Normandy cider, fit for demanding connoisseurs – Meanderings through France n° 210
By Annick Dournes
For many people Normandy is synonymous with white and black cows, Camembert cheese, half-timbered houses and … apples! It’s a long-term love story between apples and Normandy people who have been growing them for centuries. Cider has been made here since early Middle Ages and today a bunch of devoted cider makers produce high quality ciders expressing the excellence of the Normandy terroir, ancient apple varieties and a unique know-how.
Did you know that 95% of ciders sold in Europe are aerated sparkling ciders? That most of them are made with apple juice concentrate, have added sugar (including processed glucose-fructose syrups) and are finally pasteurized? This is the reason why reading the label on the bottle before buying cider is getting more and more important.
Quality Normandy ciders are made using the traditional method, the same one used to make Champagne or Crémant in Burgundy or Alsace. Only ancient local cider-apple varieties are used and these ciders have little sugar and alcohol while still being affordable. Believe me these high quality criteria are not only there to look nice on the label, they do make a difference “in ” the bottle. You will smell and taste the difference!
Like wines all Normandy ciders don’t taste the same, depending on the apple variety, the terroir and the cider-maker know how. Apples used to make cider have been especially selected along the centuries to make cider and could not be eaten as a dessert. These apples are naturally disease resistant allowing organic farming in most of these cider estates. Bitter, bittersweet, sweet and acid apples of different varieties are mixed together in varying proportions just like different grape varieties are combined to make different kinds of wines. Just like wines Normandy ciders now have AOP (a Protected Designation of Origin), such as the AOP Pays d’Auge and the AOP Cotentin.
Each producer elaborates several ciders and the best way to discover these quality beverages is to meet the farmers. They willingly talk about their job, or should I say their jobs! Indeed to make good ciders you need to be an orchardist, an œnologist and a cellar master able to go through all the tricky making process including its most difficult part when sparkling naturally and almost mysteriously occurs. Some of them also are dairy farmers in order to have cows graze in the orchards and fertilize the soil. Cows and apple orchards, the perfect Normandy lanscape!
To help us find these passionate people you can follow the “Route du Cidre”, the “Cider Trail”, www.larouteducidre.com. This 40 km long itinerary will take you in Pays d’Auge in the heart of Normandy. On your way you will discover charming small villages such as Cambremer, Bonnebosq or Beuvron-en-Auge, shop on local farmers’ markets, visit castles or stud farms, enjoy the local cuisine and of course visit cider estates.
Antoine was born in Pays d’Auge and after working as an agronomist in wine estates in Champagne, Burgundy and the Rhône Valley regions, he came back to his homeland aiming to create a range of high quality ciders with character.
Back in Normandy Antoine spent one year studying at “Le Robillard”, a professional school close to Caen where people from the whole world go to learn the French way to make cider. Students and professionals from Japan, Canada, Russia, China, the US or the UK can thus learn to master the natural sparkling process that requires great ability. Unless you want to make vinegar!
Today Antoine has several orchards and each one produces a different cider expressing its terroir and personality. Antoine calls them the Single Orchard Ciders. He also created two very different ciders. The first one is called Casus Beli and unlike most ciders it is a still hard cider that can easily compete with very good white wines and perfectly pair with fish or cheeses. The second one, called Blizzard, is made with frozen apples and is a concentrate of tastes and aromas. It will emphasize foie gras or a poultry dish as well as a Sauterne wine would. Antoine’s ciders are now on the wine menu of several Michelin starred chefs. A well deserved recognition. www.domaine-am.com
A little further away you can also go to Sainte Marguerite de Carouges, a lovely village where Corinne and Hugues Desfrièches take care of a beautiful cider and Calvados estate. They have a 10 hectares orchard where they grow ancient apple varieties, all of them in organic farming. The farm is open to the public every day and they will be pleased to show you around and answer any question you may ask. Their commitment to make quality tasty ciders is obvious.
Their farm has recently been renovated and the ancient buildings made of local granite have an incredible charm. The cellar is spectacular and shelters Hugues’ collection of ancient farming tools. A free cider tasting ends the visit. They also have two 3-star B&B and a motor-home area allowing you to enjoy an authentic farm experience!
More and more chefs rediscover ciders including Michelin Star ones. Half way between Caen and Le Mans you will get to Argentan, a small Normandy town on the banks of the Orne River. This is where Arnaud Viel opened his hotel and restaurant 20 years ago. He rightfully got his first Michelin star in 2016 thanks to his inventive cuisine where first-rate produce meets a rare savoir faire. It’s only natural that in his search for quality local products Arnaud Viel added AOP ciders to his wine menu next to great vintage wines.
Get off the beaten track and ask the sommelier to help you make the perfect pairing between your menu and the different ciders available on the wine list. They will add an “exotic” Normandy touch to your meal. We opt for an “all cider” lunch and were more than pleased with it!
We started with “Foie gras with seaweed and oyster jelly” wonderfully emphasized by an Ice Cider from Pays de Caux. We continued with a filet of John Dory fish with a hard cider from Antoine Marois’ Estate. Next we had truffle poultry perfectly paired with an organic cider made by Hugues Desfrièche.
Dessert was an authentic masterpiece! Arnaud Viel has had the incredible idea to hide a caramelized apple inside of a mouth blown sugar sphere! Just after placing this beauty on the table the waiter gently pours hot burning Calvados on top of the sphere that slowly melts under the flames. Spectacular and tasty! www.arnaudviel.com/accueil
Commitment to quality definitely is the new leitmotiv of more and more Normandy cider makers. Don’t hesitate to discover these dedicated people and their great products. Just like wines ciders are many and diverse. You will thus have great surprises and will never again think of cider as a sweet sparkling apple juice!
Text & Photos ©Annick Dournes