The cider route in Normandy, France, is one of the last refuges for vacationers in search of a unique gourmet adventure uncluttered by the hoi polloi, yet safe, easy to navigate and accessible. Unspoiled scenery, delicious surprises and unfamiliar tastes are around every corner, with none of the risks and unpleasantness associated with uncharted territories (copious shots, challenging accommodations, mosquito nets, unsafe drinking water and political unrest).
And not a selfie stick in sight! At least not where we’re headed.
A few hypotheses for this conundrum: Normandy is primarily known as a destination for history buffs who want to explore World War II combat sites; an enthusiastic exploration of cider, Calvados and Pommeau, even for the most dedicated booze-hound, seems rather beside the point when in the shadow of Operation Overlord.
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Likely the biggest reason for the cider route’s relatively unclogged byways though, is that for a wine lover, heading to Normandy for a drinking vacation seems foolish – after all, every other region in France produces wine. (The climate in Normandy – colder and more volatile than the rest of France – makes it ideal terroir for apples, not so much for grapes.)
The landscapes of Normandy exceed Monet’s promise: lush, green hills and valleys dotted with plump cows collide with orchards of apple trees, grotesquely beautiful and knobbed.
The reluctance to explore the palate-expanding boozy possibilities Normandy offers is a shame. Because the 25-mile long cider route, in the heart of Normandy’s Pays d’Auge, is a gastronomic treasure trove that also happens to harbor some of the most important cathedrals and abbeys (the Bayeux Cathedral, Rouen Cathedral and Bec Abbey, connected to William the Conqueror), art work (Monet’s Giverny and the Bayeux Tapestry) and historical places (especially D-Day sites)in the Western world.
Not in the mood to think or feel? Just want to drink and look at pretty patches of land? No problem.
The landscapes of Normandy exceed Monet’s promise: lush, green hills and valleys dotted with plump cows collide with orchards of apple trees, grotesquely beautiful and knobbed; sixteenth century chateaus groan up to the sky in spooky grey glory; fourteenth century blue-shuttered manors crouch over narrow, cobblestone streets on which French citizens carrying baguettes chicly sashay. Modern Farmer readers would dig it.
The region supports more than 43,000 farms (few of which appear to be industrial and averaging about 114 acres each) and 360 miles of coastline. It harbors more gout-inducing fare (menus burst with cream sauces, butter drizzles, Calvados-braised tripe, wine-marinated cow cheeks, meadow-salted lamb, cheese, more cheese, caramels and apple tarts). The organic sector is thriving–seasonal eating is as common as breathing and farmer’s markets are a way of life. Normandy already has dozens of AOC and quality certifications, with several more in the pipeline for its cheeses, dairy products, cider-related products, meats and shellfish.
After spending two weeks traveling around Normandy and hitting the entire cider route, plus all of the usual tourist traps (D-Day battle sites, the major cities – Rouen, Caen and Bayeux – and the notable little towns — Cambremer and Beuvron-en-Auge–, plus agri-tourist destinations – Livarot, Pont-l’Évêqu and Camembert producers), there was only one place that I visited that had the whiff of Disney: Sainte-Mère-Église, a major D-Day site. I was served subpar pizza by a waitress in an American flag knit sweater, to the tune of Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” Across the street stood a church spire in the town square bearing a dummy representing John Steele (the American paratrooper who landed there, the first village in Normandy liberated by the Americans on D-Day. He was made famous by 1962 film The Longest Day, starring Henry Fonda and Red Buttons).
A glass of cider may have helped. And it was on the menu – and every other menu I checked.
Fermented apples in their various forms are imbibed with abandon in Normandy, especially by locals. Cider-making in Normandy goes way back – perhaps even before the time of Christ. The Greek geographer and traveler Strabo (64/63 BC-24 AD) mentioned “zythos,” a precursor of cider and the profusion of apple trees in the region; Celtic Gauls and Romans provided the know-how and Charlemagne had standing orders for brewers to continuously provide him with cider, which involved expanding the planting of apple trees in the 9th century.
Along with croissants and sex scandals, the French may just do fermented apples better than the rest of us. The 16 producers along the official cider route in Normandy are all open to visitors and because of the sparse crowds, they are happy to accommodate long (and free) tastings and personal tours of their facilities. While there are only 16 producers on the “official” trail, it’s tough to drive down a back road without running into an inviting, sunny farm offering their own spin on the stuff.
The cider route is best explored by car, over a few days; it meanders through small farms, quiet villages, past crumbling chateaus and through verdant landscapes, with nary a strip mall in sight. Signs on the winding back-roads along the route clearly broadcast “La Route du Cidre” and feature a red apple. (Road signs in France, especially ones directing tourists, are thankfully plentiful, as there are not as many English speakers in Normandy and very little tolerance for or interest in deciphering your Frenglish.) The 16 producers all offer their take on the Big Three: cider, calvados and pommeau. (Many producers also feature other alcoholic creations derived from apples and other fruits).
