Julia’s adventures making cider in Normandy, France with a little help from friends.
Cider time is upon us there is a scent of ripeness from over the wall and the summer loads of apple fall are being trundled along the narrow lanes by huge tractor trailers to be sold to local cider houses and distilleries. We have to get to work to make ours.
It was the year of the pulmonary embolism that we embarked on our only successful ‘cunning plan.’ We had a ton of apple trees to plant before the cold weather hit so it was down on our hands and knees, digging holes with a trowel and never mind feeling ill. Pioneer stuff – easy! We were determined to be cider producers.
Before buying our different varieties, we consulted a neighbour, Bertrand who has blond curly hair, blue eyes, a real Northman, an amateur of cider and a connoisseur of all things Norman. He recited a litany of names so poetic and so redolent of mellow fruitfulness that we were captivated.
We also consulted M. Francois David, Le Pape du Cidre (the Pope of Cider) whose nickname reflects the religious awe in which the local cider producers hold him.
The Norman peasant farmer usually keeps his secrets close to his chest. Perhaps because a foreigner was interested in his skills, his pride was piqued — who knows? He freely gave us names of tree nurseries and grafters from far flung corners of Normandy who would be selling at the various apple and tree fairs in local towns during the year.
The art of the cider maker, we learnt from our informed sources, is to know which apples to plant in which soil and what judicious mix (assemblage) you need to get a good result.
Each cider maker can have his own CRU (local variety). Bitter apples are rich in tannin and give the cider its colour, its body its length in the mouth and help it clarify. Sweet apples give the alcohol and balance the bitterness. Bitter sweet apples from the Pays d’Auge unite the best of both. Sour apples (acidulees as opposed to ameres) give freshness on the palate.
Once the apple varieties are chosen, the cider maker has to decide on a traditional orchard of tall trees (Hautes Tiges) or the large apple bushes known as Basses Tiges. David and Bertrand advise Hautes Tiges because the trees are more open to the wind and sun and the apples fall on soft grass. Basses tiges, on the other hand, are so closely planted that there is no room for sheep or calves to pasture or for hens to scratch so the apples will literally fall on stony ground and more will be bruised.
Basses tiges are also not produced in many old varieties. There are more than 400 varieties of Hautes Tiges and all have their seasons. Blanc Mollet fall at the beginning of September, most others in October. St Martin falls around 11th of November, Martinmas, and Noel Des Champs would be gathered at the end of December. These separate dates allow the cider maker to press his apples in series.
Edward chose local apples traditionally grown in a five mile radius of the house — Blangy Cemetery, St Philbert, Joly Rouge, Noel Des Champs, etc. The apples, once collected in sacks, are generally kept in piles, under cover, according to variety and thus can be mixed at will when they have matured to maximum sugar content. Then they are put through a scratter — a big grater.
At one time they were crushed in circular stone troughs with huge mill stones pulled around by a horse but it was found that the resultant puree did not give as much juice on pressing. They must be pressed to obtain 60 to 70% juice. The mout or must is then transferred to its barrel or tank and left until it defecates, a wonderfully descriptive way of describing the process by which cider gets rid of its impurities and yeast particles. In wine production these fall to the bottom of the cask and form lees, but most of the apple impurities rise to the top of the barrel and form a chapeau brun (brown hat). At this point, the clear cider is drawn off the middle of the cask after 7-10 days.
Modern cider makers add an enzyme to help the cider defecate. M David’s cider is entirely natural and so he has to draw off his cider every 7-10 days until it is clear. This involves much changing about of casks (3000 litre old wooden ones) but the quality of his cider in undeniable. We watched M David cleaning out his huge casks by hosing through the man-trap near the bottom and scrubbing out with special big hard brushes to make sure there are no remnants of last year’s yeast or germs. At one time small boys were employed to climb inside to clean the barrels.
We decided to miss out on the small boys and bought 1000 litre polyester/fibreglass containers. They were not quite so much trouble to maintain. We scoured the newspapers for old presses and scratters and rattled around Calvados and the Orne in our 2CV seeking the bargain of a life time. No luck! So the first time we fell back on the old custom of hiring a Presse Ambulante – a mobile press. M David told us to contact M Chaban from Cormeilles. He agreed to come three times, leaving two weeks in between each pressing for the cider to clear and be transferred from the 2000 litre cuve to the fibre-glass containers.
Each layer was folded up in its cloth, a wooden rack was placed on top, another cloth, another layer of scratted apple etc up to 11 layers and the press was screwed down. The amber nectar started flowing. One of our Heath Robinson inventions pumps it up into the cuve.
When everything was safely stowed in the big cuve, we just had to add the enzyme, control the sugar levels and pray that our faith in the Pope would provide ambrosia worthy of the god of little apples. The cuve has a floating lid (chapeau flottant) which lets out the excess gas produced by the fermentation and, as the cider is drawn off, a process called sous-tirage, the lid or hat descends slowly not letting in any air, spiders or rats!
The next step is to stop the fermentation at a certain level of sugar to achieve Sweet, dry or Demi-sec. Like Champagne, cider undergoes a 2nd fermentation in the bottle and therefore needs careful handling. Most commercial ciders are pasteurised and carbonised like English Draught Cider. These are stronger than Norman ciders because they are allowed to ferment out and have extra sugar added to maintain sweetness. The sugar level (density) is checked frequently and with great anticipation.
Once the cider is ready to be bottled, we have to buy bottles of the correct weight, champagne corks, and those fine wire muselets (little muzzles) that keep the cork from popping out. We have to have a label. We decided to call it ‘Le Gars Normand.’ (The Norman Lad) and I designed the label. It’s the British equivalent of calling your cider ‘The Shropshire Lad’ (the name of a famous collection of poems by A.E.Houseman).
We have had our own scratter and press for the last five years and so are self sufficient but share the hard work with friends Our roofer, Claude, comes with his girl-friend to hand-gather the fallen apples. They spend two days for two week-ends doing this. They use a gaule to shake down the apples and stack them neatly in special nylon fibre sacks against the tree trunks. That way we know which varieties are where. We have about 14 varieties which we mix in different proportions.
Two or three young bloods from the village come up to give us a hand with the grating and pressing. I propose a huge Norman lunch for them and their pomace-flecked faces are wreathed in smiles. They work from 8am til noon, break for lunch and then from 2pm-6pm so they need a hefty peasant lunch.
They’ll be back in two weeks to help us again and with luck, a friend from Jersey will come to give a hand too or one of our Spanish cider making friends. It’s a bit like barn raising – all hands to the task! The more the merrier to help create the liquid glory of our cider syrup, our very own amber nectar. Never mind the hard work!