France’s cidermaking traditions are very distinct – and distinctly different from those in Britain. Pete Brown uncovers a farmhouse industry where fine wine, not beer, is the inspiration
Herefordshire cidermaker Tom Oliver is respected around the world as the absolute master of his art. In the UK, a fractious cider industry is united in its praise for him. At American cider festivals, he’s mobbed like a rock star. So he was a little surprised by the welcome he received from Manoir du Kinkiz cidermaker Hervé Seznec.
As the pair discussed all things apples, Seznec showed Oliver his copy of the book World’s Best Cider (co-authored by this writer), proudly opening it on the page where his ciders were mentioned. As they continued talking, Oliver realised Seznec seemed unconvinced by his cidermaking credentials, so he seized the book, saying, ‘I’m in here too!’ He turned to the section on Herefordshire, and his own double-page profile.
‘But I don’t understand,’ said Seznec, genuinely confused. ‘Why are you in this book? You are English. What do the English know of cider? I have never heard of this place Herefordshire. Do they grow cider apples there?’
Seznec wasn’t trying to be rude. Cider is a uniquely insular drink: producers in Brittany, Normandy, Frankfurt am Main, Asturias and Somerset historically had little, if any, idea that their international counterparts existed. You might think of cider as a quintessentially English product. It isn’t, but everyone who makes it thinks of it as theirs.
Vive la différence
It would be tempting to say the French regard it as uniquely French, but that wouldn’t be quite right. France’s national drink is wine. Beyond the north-west of the country, cider is barely acknowledged. But in the heart of its main regions, cider is seen as an expression of the land itself and a symbol of a different identity for people who have never quite seen themselves as entirely French.
Normandy and Brittany, in the north-west of France, and the Basque Country in the south-west corner all share the cool, maritime climate that also favours apple-growing in Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, Ireland and Wales. But terroir that works better for apples than grapes is not the only reason these regions sit apart.
The wider Basque Country, which straddles France and Spain, has a long history of campaigning for independence from both. Basque cider has more in common with the cider of Asturias in northern Spain than it does with the rest of France. It is hazy, still and ascetically sharp – neither French nor Spanish, but Basque.
The ciders of Brittany and Normandy are more alike stylistically. Brittany, flung out into the Atlantic on a rocky peninsula, has always thought of itself as separate from the rest of France. It was never part of Charlemagne’s great Frankish Empire, (whose archives give some of the earliest instructions on how to make cider, incidentally). The region still clings proudly to its Celtic heritage, with a style of cider named after the region of Cornouaille, or ‘Cornwall’, and a local language, Breton, that has more than a passing similarity to Welsh.
Brittany produces some stunning ciders, but the absolute heart of French cider is Normandy – another region that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of France. That’s largely because, originally, the Normans were not French at all. The name comes from ‘Norsemen’ and refers to the Vikings who raided the northern French coast in the 10th century. When they neared Paris, the French king granted them the lands now known as Normandy in return for leaving the rest of France alone and guarding the region against other invaders.
The Norsemen quickly acclimatised to their new home, adopting French habits and customs, but they brought with them a love of apples. The fruit is sacred in Norse mythology and in Normandy they found the perfect climate and soil in
which to grow them.
Later, the Normans introduced cider to Britain. The earliest recorded mention of cider is in the records of a Norman lord who paid part of his tax bill in 1205 with Pearmain apples and ‘the wine made from Pearmains’. For a good few centuries, cider production evolved in Britain and Normandy with ideas – and apples – being shared across the channel. More recently, there’s been a divergence between what the French and Brits think of as good cider.
Teachez-vous le monde de French cidre…
Cidre sec or cidre brut
In both countries, cider has been outshone as the national drink by a much bigger competitor. In the UK, it’s dwarfed by beer, and is produced and marketed as an alternative. In France, cider has always been in the shadow of wine, so comparisons are inevitably with a product that, rightly or wrongly, is seen as more sophisticated and as being more tiedto the land it comes from.
After the phylloxera aphid destroyed French wine production in the late-19th century, cider filled the gap. But the wine industry eventually recovered, and the French government put measures in place deliberately to restore wine’s fortunes, at the expense of cider. It is now given little regard outside its heartlands.
But the comparison with wine, rather than beer, has had a dramatic effect on how French cider – or cidre – has evolved. In the UK, cider can contain as little as 35% apple juice and still be called cider. In France, if it’s not made from 100% apple juice, you can’t call it cidre.
This means that even relatively large-scale commercial brands, such as Duché de Longueville or Loïc Raison, are infinitely superior to their British counterparts. As in Somerset and Herefordshire, farmhouse production lies at the heart of cidermaking in Normandy and Brittany.
Apples can be categorised by the amount of tannin, sugar and acidity they possess, with eating (dessert) apples being sweet, and cooking (or culinary) apples sharp. Cider apples are bittersweet. Their high tannins make them unpleasant to eat, but add body, structure and complexity when the juice is used for cider.
In many countries, cider is made with a mix of cider, dessert and culinary apples, but the farmhouse traditions of south-west England and north-west France share a belief that proper cider needs to be made from predominantly bittersweet apples. They also share a preference for fermentation using the wild yeasts that have lain dormant within the flesh of the apple since landing on its pollinated blooms.
