All About French Cider in Normandy
Normandy is home to lots of historical landmarks, but that’s not all. It is also home to rolling green hills, apple and pear orchards, lots of farmland, and lovely cows. Did you know that Normandy is one of the world’s largest areas for apple production and that French cidre (the French word for cider) is Normandy’s signature export?
Traditional French cidre is made in many parts of France, but mainly in Normandy and Brittany. In my experience, cider from Normandy does taste a bit different from cider from its neighbor. Normandy cider is not as sweet as what we found in Normandy. There is always hot debate about which region has the best French cider, however, since I spent 3 weeks in Normandy discovering their regional delights, this article is going to focus on Norman cider.
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Most people are aware that some of the best wines in the world come from France, but the best cider in the world comes from here (France) too. Mr. Misadventures and I can attest to that!
Normandy’s economy is primarily built on tourism and agriculture. In addition to French apple cider, their main exports are cheeses (like Camembert), milk, and butter, seafood like scallops, oysters, and mussels, and thoroughbred horses. France is the largest cider-producing country in the world and a lot of that cider comes straight from Normandy.
Throughout the regions of Normandy (Calvados, Eure, Manche, Orne, and Seine-Maritime), you will find fantastic apple juice, pectin jelly, and local pastries all featuring apples. Along with its lesser-known pear products like homemade pear cider from the numerous pear trees that also dot those rolling green hills! More on that later.
Each year Norman farmers, cider houses, and cider makers harvest more than 300,000 cider apples from their farms and orchards. In fact, between September and November, you can participate in apple harvesting at some farms and festivals. If you would rather eat than work, the events are a great place to have a traditional French buckwheat pancake called a galette and a bowl of cider!
Cider has been popular in France since the first century B.C. when it was made by the Celtic Gauls. There are also historical references to cider in France from 100 to 300 A.D. when the Romans were in power. In the 9th century, Charlemagne ordered more apple trees to be planted in what is now the Normandy region of France, so that he could always have cider available, a drink of choice for this famous French king!
William the Conqueror, the first King of England, and Duke of Normandy was also fond of cider. (I am not sure what his citizens back in England thought of his preference for French-style cider over English cider!) It is thought that cider became more popular in the Normandy region than wine because grapes don’t grow well in the cooler, less sunny climate.
During Medieval times cider was a very common drink, even more so than water. Water was often impure, and especially once the Black Plague struck even children drank cider because it was safer to drink than the water.
During World War II many of the cider apple and pear orchards in the area were destroyed. Still, the farmers in the area made a point to plant new orchards to help boost the economy and rejuvenate the industry. (They also hid a lot of cider in oak barrels that they buried!)
Today there are more than 10,000 small farms in Normandy that grow the beloved bittersweet apples and produce cider. Many of them are winners of Medaille d'Or competitions.
Cider in Normandy can be made from the juice of apples or ripe pears, and each one has its own flavor profile, and name. There are more than 200 varieties of apples that can be used to make French cider. The most common variety is the Frequin Rouge. as with grapes that are used to make wine, many things affect the taste such as soil, climate, rainfall, nutrients, and acid content.
French cider apples are not the sweet apples that you might think of as an American that is used to make apple pie, instead, the flavor of cider apples is more of a bittersweet flavor with low acid content. That is not to say that the resulting ciders won’t have a sweet flavor profile (in fact, there are a lot of sweet ciders). But if you take a bite out of a cider apple it probably won’t taste like what you are used to.
Apples in Normandy are ready for harvesting from the middle of September all the way through December before the first hard frosts begin. The apples can be harvested by machine or by hand, but harvesting never begins before the apples naturally begin to fall from the trees indicating that they are ripe and ready.
Once the apples are harvested they are sorted, washed, and crushed or pressed with their skin and seeds intact to remove their juice, this juice is referred to as a “must”. The “must” or juice is then stored in large vats or oak barrels in cold temperatures for approximately a week. After a week’s time, the natural pectin inside of the apples will form a jelly and rise to the top of the vat or barrel.
Pectin is the ingredient that is added to help jams and jellies set, and apples have it naturally. When the pressed apples are left to sit in cool temperatures the pectin rises to the top and congeals after about a week.
After the pectin rises to the top the heavier solids from the pressed apples sink to the bottom of the vat, and what is left in the middle is the juice that cider makers are looking for. This juice is then extracted from the vat and bottled, or again placed in oak barrels to ferment slowly for three to six months.
Types of French cider
There is more than one category of French cider, in fact, there are three distinctly different cider categories. The first French cider is cidre, traditional cidre sometimes called cidre doux, which has a very low alcohol content, no more than 3-5% alcohol by volume (French hard cider because it contains alcohol), and fairly high sugar content. The flavor of this cider is sweet, fruity, and light. And it has lovely delicate bubbles.
