So there I am in France, a country that assumes a monopoly on romance and its sundries. A hundred miles and rather a lot of sea separate me from the geophysicist. It’s the day after Valentine’s; the digital air still thick with tweeted roses and publicly reaffirmed mush. And, in my corner of a crowded room, I find myself snared in the first tendrils of a new infatuation.
Let’s wind the clock back. A few months ago, at Ciderlands in Herefordshire in fact, I got a tip-off from my French cider sensei, Camille, that a new event was in the planning. It would be called CidrExpo and was to be held in Caen in February 2020 to showcase the best of le cidre français. A peek at the website revealed a smattering of relatively enigmatic detail and a fairly hefty list of producers, two or three of whom I had tried cider from, and perhaps another four or five of whom I had heard (all via Camille). In short, I didn’t really know what to expect.
Well, I’ve been now, so I can tell you that what I got was the best cider event I have ever attended.
Three days, well over ninety producers and Lord alone knows how many ciders and perries. I got through 179 of them myself, which I reckon was somewhere between half and two thirds, not including the Calvados on offer, of which there must have been a couple of hundred. Reader: it was a good one.
Cider is a drink with hard borders. You don’t see much international stuff in the UK – just a handful or two of generally the bigger brands – and the same is true of UK cider abroad. So I hadn’t tried more than a couple of dozen French ciders before, and my general impression had been “solid, rather than spectacular, with Eric Bordelet’s expressions as a delicious anomalous point.” Much of what I had tasted had been fairly identikit – almost everything keeved – again, very nice, but gets a little tired after the twentieth – and mostly running along the same railtracks of flavour. Or, perhaps, railtrack. A little homogenous. A little confined, perhaps.
So I suppose my biggest takeaway from CidrExpo was not “oh my goodness, I had 179 ciders and perries”, nor even “oh my goodness, I’d happily buy at least 150 of those ciders and perries with my own money”, but rather “oh my goodness, the diversity of French cider and perry is absolutely breathtaking”. And that’s despite a huge majority of the attending producers coming just from Normandy.
Where to start? I had keeves of course – France’s stock-in-trade – from basic, rustic cidre fermiers to stunning expressions of individual terroirs. I had champagne method ciders and perries galore; aged, youthful, bone-dry, semi-sweet, even a few that had used the juices of plums, cherries or mandarins as liqueur d’expedition. I had ice ciders, still ciders and fortified ciders. Blends of different apples and eye-opening single varieties. There were ciders made from full-throated, tannic bittersweet apples and ciders from whip-crack, tangy sharps. The most ringing endorsement I can offer for the variety on show is that, typing my notes up a few days later, there weren’t more than four or five I couldn’t re-conjure on my mind’s palate. And I can’t begin to tell you how rare that actually is.
These sorts of shows, as Mark has commented in the past, tend to be meandering, unstructured affairs so far as the consumer is concerned, and, since my articles need little encouragement to become meandering and unstructured, let’s focus on the highlights.
One of mine was the potential for learning about appellations. At present Normandy has three – Pays d’Auge, Cotentin and Domfront – though one lovely discovery was that, a week prior to the Expo, the seven producers from Du Perche had learned that they will receive appellation status in June, after fifteen years of campaigning.
Appellations are legal structures that came about in wine just over eighty years ago as a way of protecting and defining local styles and traditions whilst imposing regulation around quality standards. Their proponents revel in this clarity, protection and definition, whilst detractors suggest that such legislation can be to the detriment of creativity and innovation. My takeaway was that the producers of Normandy seem to have embraced appellation rules, whilst not allowing themselves to be straightjacketed by them. It was a rare producer indeed whose very best, most premium ciders and perries fell within the precise limits of legislation, yet they almost uniformly offered at least a few bottles bearing the AOP and conforming to its criteria. The ability to taste widely across these appellations brought their differences into sharp relief. The bold, tannic style of Cotentin, the rounder, fruitier Pays d’Auge, and the happy middle-ground of Du Perche.
But perhaps my favourite discovery of all were the poirés of the Domfront. Here, one pear variety – Plant de Blanc – enjoys near-hegemony. To bear the Domfront AOP on its label, a poiré must, amongst other strictures, be at least 70% Plant de Blanc; many that I tasted were single variety. Ripe and round, yet diamond-edged in the precision of its acidity. I found myself a little obsessed, and my bottle collection is much the richer for it.
Normandy may have been the dominant presence, but memorable tastes also came from further afield; a smattering from Brittany as well as side-by-side individuals from Ardennes in the North-East and Dordogne in the South-West. There were makers from the Basque country – both sides of the French-Spanish border – and ciders from Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark and Latvia. (Oddly enough, both of those last two had produced a champagne-method drink from rhubarb. To my taste the Danish took the laurels.)
