Normandy – apples in the rhythm of centuries

Wine and brandy from apples is often an alternative in those places where vines cannot thrive. In Normandy, producers look in more detail into the quality spectrum of the fruit. In addition to the classic Calvados, the really rather rural cider has the talent to conquer a place in the hipster bars of this world – and is now getting unexpected competition from the neighbourhood.

Looking out of her window in Manoir d’Apreval, Agathe Letellier gazes out over 18 hectares of orchards, on which 1,800 apple trees stand proudly. “17 different varieties” adds the qualified agronomist. She has everything under control, from the blossom to the twenty-year stored Calvados. The only thing that drives her a little to distraction are some passing trade customers who drop in.

They want to come in and buy without tasting”, she explains, because they all supposedly “already know” cider. That might well be the case when it comes to a simple cider you can buy in the supermarket. This could not be further from the truth when it comes to AOC-Cidre from Manoir d’Apreval. As is typical for small-scale manufacturers, Letellier combines the different properties of apples such as sugar, acidity and tannin content with skilled assemblage.

Old apple tree

Old apple tree, © Matthias Stelzig

She pours three different ciders. Dry has the flavour of young apples with a little hint of grass and very little fermentation; medium has the aroma of fine-sweet fruit and a light hint of bitter. “Those are the tannins”, she explains and that cider’s taste profile makes it the ideal accompaniment to cheese. “It is just that nobody knows this.” For dessert, on the other hand, there is the sweet version with its ripe flavours.

Compared to grapes, there are more similarities as are usually assumed. Variety, terroir, the work in the fields, cellar techniques, stylistics, storage: All these things together give you the finished cider. A clear difference exists between grapes and apples when it comes to their different cultivation possibilities. Apple trees are not demanding and can deal with harsh weather conditions. They deal with wind, cold rain and rugged winters without complaint. This is a reason why in Europe, they grow in areas that lie far farther north than you would find vines.

Snake bites and exciting dances

Cider can be encountered in Ireland, Estonia and Sweden. The Vikings controlled Normandy in the 10th century, and cider remains an alternative to beer in this region. In Quebec they make ice cider out of apples that have become frozen while still hanging on the tree. But then there is also cider in places like Mexico and Wyoming, South Africa and Asturias.

A sweet variety exists there called Cantarina, which in English means “stimulates singing”, which makes it clear that the alcoholic effect is very much appreciated here. This also applies for the primary producing country Great Britain, where cider can contain up to 12% alcohol, which in cheap versions is due to the added sugar.

In British pubs, the draught lines for cider are part of the standard equipment. Mixed with beer from the neighbouring tap, this gives birth to the popular drink “snake bite”. The name makes clear reference to the fast effect of the neurotoxin.

It has been proven beyond doubt that apple juice was being enjoyed in Greece as far back as 400 BC. The Father of History Herodotus mentioned a tribe in Asia Minor that settled in an area that is today known as Side. The ancient fruit growers obviously had the technical means to press apples.

Still under the name Sydre, Charlemagne encountered the apple wine in the Basque Country and imported the cultivation into his realm in Normandy. Calcareous soil, wet pastures and breezes coming in off the Atlantic created good conditions for cultivation. In his famous agricultural ordinances, he determined which were the best varieties. Sydre would go on and establish itself as the national drink in Normandy.

Starting in the 13th century, the first apple presses and the first written recipes started to appear. And they seem to have been very good indeed. Two centuries later, cider was already so popular that it had taken over the traditional Cervisia. Figureheads in society, such as the nobility and the clergy drank cider, which certainly did not harm the amount of cider that was being sold.

Apples for cidre

Apples for Cidre, © Matthias Stelzig

People pass by, trees stay

Normandy today has 750 different apple varieties, with fifty alone for producing cider. These are not table fruits, they are instead small, dry fruits with lots of acidity, sugar and especially tannins. There is a differentiation into groups from sweet, to bitter right up to sour, “although bitter and bitter-sweet are what give the body in the finish”, said Letellier.

The balance between sweet and sour, supported by a framework of tannins is also what is decisive for cider. “The acidity gives freshness and preserves the cider – without any chemicals.” In large-scale production the story is a different one, and the markets are pretty much saturated. What is interesting though is the medium-price segment where cider can provide a lot of quality for the money, while the production costs are very reasonable.

