When we arrived in Normandy, Murray and Julie half-apologetically told us that there was really very little in this part of the country except agriculture and dairy. And by agriculture, they meant apples. So cows and apples, for short. There are not really any vineyards (Burgandy) or chateaus (the Loire Valley) or skiing (Alps) or even glamorous beaches (Marseilles)… but that was fine with me. Having grown up in New England, I have a healthy respect for apples and cows and otherwise fairly austere pursuits. On the last day of our stay, Murray indulged us in what Normandy had to offer by taking us to a cidery, a small picturesque town, and getting us some of the stinkiest cheese in the world.
Now I do love myself some cider. For our international readers, apple picking is a time-honored family outing in the fall especially for American families in the Northeast and Midwest. From early September to late November, you can visit nearby apple orchards (we went to a few in Indiana and Michigan while in Chicago), and pick and buy apples by the pound. And eat your heart’s content while you do it! The varieties you see depend on what they plant and what time of year it is since different ones ripen at different times. Then you have to restrain yourself from buying everything at their shop, like crisp, cloudy brown apple cider, delicious apple doughnuts dusted with sugar, apple caramels, chocolate dipped apples, apple pies, etc. etc. This is one of my favorite things about the fall! Six years ago, when I did study abroad in Vienna, I discovered another kind of cider: sturm as it’s known in Austria and Germany is a seasonal apple cider that begins to sell in September once it has reached 3% alcohol by volume. It tastes sweet and light, and before you know it, you’ve had too much, which is because it’s typically sold in 3 liter jugs. Those liters also have open caps, because it continues to ferment through the fall and by November, you could be buying 7 or 8% alcohol sturm, which doesn’t taste so sweet anymore.
That understanding sure came in handy this time when we visited La ferme du bout du chemin, run by Nicole Bignon and her husband Luc. The farm is located in St. Laurent-du-Mont, less than 10 km northwest of Le Mesnil-Eudes, where we were staying with Murray and Julie. Murray likes to bring groups here when he works as a driver because Nicole speaks rather fluent English, and they have such a good story. Nicole’s grandparents used to own this farm and run a dairy with cows and everything, as well as a cider press for their own consumption. That was pretty normal considering most of the cider made in Normandy was for personal consumption, and not sold in stores, up until her generation. She started off our tour by showing us the modern 21st-century machines they use to shake the trees, gather the apples, sort the apples, churn them up, and siphon off the juice. And then she showed us what they used up until 5 years ago, when they completely modernized the production process: a mechanical press that would be filled with apples, then wrapped with cloth, complete with a wooden lattice underneath where the juice would drain through. Finally, Nicole also sketched out where the old 19th century equipment, used in her grandparents’ time, had been in their barn: there was a square stone trough (now outside and used as a flower planter) next to a wooden pillar where you could see a grindstone had been attached, and a horse tethered to it to walk back and forth and work the grindstone. It kind of underlined that such small scale production had developed because it was mostly a personal sort of pursuit or maybe sold to neighbors, and she stressed that much of the cider products they made still did not make it out of Normandy and into other parts of France.
Then commenced the absolutely delightful tasting, along with explanations of how these ciders were made. We began with plain old cider: once the apple juice is pressed out, it is piped into large casks. The natural yeast on the skin and the sugar of the flesh of the apple mix, and begin to ferment. As time goes on, the more alcohol and the less sugar you have; Nicole’s husband Luc typically goes to measure the density (and thus sugar content) of their casks every day. Gravity causes the yeast to condense at the bottom, so when they siphon off the top of the cask, it has much less yeast, and thus has a higher sugar content and ferments slowly. Cider with an alcohol content of around 3% is known as doux (sweet) cider; demi-sèc (half-dry) is a bit stronger, at around 4% alcohol, and when all the sugar is converted into alcohol, it is known as brût cider (strong), at 6.3%. Nicole mentioned that their brût is probably a little stronger than what supermarket cider is sold at, and their sweet is very sweet, so if you buy alcoholic cider, don’t expect the same percentages. We tried their cider, which is all organic, beginning with the brût and working our way up to the doux. It was all exquisite, and by the time we tried the doux, it just tasted angelic on the tongue. (Sorry, I do get pretty poetic about cider…) Next, she gave us a little bit of pure apple juice before moving on to the hard liqueurs. For both cider and juice, Nicole stressed that it was important to have a different mix of apples, usually 3-4, maybe 5 different varieties that provide a range of flavors from bitter to sweet. That’s how you come out with good cider! As apples ripen during different times of the fall, and depending on that year’s weather and seasonal patterns, they mix together the varieties that ripen together. Even though there are about 28 different varieties of apples on their farm, the cider we drank does not contain for example 28 different types of apples. (This isn’t like Heinz or Dr. Pepper!) One more note… like the sturm that I had in Austria, this cider must be controlled carefully lest its bottles contain too much yeast, and its contents explode. As long as you have the yeast in there, that’s an ongoing chemical reaction that turns sugar into alcohol, producing little bubbles of carbon dioxide as a side product, and so the air will keep building up. If you have a very small amount, you can keep that cider in bottles for a long time, and indeed, in order to have perfect control over it, many large scale operations that make cider use only artificial yeast that they measure out and put in instead of the natural yeast on the skin. If you have a large amount or uncontrolled amount, and you bottle it too early, the bottles explode, which Nicole admitted does happen once in a long while even in seasoned cideries!
