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The truth about French cider

France weaves a magic spell over suggestible English types. It denudes us of objectivity. AA Gill put it neatly when he said it “makes oreille de cochon out of a sow’s ear”. There’s the sense that if we don’t accept all things francais as higher, better, more sophistiqué then we’re revealing our inner luddite; our grubby Saxon unworthiness of finer things.

You see this with wine all the time. Yes, the best I’ve ever had (personally) was French, but so was most of the worst, and that seldom comes up. I’ve picked at several a miserable meal feeling no end of a philistine for not getting it too, and you can’t move in Paris without tripping over English couples proposing. Just look at bottle labels from more ambitious producers – cuvées and pét-nats and méthode traditionelles cosying up next to “Sussex” and “Devon” and “Somerset”.

This reflex catasterisation has the effect of a sort of inverted condescension that overshadows the real, demonstrable excellence of French food, drink and culture by almost damning with excessive praise. And it’s particularly dangerous when it comes to French cider.

Without French cider there’d probably be no English – certainly no English cider as we know it. The bittersweets and bittersharps of the West Country have Norman ancestry; you can map the modern European cider powers from the Basque Country to Frankfurt by tracing the empire of Charlemagne. And when I talk about international cider to friends or at tastings, the country that usually comes up is France.

Yet I’ve noticed – or rather, today’s interviewee has pointed out to me – that there’s a disconnect between the reality of French cider and the reports that are often published in the media. Reader, I had fallen for it. I’d read in books, magazines and on websites that French cider legally had to be made of 100% apple juice, and I swallowed it down like a bad snail. Because it was published information, because it came from wine land, because it was France.

Until about a year ago I saw Camille, from Calyce cider, intervene on twitter to politely correct a statement that a fellow cider scribbler had made. My interest piqued I reached out to Camille to learn the truth. She was astonishingly generous with her time, and we’ve been exchanging cider nerdery digitally back and forth across La Manche ever since. It was thanks to her that I ended up at the outstanding CidrExpo, and I’m looking forward to returning the favour with next year’s Cider Salon in Bristol, this year’s having been sadly cancelled for obvious reasons.

Chatting at the Expo about this site’s new cider column we decided it was time to bust some myths about French cider – to expose the shady hidden stuff and shine a light on the better angels. In short: to “do a Malt”. So I asked Camille some (a lot of) questions, and she’s responded in style. Gird your coffee mugs, dear reader, and settle in.

Malt: Tell us a little about yourself. Who are you, and what do you do?
Camille: Hey! I’m Camille a 26 years old French person in love with cider! I’m the co-founder of Calyce Cider Bar, the first French distribution company dedicated to cider. We started as an online subscription box but we now sell directly to bar, restaurants… and online via calyce-cider.com.

Malt: What was it that got you into cider?
Camille: You’re not the first to ask this question, and to be honest I don’t really know … I guess the first explanation is that I’ve never really been into wine (a quite shameful thing to say in France) nor beer (till I discovered sours and lambics), but cider, hell yes! I started digging as a geek would do, got hooked and obsessed.

Malt: Let’s talk about French cider. Tell us about the main cider regions. Where are they, and what distinguishes them in style and flavour?
Camille: Common knowledge tells that France has only 2 regions for cider : Normandy and Brittany. But it’s not entirely true: where you have apples you have cider. I like to say that we have at least 6 main “terroirs” really good for cider :
– Brittany. Depending on where you are in Brittany, your ciders can be completely different, so brace yourself !
1. Morbihan, very south Brittany, overlooking the Atlantic ocean, is known for its very fresh, sweet and lively ciders with floral notes. Particularly from its very special apple : Guillevic.
2. Cornouaille, on the left side of Morbihan produces very robust, bitter ciders, rich in sugars with main aromas of apricot, grapefruit…
3. La Vallée de la Rance, the north coast of Brittany, is also dry, quite bitter and tannic.

– Normandy. Same as Brittany, soils play a lot on the styles and flavours within the region.
1. Pays d’Auge, in Calvados is the most famous one in the world. Its flavour is mainly marked by the sweetness which precedes a slight bitterness and almost no acidity. It’s rich in tannins with very fruity, toffee, wood and sometimes leather aromas.
2. Cotentin, at the extreme part of Normandy, overlooking the Channel. :It’s a very dry cider, robust, quite bitter with iodine, dry grass or butter aromas.
3. Pays du Vexin, around Rouen, going towards Paris. Slightly lighter than Cotentin and Pays d’Auge ciders, you still have those tannins, but it’s very soft, fresh and lively.
4. Pays de Caux is stuck in between the 3 previous areas. It’s dry, fresh and slightly bitter. This one has intense citrus notes.