However, there is a lot of work required to be done in the fields first before this point is reached. The best quality is provided by the high-trunk trees which require an awful lot of work. Letellier does harvest mechanically however. But cultivation is quite a protracted affair. “One hundred years of growth, one hundred years of production and one hundred of dying” is a common phrase in these circles. Farmers, who own an orchard full of old trees, like to imagine how the tree was planted under the rule of Louis XIV, or how high it was at the time of the French Revolution.

Sensitive crop

Traditional cultivation with old trees 15 to 20 metres tall, under which ideally cows should be grazing, whose milk would become aromatic Camembert, have long become the exception. In the fifties, milk production became increasingly important and was supported by the state.

Although many farmers in the past had their own cider, many switched to field crops that required less work. For large-scale cider production, trees planted closely together in rows are needed, and these are harvested mechanically for the most part. The apples harvested in this case can be harvested far quicker and the yields are greater, but the adapted varieties also mean a lower quality.

Due to the varying ripening times, the harvest extends from September to December. Only those apples that have fallen to the ground are harvested. Despite their rather robust appearance, apples are a sensitive crop. Just the contact with metal alone can harm them. Wooden boxes and trailers that are cladded with wood are used to bring in the harvest. They continue to ripen for a few days afterwards.

Château du Breuil, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Coast, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Coast, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Pacory Poiré, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Pears for Poiré, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Pacori apples, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Pacory harvest, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Apples for Cidre, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Old apple tree, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Old apple tree, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Cidre bottles, Source: Matthias Stelzig

After being sorted and washed, they are broken open and then they oxidise for about 90 minutes. “This gets rid of the bitterness, brings out the sweetness and the aromas”, explains Tellier. The apples are then pressed and, with as little contact with air as possible, they continue to be processed at 10 °C. It is only in this way that the fermentation progresses slowly and partially controlled. Which of the batches are suitable to be bottled as sweet and which bottled as dry determines itself then. “We follow what nature says”, says Letellier, who would perhaps prefer to have everything under control.

A clear fluid is then siphoned off in February. Depending on the level of sweetness wanted, the fermentation process is then terminated. The decisive thing, however, is the assemblage. Cider is never made from a single variety of apple. Good producers know the varieties they grow exactly and can estimate the influences that each year brings, “in order to give the Cuvée balance and a wide spectrum of flavours”, explained Letellier.

The carbonic acid is created during the second fermentation, optimally with the sugar that is contained in the wine. It is allowed, however, and common in large production facilities, to add sugar.

The cider is ready after roughly two months and is still a very sensitive drink with only 2.5% alcohol. “Hygiene is the most important thing”, says Letellier. Otherwise you need not even bother thinking about exporting. Even perfect cider continues to develop inside of the bottle. “It is at its best in September”, says Letellier with absolute conviction. Cider immediately develops fine bubbles, and can be stored for a number of years.

Cidre bottles

Cidre bottles © Matthias Stelzig

Free sale for free citizens

In 1553, the King’s Official Gilles Picot mentioned that he had erected a facility for producing “eau-de-vie” on his lands in Cotentin. For the majority of Normans of the day, this was proof enough of the Calvados. A good fifty years later an organisation was founded called “distillateurs d’eau-de-vie de cidre”. Louis XIV’s tax officials soon taxed the drink and – perhaps worse – banned its sale outside the region. The French Revolution thankfully put paid to this once again, allowed each farmer enough for their own consumption and divided the country into administrative districts for the very first time. The Departement Calvados was one of the new names to arise from this.

In the period that followed it was often the case that what was good for Calvados, was a catastrophe for others. Following the phylloxera plague, the apple brandy was more in demand than ever before. In the trenches of the First World War the apple brandy made the gruesome reality somewhat more tolerable for the front-line soldiers – and did not differentiate between friend and foe.

Distilled alcohol was also a valuable raw material during the Second World War and was needed by the occupying German forces. The only products exempted from this were those that were subject to territorial protection. The Agricultural Minister Jacques Le Roy Ladurie, himself from Normandy, cleverly launched an application for AOC, which the French authorities quickly, and equally so cleverly, approved in 1942. The quality and marketing chances increased significantly as a result.

After the war, the apple brandy was preferably distilled on a tax-free basis, in other words, without the knowledge of the authorities. In Paris, however, a “café-calva”, a small sip of apple brandy from the still warm coffee cup, was an integral part of their lunch break for many workers. And that is why no one asked any questions in this regard for a long time.

