Wine Opinion: Couple revive traditional cider making in Normandy
The village of L'Hermitiere barely counts 300 inhabitants to its name. A cobbled central square, a line of low-slung stone cottages, a strikingly incongruent chateau, and you're done. It's as if you're leaving the hamlet, barely aware of having arrived in it, as you pass the neat rows of apple trees on either side of the narrow road, branches dotted with a rash of green, yellow and reddening fruit.
If you had passed through here 100 years ago, when the first world war was raging among these now quiet villages, these trees would have been commonplace, with their soft white flowers in springtime, and their beautiful names like medieval saints - St Hilaire, Frequin, Boué, Locard Vert, Damelot - signifying types of apples that are by turn sweet, acidic and bitter.
War diaries talk about using apple trees as tent pegs, the fruit as precious replenishments. It was never imagined that the war, which saw countless thousands of local Normandy boys never return home, would also strike a near-fatal blow to the cider industry that had been an essential part of the economy since the first guild for cider producers was formed in 1608.
"The local soldiers, the ones who did return, had developed a liking for wine while they were away fighting," cider maker Dominique Plessis says. "So even if there were a few more hands to make the cider than there had been during the war, the local market for it began to shrink."
Things grew even worse after the second world war, when national food shortages were so crippling that the government offered subsidies to local farmers to pull up any remaining apple trees and turn the land over to grow corn, wheat and other "more useful" crops.
"Those same farmers, who had spent their lives burning the ancient Norman apple trees, were the very ones who told us we were crazy when we arrived here 25 years ago, with a plan to open our own cider farm."
Plessis had spent his career as a technician in the French nuclear industry, but his grandparents had been farmers in Le Perche, the quiet corner of southern Normandy two hours from Paris that is known for its national park, its elegant chateaux and its noble Percheron horses.
"They farmed many different crops, but had a small orchard of apple trees that they used to make just enough cider for family consumption. It was what everyone did then."
When he returned to the region in 1990 with his wife Nathalie, there were no traditional apple trees left, and it was these that they first set about replanting. It's not quite true to say the Normandy cider industry was dead - nearby was a huge factory taking in 25,000 tonnes of apples per year and turning out cheap, industrialised cider, with the fizz injected in as carbon dioxide gas.
What Domaine Plessis set out to do was recreate the traditional method of cider making, with a second fermentation in bottle. Where injected gas might keep the fizz in cider for a few months, the traditional method gives richer, more complex flavours, and can last for two to three years. To achieve the bittersweet tarte tartin flavours that are traditional to Perche cider, he uses 300 tonnes of his own, organically grown apples to make apple juice, dry cider, a demi-sec cider and calvados, the apple brandy that is fermented from a base of cider.
"It was trial and error at first," Plessis says. "We based our methods on winemaking from the nearby Loire Valley, because there were no traditional cider makers to learn from, although we did visit cider producers in the Basque Country in Spain, and in the Hudson Valley in the US. But apples are not the same as grapes, and it wasn't until we all joined together to hire a researcher to specialise in cider, and study the best methods of growing and production, that things really began to improve."
As we walk through his orchards, Plessis takes me through the basics, and the importance of blending acidic, bitter and sweet-tasting apples to get the right balance in the glass.
"Straight apple juice needs an even mix of sweet and acidic apples," he says, pointing out the difference between the trees. "While cider needs an addition of bitter-tasting apples."
The next morning, I stop in at a local cafe for breakfast. Sitting at the bar, chatting animatedly in the near-incomprehensible local accent, are two men of indeterminate age, faces criss-crossed with the maps of their lives, drinking a cafe-calva; a coffee accompanied by a calvados that in bygone years fuelled morning workers.
In the interests of research, I follow suit. The hot black coffee followed by the slight sting of alcohol burns my throat. Then the honeyed apple accent of the calvados makes its appearance, the sweet oak from the ageing barrels adding caramel to the smoky coffee notes.
The two men smile over at me, surprised to see an obvious outsider sharing the local breakfast. I smile back, drain the last few drops, and leave them to this haunting, still wild region, where the apples trees are once again in bloom.
Jane Anson is a Bordeaux-based wine and travel writer
Domaine Plessis can be found at cidrerie-traditionnelle-du-perche.fr