– The Basque Country: Historically where cider comes from. Around the 6th century, Basque sailors were travelling with ciders in the boats known to prevent scurvy. They encountered Norman and Bretons sailors and exchanged this knowledge. South west of France, at the border with Spain. Basque ciders are so different, still, very dry, almost no sugars, with a lot of volatile acidity.

– Les Ardennes, north of France, at the border of Belgium. They have what I like to call a very “Nordic” approach using mostly culinary apples which leads to very light, fresh and quite sweet ciders.

– Le Pays d’Othe in between Champagne and Bourgogne regions has one of the most interesting soil (clay-limestone and rich in flint) and climate to create a one-of-a-kind cider : dry, tangy, with this typical aroma which we call “pierre à feu” stonefire or flintstone I think in English?

Malt: A huge amount of the French cider I’ve tried is keeved, so quite sweet and naturally sparkling. What’s the reason for this?
Camille: To be honest, I am not sure us French and English people agree on the term “keeving”. To us keeving is just a part of our cider making process in order to naturally filter the cider. It’s a technique mainly used in Normandy and Brittany, where the apples are rich in pectins and tannins. Without keeving, it’s just a nightmare to filter and it “attacks” the quality of the product. But it is not related to sweetness and natural sparkling. Cotentin makers have to (as written in the AOC rules) keeve, but they are very dry ciders without almost no residual sugars. On the other side, mass produced French ciders are also (sometimes) keeved, but they add gas to the final product.

Malt: Are many modern producers playing around with different styles? Drier? Still? Anything else?
Camille: There is a new wave of cider makers, inspired by the natural wine or craft beer trend, they are innovating, trying new ways of making, there is a real buzz of creativity. Hopped ciders, wine-like ciders, ciders made in small parcels according to the soils, co-fermented ciders (with chestnuts for example), one of the cider maker (Cidricchus) I’m working with left one of his bottles 25m underwater for 6 months… They are all starting to gain in confidence and get rid of their complexes!

Malt: You tend to see it written in British media that French cider has to be made from 100% juice. But I understand that’s not entirely true?
Camille: I would love it to be true, but it’s not. By law, the definition of cidre is “the fermentation of fresh apple must extracted with or without the addition of water, in a proportion that must not exceed 50% of the total of volume of apples”. [Ed. You can find the law here … if your French is handier than mine.]

Malt: So what gets added otherwise?
Camille: The easier and cheaper to produce the better it is. The main methods are :
– “Le rémiage” : adding water to the pomace and pressing it again.
– Heating up the juice and adding water
– Pressing more than needed straight away and freezing the juice for next year
– Adding flavours (artificial or natural)
– Adding food colouring (caramel) to get that Ambré colour
– Adding sugars

Malt: It strikes me that the myth of “everything has to be 100% juice” could really play into the hands of the big players and harm the small producers who really are doing things properly. Do you see that happening at all?
Camille: To be honest, labelling plays a big part : we have no laws on labelling. And the big companies (actually co-operatives) are using it to do whatever they want with the last 50%.
These 2 co-ops are represented by the UNICID, in which they have an important weight for the decisions which go therefore, naturally, often in their direction. Until last year when all those practices went public thanks to a French magazine Que Choisir, only the happy few knew what was happening in the background.

Malt: So there’s no law on listing ingredients? What’s the transparency situation like?
Camille: We have no labelling laws, and the law defining cider hasn’t been touched since 1952… The big players (and the small independents) are represented by the UNICID regarding laws, transparency, growth… Unfortunately, they have an important weight for the decisions which go therefore, naturally, often in their direction. Only “100% pur jus” or “AOC” written sometimes on the label guarantees a cider made directly from a must exclusively from fresh apple juice, pressed asap after harvest, having not undergone dehydration, rectification or the addition of water.