Best producers? Gosh – where to start? Looking through my notes I sampled from over sixty, but the ones who were still forefront in my memory as I took the ferry home were:
Domaine Antoine Marois – my standout cidery of the whole show. Most of Antoine’s cuvées are named after their individual terroirs, and his range boasts traditional method, pet-nats, ice ciders, still dry cider and perry. For complexity, finesse and sheer stop-you-in-your-tracks flavour these topped the lot. I don’t know how many people I’ve raved about Antoine to since.
Pacory and Jerome Forget – can’t possibly choose between these two as the producers of my favourite perries of the show, so I won’t try. Both are from the Domfront, and both make perries within and without the rules of the appellation. As you’d expect, both also feature heavily in the bottles I brought back home with me.
Les Vergers de la Morinière – superb traditional method cider and perries, two of the perries using mandarin or cherry liqueur as dosage.
Domaine Lesuffleur – two of the best – perhaps the two best full stop – traditional method ciders that I tasted. Like an absolute fool I forgot to go back and buy bottles from them before I left. I have been kicking myself ever since and failing to find them for sale online.
Les Vergers de la Passion – this family, from Cotentin, made the most memorably tannin-driven ciders I tried. Unabashedly flying the flag for their appellation and preferred style. They felt like kindred spirits to the excellent folk of Ross on Wye.
Domaine Julien Thurel – I’d had Julien on my radar previously, as he came recommended by Eleanor from Eden ciders. So I’d looked forward to trying his cider for the first time, and it lived entirely up to billing. Julien’s from the Loire, and doesn’t grow bittersweets, but his thrilling, complex, acid-led bottlings would gladden any wine-lover’s heart.
Famille Dupont – one of the more famous of Normandy cidermakers, and they deserve all the recognition they get. Their full-bodied, rumbling Special Reserve and blissfully racy traditional method Cuvée Colette (a single variety Avrolles) were especially beguiling.
Bereziartua – I’ve not had a huge amount of Basque cider … but I’ve not had a better one than the Edición Gourmet I tried from these guys. Citrusy, lightly tropical and pulsing with life. Their Euskal Sagardoa was very nearly as good.
Kystin – often as bonkers as they were brilliant. Co-ferment with chestnuts? Sure. Co-ferment with toasted buckwheat? Done. Ice cider pommeau? Check. Would have meant nothing if the quality hadn’t been up to scratch. But goodness me they were tasty.
You’ve nine producers there, and I’m absolutely certain I’ve missed worthy highlights out. I could easily have added Lemasson, or Switzerland’s Cidrerie du Vulcain, or Templar’s Choice, from Adam and Anne Bland, the Gloucestershire ex-pats, or Cidrerie Maho’s eastern counties-esque single variety Guillevic, or Cidricchus, who had aged a parcel of cider for six months under the sea (“I’m not totally sure why I bothered” said cidermaker Simon, a touch despondently. But you could clearly taste a difference compared to the out-of-water bottles).
Of course there are always nits to pick. Whilst almost all the ciders and perries on show offered balance – some to a remarkable degree – I did feel a little medium/medium-sweet fatigue creeping in by the third day. There were a few unremarkable, occasionally not-great Cidre and Poiré fermiers, mostly from producers who placed more emphasis on Calvados. Water on the tables wouldn’t have gone amiss (though, praise be, every stand was furnished with a spittoon). I’d have liked a little more representation from regions and countries outside of Normandy, and I’ve since learned that stalls at the show certainly didn’t come cheap.
But I’m slightly clutching at straws with this grasp for negatives, because overall, from a consumer’s point of view, the show was a triumph. I came away from it infinitely more clued-up on French cider than I had been when I entered. More than anything, I came away invigorated. Excited. At the ebullience, dynamism, innovative vigour and sensitivity to tradition. At the very good quality that was almost uniform, and the frequent pockets of mind-boggling magnificence. It is my hunch, judging from the relatively quiet presence of great cider in the bars and restaurants of Caen, that the city doesn’t yet fully appreciate this jewel in Normandy’s crown. But if CidrExpo was any sort of bellwether, the brilliance of that jewel may soon be too radiant to ignore.
Shows like CidrExpo are the most fertile soil for the seeds of wonkishness. They are where interest is piqued, exploration undertaken, horizons broadened and passions whisked. I left thinking that I had never been to a show like it, then realised that I had been to dozens … all for whisky and wine. CidrExpo showed cider the same treatment and respect as those more-fêted libations, and in doing so was evolutionary. In global terms the show has pointed the way to a real culture of cider appreciation and has laid down a marker for every cidermaking country. It will be fascinating to see who steps up to match it. As for me, it has opened a window on the ciders and perries of France. And, like I say, I’m a little bit in love.
Many, many thanks to Camille of Calyce Cidre for giving me the tip-off (as well as some excellent bottle swaps) and to CidrExpo for letting me have a press ticket.