When life gives you apples…develop a robust culture of apple-based alcohols!
This seems to be the agricultural philosophy in Normandy, the pastoral, cow-filled region in the north of France. It makes sense that this place — a bucolic landscape that resembles Wisconsin in scenery and industry — would provide such a bounty of apple products. Much of Normandy’s apple production is concentrated in the department of Calvados, home to such historical treasures as the Bayeux Tapestry, the D-Day beaches, and the apple brandy of the same name. Here, in a land of over 40,000 small farms, local orchards carry on a tradition that has been constant since the Celtic period.
The history of apple-based alcohols in Normandy is not complicated: they’ve always been there. Records from the Roman era, when the region was populated by the Celtic people we call Gauls, show that everyone was making fermented beverages from apples and pears. It has even been posited that the word “cider” originated during Gallo-Roman times — Saint Jerome, a wandering priest, is said to have coined the term siceraduring his travels in the area.
Charlemagne, during the reign of his Carolingian Empire, continued the cider tradition by implementing a vast program of orchard planting and apple production. In the 10th century, when Viking Invasions gave rise the Norman Dynasty, apples and cider were a key industry in the region.
By the Early Modern Era, cider techniques had been refined. Cider had traditionally been made with the apples that were unfit to eat — usually a blend of random sour or bitter fruits from the orchard — but the Normands were the first to perfect the ideal cider fruits. A developing knowledge of grafting allowed farmers to create distinct varieties of apple, and according to The Drunken Botanist, there were at least 65 named types of cider apple in Normandy by the 16th century (today, that number is in the hundreds). Cider apples today are still basically inedible, but the care and attention of Medieval Normands gave cider-makers the ability to create blends of unprecedented quality.
Producers in Normandy make any of three types of cidre, and some also produce a similar drink made of pears. Doux is the sweetest variety, and also the youngest — this cider usually has a very low alcohol content, around 2–3%. Pierre Huet makes an excellent cidre bouché doux (sweet sparkling cider), which is a gem in their wide selection of ciders. Semi-Sec, or “semi-dry,” has 3–5% alcohol content — try the AOC Pays d’Auge from Manoir de Grandouet, which also produces AOC Camembert cheese. Brut, the strongest and driest of the three types, usually has 4.5% alcohol content or higher. Domaine Dupont has an excellent organic brut, as well as their Cidre Reserve, a strong cider aged in old calvados barrels. And don’t forget poiré: similar to English perry, this pear beverage is made in almost the same way as cider — right down to the fruit bred especially for poiré purposes. For poiré, try one of the many brands that makes AOP Poiré Domfront.
Though the exact fruit blends, storage methods, and fermentation times vary from orchard to orchard, the cider-making process is similar across Normandy. First, press the apples (or pears!) to separate the must (moût, unfermented apple juice) from the pomace. Clarify the must, and put it in a container. Wait. Drink.
If the producer is making a cider under the Pays d’Auge AOC (many do), the following steps apply:
The apples must be at least 70% bitter or bitter-sweet varieties — these are richer in tannins, and give Normand ciders their distinct round flavor.
Before pressing, the apples must be crushed and left out — juice, pulp, and all — to oxidize and ripen.
An approved “traditional” press is used to separate out the must, and the whole thing is stored in a vat for a few days until the foamy head of particulate matter can be skimmed off.
Most commonly, stainless steel vats are used for the fermentation process, which must occur naturally without added yeast or artificial carbonation. Pays d’Auge ciders are usually semi-sec, since the AOC requires an alcohol content of 3.5% or greater coupled with a sugar content of 20 grams/liter or greater.
Of course, cidre is just the beginning. The 16th century also saw the application of another technology to the cider making process, one that would bring new layers of possibility to the apple harvest: distillation. This technology wasn’t exactly new — Middle Eastern scientists had been using stills for hundreds of years, and people in East Asia had discovered applications for alcohol production back in the 1st and 2nd centuries. It wasn’t until after the Crusades that the Spanish brought this technology to the isolated people of Northern France, and the apple spirits eau de vie and Calvados, as well as the aperitif pommeau, are direct results of their tinkering.
Eau de vie: This is distilled cider — basically Calvados before it becomes Calvados. A product of the double distillation process required by some Calvados AOC rules, this clear brandy (similar to schnapps) can also be made with pears, plums or peaches. Apple or apple-pear varieties are most common in Normandy. Eaux de vie have an alcohol content of approximately 70% immediately after distillation, but years of aging in stainless steel vats bring the percentage down to around 45%. Hérout makes an eau de vie called Blanche d’Alambic, and La Cave Normand makes a pear version.
Calvados: Eau de vie is aged in oak barrels to make this classic Normand spirit.There are three AOC classifications for calvados, each with different methods.
The Calvados AOC can only be made in Normandy, though production is not limited to the department of Calvados; this appellation only requires that the brandy be aged in oak barrels for at least two years.
Production under the Calvados Pays d’Auge AOC must take place in the region around the Auge river, in the departments of Calvados and Orne. This Calvados must contain at least 70% apples, must be aged in oak barrels for at least two years, and must be double-distilled with an alembic pot-still.
The AOC Calvados Domfrontais is a more pear-heavy variety: this brandy must be made with at least 25% poiré pears. Calvados Domfrontais must be distilled only once, and aged for at least three years in oak barrels. Château du Breuil has 14 celebrated Calvados varieties. Pierre Huet also makes an excellent Calvados Pays d’Auge — try the Tradition 15-year. Other excellent blends can be found from Père Magloire and Domaine Dupont. Boulard Calvados XO won a gold medal in the 2015 NY International Spirits Competition.
Pommeau: Calvados is mixed with unfermented apple juice to create this syrupy aperitif. The mixture (one part young Calvados and two or three parts must) is aged in oak barrels for two to three years, eventually achieving a 15–20% alcohol content and a smooth, buttery finish. There is also a Pommeau de Normandie AOC, which requires the final product to contain 16–18% alcohol and over 69 grams of sugar per liter. Most Calvados producers also make pommeau — try Domaine Dupont, Château du Breuil, Hérout, La Cave Normand, Manoir de Grandouet, Père Magloire, Pierre Huet, or any pommeau you can get your hands on.
The cider and spirits industry is as strong as ever in Normandy — thanks, in part, to the AOC classifications that encourage traditional manufacturing in Calvados and other parts of the region. Visitors to Normandy can follow the Route du Cidre, a 40km loop through the Pays D’Auge region of Calvados dotted with producers offering paid and unpaid tours and tastings. Cru de Cambremer signs mark the participating producers as pilgrims wind their way through orchards, cellars, and tasting rooms. Some of these operations double as dairies and cheesemakers — don’t pass up the opportunity to pair your apple beverages with local cheeses like Neufchatel or Livarot.
Hannah Walhout is a writer, editor, and eater in New York City. When she isn't busy writing, she enjoys cooking, eating shawarma, traveling, and wondering whether or not the obscure beverages she buys during her travels will be confiscated at the border. Follow her on Instagram at @lunchtime_somewhere.