Malt: How much of French cider is the mass-produced stuff? And are there any brands to particularly be careful of?
Camille: Mass produced ciders represent 82% of the market (so craft cider makers are only 18%). They are made by two cooperatives: Agrial (with brands such as Loïc Raison/Louis Raison, Ecusson, Kerisac…) and Les Celliers Associés (Val de Rance…).

Malt: Let’s be honest – France thinks of itself as predominantly wine country. What’s the perception of cider over there?
Camille: We know nothing about cider, to us it’s just an old school soda you drink once a year on holidays in Brittany or Normandy or during Pancake Day and “L’Epiphanie”.
French people only drink 2 litres of cider per year and the market itself has been decreasing for the past years, sales have declined an average of 3.3% overall for the past 10 years. It’s a real shame, but things are slowly changing.

Malt: Let’s talk about AOCs. What are they? What are their benefits?
Camille: L’AOC, controlled designation of origin, is a label following the making stages (production and transformation) to ensure that they are carried out in the same geographical area and accordingly to a specific “savoir-faire”. The INAO supports the producers engaged in the procedure and manages the signs of identification of origin and quality.

We have four dedicated to Cider: Cornouaille, Cotentin, Pays d’Auge, Domfront (for perry). [Ed: And soon Du Perche – see review below!].

The first benefit is to know exactly what is in your drink, it’s a sign of quality and transparency. But the main benefit is that it allows producers to preserve old ways of doing, old varieties of apple, old trees and sometimes it can save an area. Before the AOC, perry trees were about to disappear, slaughtered to create cornfields instead or transformed into parquet, they managed to save this amazing product thanks to the AOC.

Malt: Do you think the AOCs are a bit restrictive?
Camille: Of course, it is restrictive, if you read over the specifications it’s a maze. Though, I believe creativity can emerge from rules. Moreover, nothing prevents a cider maker from working on other batches outside the AOC.

Malt: Is there a general organisation that looks after and promotes the craft ciders?
Camille: Yes and no, we have the UNICID, doing an amazing job on promoting cider by itself (not just craft cider) Basically the UNICID brings together and represents the cider market professionals from the orchardists, to the farmer, little craft makers to the big players.

Malt: Orchardists in the UK are being really threatened by fruit ciders and cancelled contracts. What’s the situation like on your side of the channel?
Camille: We don’t really do fruit ciders so it’s not (yet ?) a threat. But we do have issues with contracts being cancelled, mainly due to the market on itself and the demand. A few years ago we had a massive trend with rosé cider made out of Geneva apples. The orchardists were asked to massively plant Geneva apple trees. Four years later the rosé cider market collapsed, contracts were cancelled and trees torn up.

Malt: It sounds like the French craft cider industry is facing a lot of challenges then. What would you summarise as the biggest ones?
Camille: We need to find our consumers, we need to do what the craft beer market or gin market did 10 years ago: make French people realise that it’s a quality drink, full of creativity and history, not an old school soda!

Malt: When I visited CidrExpo I was really struck by the standard on show, the positivity and the desire to really give quality a push. Do you think it has helped at all? Is it too early to say?
Camille: They did such an amazing job! It does feel that things have changed a little within the community, we are sharing more information and want to go forward in promoting cider all together. On the other side, I don’t feel a change in the consumption habits on cider, it will take time, we will see what the future holds.

Malt: Continuing the more positive note, who are the cidermakers you really admire, and why?
Camille: So many, I really can’t choose, and some are really good friends so I’m not the most neutral person on the planet here! I’ll give you four very different ones!

Damien Lemasson, he’s such a bubble of joy and you can feel it while drinking its ciders: they are simple but complex, fun, colourful. Then you have Cedric Lebloas from La Cidrerie du Léguer, he is on the way to being the first one working on Demeter (biodynamic) [Ed: We should Get Mark over to this place …]. He learned everything himself and does an amazing job. Sasha Crommar, from Kystin Cidre, he’s a crazy one, he loves co-fermenting its ciders with chestnuts, buckwheat… and he makes the best ice cider I ever had. And last but not least, Antoine Marois, he’s the wine market here. His ciders are thought through like wines and reveal the extraordinary potential of his terroir. They’re almost perfect! [Ed. See my review of Antoine’s Casus Belli here. In short: I agree with Camille entirely.]