The addition of cultured champagne yeast – popular among some other cidermakers – would overpower the wild yeast and give a clean fermentation that allows the fruit to shine. Farmhouse cider gains a lot of its character from the funky, farmyard flavours that wild yeasts impart, adding even more layers of character over a long, slow natural fermentation that takes several months.
Cast and cru
Within farmhouse cider, you’re much more likely to find sweet cider or ‘cidre doux’ in France than England. This is created by an arcane process known as ‘keeving’, where the yeast is starved of nutrients and can’t ferment all the sugar. It was once common in England, but died out, giving French ciders a real point of difference.
Where English and French farmhouse traditions really diverge is in what happens once fermentation has finished. English farmhouse cider is the stuff you see in plastic containers or bag-in-box, still and often murky. By contrast, French producers are more likely to bottle their ciders before fermentation has completely finished, the residual yeast creating a natural sparkle in the bottle with methods almost identical to those used to create champagne.
Some English producers also do this, but in France it’s the standard rather than the exception. And so, a product that north of the channel is served lukewarm by the pint, like beer, takes on an aspect much closer to fine wine in France.
Carry on keeving
Dating back to the 1600s, keeving is the process whereby a completely natural, full-juice cider can be made sweet and (usually) low in alcohol without the addition of extraneous sugar.
Bittersweet apples are left to macerate once they’ve been pulped.
Oxidation starts to break down the cell walls and release pectin, as well as giving the juice a deep, burnt-orange colour.
Once the juice has been pressed from the pulp, enzymes are added that react with the pectic acid to create an unsightly brown gel that floats on top of the liquid.
This gel binds much of the protein in the juice to it, or makes it fall to create a sediment layer in the bottom of the container with clear juice in the middle.
This juice is then extracted, to leave a very low-protein medium in which the yeast can only ferment sluggishly, meaning it stops much earlier, leaving more natural sugar in the liquid.
Keeved ciders can be as low as 2% abv and are clear, deep, rich and deliciously sweet without tasting sugary.
The comparison is more than a passing one. Eric Bordelet worked as a sommelier for 12 years before he started making cider, and regards the late Didier Dagueneau of Pouilly Fumé as his mentor. Bordelet is passionate about the rare apple and pear varieties he is cultivating around the ruined Château de Hauteville, but if anything he’s more interested in the unique mix of soil types his trees grow on, a meeting of geologies he describes as a ‘grand cru’.
Just as many of the best wines are blends of grape varieties, so a good French cider is a blend of apples, with few superstar single varieties.
Domaine Dupont, one of the world’s most revered French cidermakers, produces ciders that are blends of 13 different apple varieties, half of them bittersweet, all ‘perfectly adapted to the Pays d’Auge terroir’ on which the cidrerie is located.
Such are the attractions of French cidermaking that one English producer, Adam Bland, moved from the over-commercialised English scene and bought a farm in the heart of Normandy’s Pays d’Auge. All Bland’s ciders are keeved and fermented with natural yeast, and he can often be spotted showing them at British food and drink festivals.
But French cider is probably best appreciated in situ, on its own terroir. Bland’s farm neighbours the parish of Camembert, and it’s no surprise that his and other local ciders pair astonishingly well with the local cheeses.
Over in Brittany, don’t be surprised if your cider is served in a broad-brimmed teacup, or bolée, rather than a glass. It’s just one more aspect that sets the place apart, along with the delicious tradition of serving cider with crêpes.
Of all cidermaking countries, France is unique in that it was unaffected by the mid-noughties boom that saw cider reassert itself in traditional markets and explode onto new ones. It’s still often seen as an old man’s drink and doesn’t really register outside of Normandy, Brittany or the Basque Country.
Maybe this has helped old traditions survive, but now they’re ripe for rediscovery. It’s easier to buy the best French ciders in the USA than to see them in the UK. It’s high time that changed.
Cinq cidres pour sampler
Duché de Longueville, Antoinette Cidre Brut
Made with 90% Antoinette apples, it seems absurd that this is on the ‘industrial’ end of the French cider spectrum. Light, simple and sweet, its elegance puts big British commercial brands to shame.
4.5% abv, £4.15/75cl, kwmwine.com
Cidre Dupont Réserve
Six months’ ageing in Calvados casks creates an extraordinary nose that’s full of barnyard funk, apples and citrus, with a palate that’s beguilingly delicate.
7.5% abv, £16/75cl, calvados-boutique.com
Bland’s Cider, Templar’s Choice Dry
A dry, keeved, naturally sparkling cider with complex autumnal orchard characteristics and a nice dose of earthy, rural character.
5.5% abv, £5/75cl, blandscider.com
Guillet Cidre Breton Brut Traditionnel
Widely available in the UK, its dark brown colour and full sweetness make this a perfect example of a traditional Breton keeved cider.
5% abv, £5.18/100cl, kerisac.com
Eric Bordelet Poiré Granit
Named after the granite base on which the 300-year-old pear trees stand, this sublime perry combines huge fruit character with sparkling acidity.
4% abv, £11/75cl, ericbordelet.com
All prices are RRP