When we moved onto the hard alcohol, we began with a small measure of Pommeau. Pommeau is a blend of pure apple juice and Calvados, which is apple brandy. Between the two, they tweak it until it reaches about 13-14% alcohol by volume, and then age it for 14 months at a minimum. The Pommeau ended up being our favorite, sweet but with a dark alcoholic flavor, a perfect dessert wine, and we purchased two bottles to take with us at the end. Next, we tried the Calvados, which is what Normandy is known for. They use cider that is allowed to ferment completely, and distill it into an apple brandy that is 70% alcohol. Then it’s allowed to age, and as the years pass, the alcohol evaporates a little bit, typically dropping about one percentage point per year. The best Calvados, according to Nicole, is when it reaches about 40% alcohol by volume, which means a) that takes 45 years for this Calvados to become perfect! and b) they have to add a little water each year to compensate for the alcohol that evaporates (that measure is called the angels’s share, which I find very neat). She presented us with three types of Calvados – 5 years, 10 years, and 15 years. The 5 years was the clearest, and was simply a hint of apple with a strong kick of alcohol that seared. The 10 years was more mellow, slightly darker, and the 15 years was amber-hued, with a really smooth finish that Steve thought was evocative of good whiskey. (For Steve to call anything as good as whiskey is probably the highest compliment he can give.) The labels of Pommeau and Calvados are also A.O.C., which like the labels given to wine, are highly controlled labels which are only given to products made in that particular region which have a certain percentage of alcohol and have been aged for a certain amount of time, etc. etc. (A.O.C. stands for appellation d’origine controlée, or “controlled name of origin”). So you can be sure that if you’re buying a Pommeau A.O.C. or a Calvados A.O.C., it’s really a Normandy product that has been made in the traditional style.
Overall, I loved listening to Nicole talk about their family production and how to make cider. It is a really engrossing process, and highly scientific. There are very few barriers to making your own cider at home — and I know people make beer at home, which is a similar process. I kept thinking it would have been the coolest thing to do this for a science project when I was in high school; chemistry could have been so interesting! It’s not really the alcoholic aspect that I find interesting, but the fact that making food or drink can be so highly scientific, and that there are processes and chemical reactions that must be closely followed to produce the desired products, which can vary wildly if those processes change ever so slightly. I think I would have enjoyed science a lot more if I had known that it has a lot to do with how you make food: anything from beer to cheese to kimchi/sauerkraut to cakes. I think in subsequent falls, Steve and I may be trying to make our own cider…
After buying our Pommeau and enthusiastically thanking Nicole, we headed off to a few more places. Murray took us to Beuvron-en-Auge, a nearby picturesque town that is… basically known for being picturesque. We bought a few souvenirs, took many pictures of the colombage houses around town, and even tried their candy. They had some caramels, flavored with Calvados, which both Murray and Steve found very delicious. Then on our way home, we stopped to buy an apple and almond tart for our last dinner at Murray and Julie’s, and also some Livarot. Yes, it was time for… stinky cheese.
Years ago, in high school, I was introduced to the marvel that is Brie. French cheese had been formerly unknown to me, and all the stinky and moldy varieties sounded sort of off-putting to me, but liking Brie was easy. Creamy, soft, and very rich, Brie was the ultimate gateway cheese that opened up much more for me. For example, on this trip, I made my acquaintance with Comté, a hard cheese that is nutty and flavorful like Parmesan but so much better. Comté is a cheese that I’m just happy to eat by itself! It also happens to be made in Normandy, so we bought some before we left that had been aged for 15-20 months, which tasted much superior to the ones only aged for 6-9 months that I’ve had from supermarkets in Lyon. Roquefort is another cheese, a crumbly flavorful blue cheese that is best tasted in morsels, that we enjoyed when we went to Montchanin. Murray commented that if I liked Roquefort, I would enjoy Stilton, an English cheese. Can’t wait to try that out soon! And sometime in the past year, Steve also introduced me to Camembert. As a cheese, it bears much resemblance to Brie, because it’s soft and rich, but it holds its shape less well than brie, so if you buy a small wheel and only eat a quarter, don’t be surprised to see it flow out of its shape the next day. It is also, importantly, more stinky than Brie, an earthy flavor that I didn’t expect to like, but grew to enjoy.
All of this leads up to trying Livarot, a cheese named for the town nearby where Julie ran her dog grooming salon. I had heard a little about it, as it was rumored to be one of the kings of smelly cheese, and was definitely interested in trying. So at the supermarket, I bought a “Petit Livarot,” a smaller wheel than usual, merely 250 grams. And boy was it smelly! Even before we opened it, we could smell its flavor — a strong, very earthy, quite stinky smell. And the odd thing is, I really really like it, just as I anticipated. The stinky smell is a perfect complement to the salty creaminess of the cheese, and on a savory cracker, it is incredibly tasty. In appearance, Livarot looked like a typical wheel of Camembert, but had many more tiny air bubbles within it. Steve enjoyed it too, though perhaps not as much as I did, and when we were done with tasting it, we wrapped it in two plastic ziplock bags so as to not let the smell leak out. After we got to Paris yesterday, we shared it with some more friends, and it may well be gone by tomorrow, when we have to leave France!
On that sad note, tomorrow is our last day in France. We’re heading out to the UK, leaving this excellent country we have been in for more than two months… wiser in our French vocabulary, maybe a little pudgier around the waist, and definitely sated in the amount of amazing, delicious chocolatey things we’ve eaten. I’ll have to write again soon, which I may do on the train to Edinburgh tomorrow, about our time in Paris both from last month and from this month. The abbreviated version is: museums and churches!
Finally, I have to say, our plane back to the United States of America is on July 22 out of London Gatwick. Oh, my gosh, we are coming back in ten days. We bought these tickets well over a month ago, but somehow, I’m just realizing that our year (okay more like 11 months) of travel is pretty much up. It makes me really scared and kind of weirded out, even though we’re both looking forward to everything about being home and seeing our Stella again. We’ve still got one more country (maybe two if you count Scotland) to go… and we’ll make the most of it!