Life in French Normandy is never dull, and cider time is no exception. Every apple, every barn and every farm has its history.
All the apple growers, cider makers, and milk and cream producers from a couple of miles around are there plus a few craftspeople selling hand-carved this and that. There are handmade soaps and a variety of plates by our local potter who hand paints them with apple designs for cooking local dishes. The only absentee is Monsieur Troussard who is too timid to put himself on display.
I “man” the stall at the fair every now and again, but this year my contribution was an exhibition of photographs on making cider the old fashioned way. Most of my photos are of Monsieur Troussard.
Monsieur Troussard worked behind the post office counter for 40 years. The French Post Office (Postes, Telegraphes, Telephones) was always known as the PTT from its initials. To envious Frenchmen, these simple postal workers had an easy job for life with no responsibilities and were always known as Petits Travailleurs Tranquilles (weeny worry-free workers).
We have only got to know Monsieur Troussard since we started making cider because he came around a few years back to see if we needed any more apples. He has now retired and spends his time making cider on his parents’ old farm. He sells his cider to a few connoisseurs but doesn’t want to get into declaring the alcohol to the Customs and Excise. It is all too complicated and he remembers only too well the time when his parents got into trouble with the fisc ( fiscal authorities). He likes a peaceful life!
The farm was sold when his parents died but the family kept the pressoir (this means the building/cider house, the granite crusher with its wheel and the huge beam that is lowered down onto the apple pulp) for their personal use. We are surrounded by farms with huge old pressoirs – one even dating from 1700 complete with its original round mill press in wood; they were made in granite in later years. The apples are not stored in sacks but just under the roof so that they can be heaved down into the scratter easily, according to type.
Unlike us, Monsieur Troussard uses his old Presse a longue etreinte, a beam press in the cider house he inherited from his grandfather. He grates the apples first in a scratter like us and lays out the pulp in cloths under the huge beam. He used to lay it on straw but I think hygiene won the day on that one. It takes him three quiet days to winch down the beam and press the juice slowly out of the apples. He filters it all through a tea cloth.
Monsieur Troussard uses huge old barrels for the cider and he is slim enough to get his head and shoulders inside the barrels to clean them out. He draws off his clear cider every so-many-days and puts it in a clean barrel and so on. In order to avoid yeast problems (which can make the bottles explode) he uses wine bottle corks and thrusts them down to touch the cider. That way, there is no air available for the yeast to feed on. A tightly bound wire muselet (a muzzle) keeps the cork in place.
This cider can be sold commercially but needs careful handling or the bottles can still explode, especially if they are not kept cool. You need to open this type of farmer’s cider in the garden, as the cork can shoot out harder than the cork from a pop gun and the cider foams up in a golden fountain, staining the walls and your best tablecloth. In fact, cider is known to stain to such an extent that research is currently being done into ways of using it as a dye!
Monsieur Troussard has a faithful band of customers, and keeps it very discreet because he is not “declared”. Being “declared” is to be on the taxman’s list. This involves massive amounts of paperwork and government interference. As I mentioned, Monsieur Troussard’s parents got nabbed once by the excise –known as rats de cave.
Monsieur Troussard confided to me in a low voice, with his shy smile, that one day during the last war, when his parents were waiting for the train at the little station at Fierville les Parcs, on their way to visit some family members working in Paris, they were seized and searched. The Troussards were, of course, taking some golden yellow butter, fresh baked bread and a chicken from their farm down to the rationed relatives. This was considered to be contraband – I suppose it should have been sold on the open market – and they received a huge fine plus the farm was then searched from top to bottom. The excise men even searched the room where the old granny was lying in bed ill. Very Allo, Allo* but not at all funny.
Our timid postie was traumatised. He could sell his cider commercially and because he is retired, he could officially earn money and not pay tax at all. The government has worked out how much you can produce with so many trees on so many acres of land, so if he has less then eight acres he doesn’t have to pay tax. But he is too terrified of falling foul of the tax man. He certainly wouldn’t try distilling. The less you have to do with the government, the better. He really does like the quiet life.
*Reference: Allo, Allo was an extremely funny comedy series situated in a village bar in France during the last war. All of the characters spoke English with French accents or German accents. Policemen in Great Britain in the good old days traditionally said, “Hallo, Hallo, what is going on here?” upon on discovering a crime scene. Just Google Allo, Allo and you will get a selection of videos from the series.
To see a film on cider-making in English please visit our friend Hugues Desfrieches’ website.
All photos © J Mclean 2010. All Rights Reserved.
1. “The Pressoir”
2. “An old wooden press dating from 1700’s”
3. “Old Barrels”
4. “Sorting Apples”
5. “The artist prepares his canvas”
6. “A worry free worker”