On the Hunt for Apples and Cider in Normandy
Every region has its specialty. Whether you’re in Louisiana or Lappland, there’s always a food or drink that is clearly identified with the local culture.
In Normandy, it’s the apple that reigns, making its way into desserts and drinks alike.
This time of year the apple trees are in full bloom, beautiful white dots across green rolling hills. There are a few cows scattered here and there. Yellow buttercups. Blue sky. A classic stone farmhouse. A spire of a cathedral rising out of the horizon signifying the next village. To say it is a bucolic setting would be a gross understatement.
It’s here that apples are turned into the two drinks that the region is known for: the gentler, mealtime accompaniment that means apples for cider, and the much stronger, post dinner digestif Calvados.
When you say “cider” people often think of the industrial kind. The sweet, light taste of a drink that barely resembles the taste of an apple. But the cidre bouché of the region has nothing to do with that. It’s full bodied, complex, the liquid a little hazy and just like a good wine, you can taste the terroir. Normandy in a bottle so to say.
While working on a project, I ended up in the heart of Normandy – the same countryside amongst all those apple trees, cows and rolling hills – where a newfound obsession with cider quickly evolved. Cider at lunch, cider on picnics, cider at dinner. When in Normandy drinks what les Normands drink.
Cidre bouché always comes in a dark green glass bottle, capped with a champagne cork. Opening one is just as celebratory of a moment as it is with more expensive bubbles.
At lunch one day in the small town of Notre-Dame-de-Courson, our host Laurence pops the cork off of a dark green bottle and mentions that this bottle of cider happens to be one of the best in the region and it comes from right down the road. Drink local.
She’s right. It is good cider. Really good cider.
Fortunately, I’m back at the same house a week later and this time, Laurence asks if I want to go and see the cider facility.
I will never turn down such an offer.
We drive just a little farther outside of the village and turn up the hill to Ferme Belleau.
The weather has been grey and wet as of late, but today the sun in shining through the blossoming apple trees that stretch out behind the house as far as the eye can see.
Philippe meets us at the top of the driveway in a faded red sweater and rain boots. He is the sixth generation of cider and Calvados makers; his family has been producing the two from these trees since 1856. He knows these apples and these trees.
Laurence explains that we want to see how cider is made, and Philippe gives an emphatic “avec plaisir.” He tours us around the production facility, explaining in detail the process of harvesting the apples (they are harvested from the ground instead of being picked from the tree to ensure that they are just the right ripeness), processing them, pressing out the juice, and transferring the juice to the vats for fermentation.
Cider goes through two rounds of fermentation, one in the vat and the second one in the bottle itself, and during the first fermentation process, the vats are checked for specific sugar levels, one leads to acidre brut and the other one a cidre doux.
I learn that the apple leftovers, once the juice has been pressed out, are fed to the cows on the farm, and any juice that isn’t deemed of the right quality for cider gets distilled into Calvados. Nothing goes to waste.
I ask how the weather affects the harvest. He looks at the sky – it has been a very cold and rainy spring – and points out that the apples are very sensitive to the weather. When it’s a long, cold and rainy spring, the apples suffer and he can’t produce as much cider; last year in similar conditions he made one third of the total amount he made in fairer weather the year before. If you think being an artisan is easy, think again.
Ferme Belleau sells its cider all over France, but a small percentage of it is sold right here on site; customers coming directly to the source. It certainly feels more natural to be buying cider with apple trees in the background. We order two cases, six bottles in each, to take with us, and I add in a bottle of Pom’belleau, an aperitif that’s a combination of Calvados and apple juice.
The twelve bottles make their way through the labeling machine, coming out the other side with the colorful “Ferme Belleau” label and he boxes them up, being sure to tape an additional label to the top of the box, in case we forget where our cider originated from. But as it turns out, when you buy it at the farm, that’s hard to do.
I thank him, and he responds simply with, “Ca me fait plaisir d’expliquer aux gens mon savoir-faire.” It makes me happy to explain my savoir-faire to people.
It’s not just savoir-faire, it’s a love for what he does and what he produces, and you can taste it in every bottle.
We can all drink to that.
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