In the eighties a new interest in quality began to emerge. Old varieties from high-trunk trees received a boost in popularity. “Twenty kilos of apples are needed for one bottle of Calvados”, explains Bénédicte Baude-Vattier. His employer Château du Breuil fills 370,000 bottles annually, making it one of the largest producers in the region – and one of the best. In Pays d’Auge, where doubled distillation and spontaneous fermentation are prescribed, the obligatory minimum two-year storage rule plays barely any role. Instead, “time, moisture and wood”, which is made of the finest Limousin oak that is rich in tannins. Over the many years involved, each cask develops differently, and Breuil makes a dozen very individual Calvados types. Bottles filled with complex and oily vintage-years are the region’s crown jewels. The unique defining feature remains the fruit, however, which continues to dominate the brandy even after decades of storage in the cask.

Cheese Neufchatel Trouville, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Seafood at market Port-en-Bessin, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Port-en-Bessin, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Harbour Honfleur, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Facade Honfleur, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Shop Honfleur, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Butter, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Oyster Trouville, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Cheese Trouville, Source: Matthias Stelzig
St Simeon dessert, Source: Matthias Stelzig
St Simeon paté, Source: Matthias Stelzig

Pear wine à la champenoise

The Lower Appellation Domfront has a special role to play, not just because of the granite soil and the region's moist climate. A certain proportion of pears is set down in many regulations, they have a main role to play here in this case. Cider and Calvados need to consist of at least 30 percent of pears. In addition to the fifty types of apples, there are also 90 “poires à poiré” that are allowed to be used. Poiré is the name of the equivalent to cider and is made exclusively from pears. The wines that have less fermentation aromas and a greater fruit balance are produced in only forty parishes.

Poiré is a relatively new development emerging only in the nineteen-nineties. The light, intensive fruity wines are a good match for those who enjoy leading a healthy lifestyle. After completing his agricultural-science studies, Pacory sought his role-models in the Champagne. He bought Giropalettes, and since that time his Poirés vintages ferment a second time in the bottle with dosage. It is in this way that he emphasises the differences between the vintages from full-fruit right up to yeasty. “My dearest child”, says Pacory, “because it is to be found nowhere else”. He is one of the just twenty AOP producers who harvest approximately 100,000 pear trees. Sounds like a lot. However, compared with the ten million apple trees in Normandy, this is just one percent. The pear tree is looking for its place, and with the subsidies being provided, from the EU amongst others bodies, it could very well find it.


Seafood © Matthias Stelzig

Search for multiple reasons to drink

Tourists visiting Normandy like to trace the lives of the nobility and artists who discovered its coast for themselves in the 19th century. The term “tourism” is supposed to have its origins in this time and place. “I can assure you, the door to the world is wide open for us”, says Jérôme Lecrosnier, President of the Poiré producing cooperative, when talking about the future. His colleagues in the Calvados association see things similar to him. The markets in the USA, Japan, Australia and South Africa are still only tiny success stories. Just under half of the production, 2.8 million bottles, is consumed in France; the rest is almost exclusively consumed in Europe, particularly in Germany and Belgium.

ut just as is the case with so many cask-aged brandies, Calvados has a certain “elderly gentleman” image to overcome. This is why all associations are making efforts to expand the amount of occasions and places that it could be drunk at as much as possible, and during which no elderly gentleman and no fireplace play a role. In the region itself, Calvados is traditionally drunk between two courses, and the appetite-inducing measure is called “trou normand”, the Norman hole. It is also always there at folk events such as Fête du poiré in Mantilly.

Normandy is famous for dairy products because the pastures in the moist climate are fat. Cheese such as Camembert, as well as milk and cream dominate the diet of the people in the region. Even the caramel sweets here have the AOC seal.

Further specialities are seafood from the cold Atlantic directly on the doorstep. Michel Huard recommends Pommeau, Calvados with fruit juice, in accompaniment to warm oysters and scallops. Official brochures significantly expand the spectrum of both cider and Poiré to include dishes such as lamb or duck with ginger, as well as sushi.

However, the very large turnovers are made with mixed drinks, and no one wants to be left behind here. Since 1997, the Trophées Internationaux des Calvados Nouvelle Vogue have been awarded to bartenders across the world for the best mixed drinks. The probably largest Calvados-Bar “Calvador“ is not located in Paris, but in Tokyo.

Matthias Stelzig