Cider the French way

Spring in Normandy is brisk and fresh the whipping winds still carry some of their winter bite and although the sun tries its best it’s still sweater season in April. But the scenery makes up for the cold; the picture perfect Normande brown-and-white cows graze in lush fields under the shadows of towering apple trees just starting their bloom. Unlike most of France you won’t find many vines here — the harsh winters and cool springs are hard on grapes — but you will find over 60 varieties of apples all planted for the sole purpose of making Normandy’s gift to the world: cider.

Just over a century ago as phylloxera was devastating the vineyards of Europe cider became the drink of choice in France enjoying popularity above all other drinks including wine. This was the heyday for cider producers both artisan and industrial but sadly the past 100 years have seen a steady slide in the drink’s popularity resulting in many of the ancient orchards being grubbed up for other crops.

Sadly with so few artisan producers left our view of cider has become so distorted we’ve lost any connection to what this drink really is. What we see marketed as cider today is often artificially flavoured injected with carbonation and hardly resembles what the French were drinking during the turn of the century.

Traditional cider was a simple and pure but somewhat raw drink. Orchards were planted with dozens of heirloom varieties with names like Groin d’Ane (donkey snout) Pomme de Rouen Binet Rouge Moulin a Vent Frequin Rouge and Orpolin each with its own distinct taste and flavour. A combination of sweet bitter-sweet and acidic apples were all employed to make the most complex and distinct cider. Thanks to the work of a few artisan producers these apples still exist today if only on a tiny scale.

The apple trees which take nearly 20 years to reach maturity simply dropped their fruit to the soft grass below when they were ready. The producers would then gather them up and begin their work. Next the apples got a short rest to concentrate sugars and soften up before they hit the pressoir. After pressing the must was put into large oak casks where the first fermentation began naturally by way of native yeasts. Once the sediment was pushed to the top by carbonation the clear juice was pumped off to allow fermentation to continue. Much in the same way champagne is made the cider was bottled and inoculated for a second fermentation that took place in the bottle where the bubbles were slowly captured. Unlike champagne the traditional ciders where not disgorged meaning they would still be cloudy from the fermentation when they were sold. In fact these ciders would still be slowly fermenting even after they were sold. So a cider tasted in spring would be sweeter than one you drank in the fall. While these methods still exist today industrial production has become the norm and finding these authentic examples is difficult outside of Normandy.

Just like wine and cheese cider is protected by French law; the Pays d’Auge is the region officially designated to cider. The soil here is a unique blend of clay with flint and limestone ideal for drainage and slowing the growth of the trees redirecting their energies to growing fruit. While there are other regions making quality cider such as Brittany the Pays d’Auge remains the only legislated region guaranteed to use heirloom varieties.

Those searching for an authentic cider experience can find one right here in Canada. Michel Jodoin crafts artisan ciders in Quebec using ancient varieties of apples. After witnessing the downfall of the cider industry Jodoin decided he needed to reintroduce Canadians to quality cider and began his operation in 1988. He creates several styles including a wonderful rosé that drinks more like champagne than cider.

Although they can be hard to find traditional cider is worth seeking out especially if you’ve never tasted the real deal. Forget everything you thought you knew about cider and get ready to embrace a true artisan product.

All of the below are 750 ml bottles.

• Dupont cider ($17) — This is perhaps the best and most authentic version on the market but it’s also the hardest to find. It comes out once a year and maybe 10 cases find their way to Alberta. Best advice? Try Richard Harvey at MetroVino he has a knack for finding these things.

• Michel Jodoin Rosé ($26) — This is expensive but it’s worth the splurge. Jodoin makes fine fresh and delicious cider that you need to taste in order to understand how good this drink can be. • Duché de Longueville Antoinette ($9.95) — This is a great introduction to cider well made typical and delicious. Think late fall picnic.