Officially an appertif, pommeau is made by combining unfermented apple juice (two parts) and Calvados, typically aged about a year (one part). After being mixed in large vats, pommeau is aged for between 14-48 months in oak barrels. At about 16%-18% alcohol, pommeau is an amber-hued liqueur with notes of cooked fruit, vanilla and yes – honey. Perfect for pre-dinner gaming and post-dinner reconnoitering.
The food in Normandy is incredibly rich, and Pommeau provides a valuable crutch and counterpoint to the gloriously heavy foie gras, sauced-up meats and hunks of cheese. A bottle ranges in price, but generally averages about $15-$20.
Cider is apple juice pressed from (usually) a mixture of apple varieties, of which about 800 grow in Normandy (about 100 varieties are commonly seen). Cider is low in alcohol and can be consumed anytime. There are three main types of cider: Cidre Doux (sweet cider), generally about 3% alcohol, Demi-Sec (semi-sweet), generally about 3-5% alcohol and Cidre Brut (dry cider), generally about 4.5% alcohol and up. The latter two are more common.
Ciders produced in Normandy are often highly carbonated, have a more balanced taste (bittersweet and bitter apples, instead of dessert apples produced using the tradition of keeving, which encourages long, slow fermentation and produces a deeper sweet flavor) and, due to the hands-on artisanal method of production, have a much subtler and more complex flavor profile.
Producers guard their exact recipes, apple blends and sometimes their methods of brewing and aging. The estates generally offer several versions such as: a traditional cider made using the accepted methods of Pays d’ Auge, a gastronomic option which is often aged in oak, a version using organic apples, a cider produced using sparkling wine methods and, often, a craftsman-style option that may involve unusually bitter apples or aging and fermentation techniques. The large-format bottles are cheap – about $4-$5 a piece.
Calvados is serious. While apple brandy can be made anywhere, Calvados can only be produced in Normandy; received an AOC designation in 1942. A fine spirit created using the same method as cognac, Calvados made in the Pays d’Auge is distilled using a copper double still. The juice is drawn and left to age in casks for 1-2 years. Then the juice is drawn off and distilled a second time abd is left to age in oak casks. Calvados must be aged for a minimum of two years and can be aged for 50+ years. Calvados extracts more properties from the oak as it ages, including body and color-boosting tannins.
The marriage of apples and oak improves and gains subtlety over time. While a two year Calvados can be a fun treat and well worth a sip (especially in a cocktail), older calvados becomes darker, richer and more nuanced. Officially, Calvados is a digestif, best sipped solo after dinner. In practice, locals (and in-the-know visitors) use Calvados to break up and enhance long, multi-course meals – and then drink a finger or two after dinner for good measure.
Calvados, far less known then its French cousins Cognac and Armagnac, is undergoing a facelift courtesy of Esprit Calvados, which was founded in 2009 by five estates (Domaine Louis Dupont, Domaine Peirre Huet, Calvados Roger Groult, Calvados Christian Drouin and Calvados Le Pere Jules) dedicated to putting it in more liquor cabinets around the world. The move isn’t just about raising the profile of the region: it’s about survival. About 50 years ago, there were more than 15,000 producers in Normandy, many of whom were small-scale, but now there are about 300 producers. Prices for a good bottle start around $30 and can go up to $200 and more.
Every single producer on the route is worth a visit. My personal favorites: Pierre Huet in Camembremer, a family estate established in 1865. More than 25 varieties of apples are grown on 74 acres of orchards, producing AOC registered Calvados Pays d’Auge, Calvados, Pommeau de Normandie and Cider Pays d’Auge. The estate sprawls magnificently, the shop and distillery are spotless (and connected), and the 20-year Calvados was the best I’ve ever tasted.
Probably the most famous estate on the route, Domaine Dupont, produces the best – and most unusual ciders, in addition to delicious Calvados. The oddball Cidre Triple, created using bitter apples, triple fermented was extraordinarily dry, high in alcohol (10%) and dangerously drinkable.
Ginette et Jean-Luc Cenier, of Ferme de la Vallée au Tanneur, is farmhouse chic, defined. A dairy producer as well, visitors can wander through green meadows grazed by their Norman dairy herd, munch on raw milk Camembert, Pont-l’évêque and Livarot, and wash it down with some musty farmhouse cider.
Normandy provides a side of France most Americans didn’t even know existed – there’s even a homespun drink to wash it down with.
Quarante-Quatre, aka French Moonshine
Quarante-Quatre (which means 44 in French) is one of the many under-the-radar pleasures of Normandy, and can be found in most well-stocked liquor cabinets. I got a recipe from a local:
- 1 unpeeled, washed orange
- 44 cloves
- 1 liter of young Calvados
- 44 cubes of sugar
- 44 coffee beans
Stab the orange 44 times with a small, sharp knife. Insert one clove into each incision. Place the orange and all other ingredients in a large glass container.
Stir or shake it over the next two days until the sugar is completely dissolved. Store for 44 days in a dark place. Strain, bottle and drink.