peaceful and reflective space in which to absorb the full gamut of local cider culture. They have a strong sense of place, terroir abounds. The characteristic architecture (that they apparently don't even notice anymore) makes up many of the homes and outbuildings that are nestled throughout the gently rolling countryside. Dark, secretive atmospheric caves (cellars) patiently age the Calvados beneath still, musty barns. Row after row of ex-wine oak barrels blanketed in thick cobwebs rest reassuringly. The widely spaced traditional orchards, the light stoney soils .... I could go on but the romance is clear and more will get nauseating.

I was on a mission to meet cidermakers, review ciders and learn more about the French way. It was time to challenge my long held (and very Anglo Saxon) belief that I am not a massive fan of Norman cider ('it lacks balls... its like driving cider...') I may be right in that it does indeed lack the 'bigness' of the traditional Somerset farmhouse cider that I'm so used to drinking, but I now appreciate that its supposed to. And I feel confident comparing the Normandy/Brittany relationship to that of Herefordshire/Somerset.

I owe a debt of thanks to the time and patience of the kind cidermakers who have collectively increased my understanding of their regional cider. Interestingly, sadly, Normandy cider would appear to be more popular outside France than it is within. Every producer I visited confirmed this and its not uncommon for up 80% of the cider produced annually to get shipped for export. Generally speaking Calvados, throughout all of Normandy, seems to have the kudos that fuels the pride of the producers. So much so that the precious cidre (from which Calvados itself has to be made) is mostly overlooked. One thing all the producers had in common was their bemusement when I tell them I'm here for the cider (although I gladly sampled as much Calva as I was offered.)

On a seasonal note - there are as few cider apples in Normandy this year as there are here in UK, so if the trees look bare on the photos its because they are.

My first visit was to Domaine Dupont. Dupont's ciders are well known outside France and for good reason. They embrace the traditional way of making a typically Norman cider yet do it with panache. Unusually, they also embrace modern thinking and really try to push the boundaries of what you can get from your apples and offer a fantastic array of alternative cider based products that most of us would have never thought of or even tried before. I won't spoil the magic but would encourage you to check them out for yourselves. They are very welcoming and speak excellent English. Beware, you'll need more space in the car than you've bargained for.

My favourite pastime- comparing matured ciders 750ml bottle by 750ml bottle.

Jerome Dupont

Etienne Dupont

My second visit was to Domaine Coeur de Lion who also happen to make fantastic ciders and Calvados. They really made their name with their Calvados but so many people kept coming and asking to buy their cider, they got fed up with selling the tiny amount they made for the family and started scaling up their production. Again, very charming people who speak excellent English and its well worth a visit. I was lucky enough to try (about 15+ ?) different Calvados's here, the oldest being from 1939.... a rare achievement and unbelievably generous. It was marvellous and surprisingly fruity still. As chief cidermaker, young Guillaume Drouin kindly offered to match some of their ciders and a perry with a meal that evening at Chateau Les Bruyeres where I was staying. The Chateau has a specialist approach to matching cider to the very excellent menu so I was keen to learn more about that too. Well worth a visit and be sure to go with an empty stomach!

Christian & Guillaume Drouin

The following day I visited Pierre Huet  and although Pierre died generations years ago -his ideas live on with the family. You'd hope any family that have been doing anything since 1865 have learned to do it right and I'm pleased to report -they have. Again, probably more famous for their Calvados but the ciders are excellent. 

The shrine, Pierre Huet

One name that has been appearing more and more frequently on my radar in recent years is Cyril Zangs. Cyrils approach to making cidre is as unique as Cyril himself. He has a charming, scruffy, old-skool look and although slightly bonkers (in the best possible way) he's charming and really passionate about making cider. He has a very down to earth, philosophical air about him and is the only person I've ever met that shrugs as much as he laughs. Although relatively new to selling his cider you'd never think so when you taste it - its real and its lovely.

Cyril Zangs (il fume comme un pompier)
Last year ago at the International Craft Cider Festival in Wales, I met a chap called Adam Bland, an Englishman who lives and produces cider in Normandy. He owns 20-30 acres of orchards (he did tell me but I can't remember!) Adam had previously made cider in his native gloucestershire but abandoned UK years ago as the expansion of the company meant production got a bit more commercial. For me Adam's cider represents a good marriage of classic British and French styles: stronger and dryer in flavour (and alcohol) but cleaner and fruiter too. 

Adam Bland

Whilst attending Apfelwein In Romer in Frankfurt 2011 I met suave sommelier Eric Bordelet (ex-Michelin star restaurant in Paris) who has turned his passion to cidermaking and restoring a charming and rather crumbly chateau. Eric is one of the most passionate cidermakers I've ever met and has some very strong ideas with regards to his individual approach to orcharding, cidermaking, ageing and selling his cider. He has an exciting vision for cidermaking at his chateau that I;m sure will succeed. I can't wait to visit there again when its finished.

The cellars at Chateau de Hauteville

Merci mes amis, je reviens!