Malt: What are the changes you’d like to see to the French cider industry? How would you go about making them?
Camille: More transparency and education! We can’t play alone, the whole community has to be on board. As far as I’m concerned we are trying our best with Calyce, we are currently working on a craft cider makers directory, trying to engage and write useful articles on cider. but is it going to be enough? I’d love to write a book on cider too!

Malt: What would you most like English cider lovers to know about French cider?
Camille: I guess you know quite a lot if you read this! Just do what you do with English ciders, try to get as much information on the product as you can and enjoy it. We are going to translate all the articles on Calyce in English asap, so you can learn more on French cider. And if you have any question, do not hesitate to get in touch with me.

On that note, I feel it’s time to drink some French cider. L’Hermetière Brut comes from Ferme L’Hermetière, who I encountered on my trip to CidrExpo back when trips were still a thing you could do. They’re one of the seven producers in Du Perche, an area in Normandy that, after fifteen years of campaigning, will finally gain AOC status in June. Chatting to their cidermaker she described the Du Perche style as sitting somewhere in between the fruitiness of Pays d’Auge and the tannin of Cotentin. A happy medium, perhaps?

Whilst “Brut” translates as “dry”, the legal definitions for the labelling of sweetness in French cider pertain to the alcohol level of the liquid. Today’s drink, as a Brut, is required to be at least 4.5% abv, but according to my label it clocks in at a mighty 7.5. By French cider standards that’s tremendously high – so much so that I wondered if it could be a misprint. Without a hydrometer with which to test it I dare say I’ll never know. So shall we just crack on with tasting?

L’Hermetière Brut – review

Colour: Rusty, autumnal.

On the nose: Loads going on. There’s a ripe, bruised, mature apple tone and a little burned caramel, but just as engaging are the big, balanced, savoury nuances – leather and cheese rind and wood and forest floor. Almost cured meat. Very much the acceptable face of funk. There’s almost a Trappist whiff about it.

In the mouth: Fruit carries more weight here, buoyed perhaps by a degree of sweetness. In English cider terms we’re talking medium. There’s a real upfront juiciness that’s quickly balanced by supple, ripe tannin. Apple skins, baking spiced, dried orange and a bit more savoury, earthy, leafiness. Leather returns on the finish alongside a smoky, saline quality. Big, full body lent roundness by carbonation.

Conclusions

Really, really decent. Benchmark French cider that I’d have no hesitation in buying another few bottles of and sharing with even the most discerning of cider know-it-alls. At CidrExpo I was hurling money around like a balding forty-year-old in a BMW showroom, so I’m afraid I’ve completely forgotten what this bottle cost, but their website suggests it would be in the region of €4 which, as so often, is a total bargain. Hooray for proper French cider, for Du Perche and for Ferme L’Hermetière, says this commentator. All power to their presses.

Thank you so much to Camille for taking the time to talk to us about French cider in such detail.

CategoriesCider
Adam Wells
Adam Wells

In addition to my weekly-ish articles on Malt I write about whisky for Distilled and cider for Graftwood and Full Juice Magazines. Somewhere amidst all that I've also done the WSET Diploma in Wine and Spirits. I share my home with several hundred bottles and one geophysicist. For miscellaneous drinks banality, find me on twitter at Twitter.com/DrinkScribbler

  1. Avatar
    Phil Kennedy says:

    Although we think today of the traditions as being isolated (until recently) there has always been a closer connection with our French neighbour cider makers than we might imagine. The original founders of Bulmers wanted a cider that would match the best white wines to produce they white wine of England’ and help revive an ailing cider industry. Percy went to Rheims to learn how to make champagne, they found a strain of yeast to control fermentation and imported some varieties of French trees to the UK which they offered to to their suppliers to grow under contract, forming the solid basis which created stability (and later kick started a new generation of cider makers who could rely on a steady income from Bulmers). Pomagne was the result, a champeniose methode sparkling cider matured in the cellars of Bulmers (still there under the cider museum). It was very successful. However gradually the market changed, the increasing importance of pubs to the drinking of beer and cider by the pint rather than the bottle, taxation, big brewery distribution and volume production saw the development of keg and cheapening cider with the use of concentrate. At some time in the 70’s production of Pomagne changed, with added carbonation replacing the time consuming and expensive champiniose production method. The rest as they say “is history”. But we do owe a debt of gratitude to the foresight, energy and determination of Percy and Fred Bulmer and their French connections.

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