[If you prefer the use of the most natural ingredients, then try to find a cider maker who uses the keeving process which is an artisanal method for creating a cider with residual sugars, making cider sweeter more naturally. Only cider apples are used. The process prevents yeast from fully fermenting apple juice into cider. When you ferment all the way, the yeast consumes all the sugar which can also deplete excess nutrients and give you a funky flavor.
The second French cider is known as cidre demi-sec with three to four percent alcohol by volume and a slightly heavier full-body flavor and consistency than cidre doux while maintaining a very balanced taste.
The third type of French cider is called cidre brut, with an alcohol percentage by volume of four or more. This type of cider has a drier flavor with a lower sugar content, which is more tartly flavored than sweet.
More apple-based Norman drinks
Calvados is another distinctly Norman beverage, in fact, you can’t call it Calvados unless it was made in Normandy. Some people refer to Calvados as being similar to brandy, but brandy is traditionally made from grapes while Calvados is made from apples and occasionally pears.
Calvados is made by aging French cider in an oak barrel for at least two years. This will result in higher alcohol content than French cider has. The longer the Calvados age in the barrel, the smoother the taste and flavor profile will be.
Calvados received its Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) designation in 1942, which requires it to be produced with a specific method in a specific region to be considered true Calvados. If it has not been aged for the requisite two years it is not eligible for the AOC title. (AOC has started to be replaced by PDO designation of origin, which is the European Union version of AOC.)
Calvados is typically served after meals as a digestif or in between courses at a multi-course meal, particularly in between meat courses to cleanse the palate and prepare your tastebuds for the next course. In some cases, the Calvados is served with a small amount of apple sorbet, and this is known as a trou Normand.
Pommeau is a combination of Calvados liqueur and freshly pressed, non-fermented apple juice or must. Once these two mixtures have been combined they are aged for at least 14 months, the Pommeau cannot be sold commercially until at least the 15th month.
Pommeau is often served before meals as an aperitif to prepare your palate for the meal to come, but its sweet flavor makes it a nice pairing with a dessert course as well. Pommeau should always be served well-chilled and has a 16-18% alcohol content by volume.
Pommeau is a relatively new beverage, which is officially referred to as a mistelle, a blend of brandy and fruit juice, that was only known to apple farmers until 1981 when it was allowed to be sold to the public. In 1986, Pommeau received its Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) designation, which means that it must be produced under specific processes according to French law.
La Route du Cidre
When visiting Normandy you can even travel the La Route du Cidre or the Cider Route, a 25-mile-long trail across the Pays d'Auge, by vehicle or bicycle stopping in at local farms and tasting the cider along the way. The road is marked with signs shaped like a red apple that read Route du Cidre to guide your way.
This route will take you down narrow country lanes past half-timbered houses with beautifully maintained gardens, through different villages, and from farm to farm. The countryside with castles, apple orchards, farms, and maybe even some thoroughbred horse sightings is the perfect setting for this distinctly French journey.
The cider route begins approximately 20 miles outside of Caen in the village of Cambremer. From there you will continue your journey to Grandouet, Montreuil-en-Auge, St-Ouen-le-Pin, La Roque-Baignard, Bonnebosq, Beaufour-Druval, Saint-Aubin-Lébizay, Beuvron-en-Auge, Hotot-en-Auge, Victot-Pontfol, and Rumesnil, a tiny village with less than 100 inhabitants before returning to where you began the trip in Cambremer.
Bear in mind that the cider route is not a straight line, but a journey that crisscrosses the French countryside from destination to destination. You are under no obligation to stop at all of the cider farms but can instead choose the ones that seem the most interesting to you and your traveling companions.
The Cider Route (Route de Cidre) is about 25 miles long in total with more than 20 different cider farms available for you to stop in along the way. The cider producers who are part of the route have signs marked “Cru de Cambremer” outside of their farms so that you can find them easily as you travel along the route.
The Misadventures family recommends stopping at La Galotière in Crouttes along the route. We had such a wonderful outing there and you can try every variety of drink mentioned in this article!
Most of the cider farms that you will encounter have more than one type of cider for you to try. And many of the farms will also give you a tour of the history of French cider, its importance to the culture, and how it is made today.
In addition to tasting the different ciders, you can also see how the different types and flavors are paired with complementary foods. You can purchase cider (both dry cider and sweet cider) to enjoy once you are back at home. It is available in the US as well. We often bought it at Trader Joe's stores on the West Coast (but not on the East) and there are lots of cideries popping up all over the country that mimic French cider as well.
How about you? Which types of French cider are you most looking forward to trying on your next trip to Normandy, or do you plan to give them all a taste and bring home some of your favorites? Do tell!
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I shared this post with my DiL and she’d said that Normandy was very beautiful and that she didn’t know what the Parisian characters in Emily in Paris were on about. I don’t know much about the latter, but I can agree that Normandy looks beautiful and I’d wager their cider is delicious!
You have a lot of wonderful information here. Oddly enough, it has me wanting to go to a pear orchard because I have never seen one in person.
I would love to have a visit to the place!
I would love to sample cider from the different areas. Plus, I would want to go site seeing and check out the local area.