French cider makers seek pomme perfection

Cider is back with a fizzy bang in France. The Connexion shares un bol with the only AOP producers in Brittany

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A young generation of Brittany cider producers is working to show that cider is a sophisticated drink, which deserves to be taken seriously.

It is not just a question of picking windfalls, pressing them and leaving them to ferment.

It is a full-time job, requiring scientific knowledge and constant monitoring to produce the end result, and is just as complex a procedure as wine making.

Cider in Brittany tends to be small scale, with each farm or artisanal maker working independently to create their own individual taste.

Each cider depends on getting just the right balance between apple variety, terroir, temperature and a number of other factors.

The Cidrerie de Rozavern, situated on the beautiful Presqu’île de Crozon, Finistère, produces 50,000 bottles a year of organic cider.

It is run by a young couple, Nicolas Mazeau and Jennifer Scouarnec, who took over the cider business from Nicolas’ mother.

They are on the route du cidre en Cornouaille, where the producers are the only ones in Brittany to have an Appellation d’Origine Protégée.

Nicolas Mazeau went to agricultural college in Normandy to learn cider making and Jennifer Scouarnec studied wine making.

Both are passionate about their product and when I visited, Jennifer Scouarnec explained with enthusiasm the many techniques needed to turn apples into cider.

First, she said, the only ingredient in their cider is apples.

They grow fifty varieties on 15 hectares, but only half is in production as the rest was re-planted just a few years ago.

There are just a handful of eaters for apple juice. The rest are cider apples, which are too acid to eat raw, and all come from Brittany, and most from their immediate area.

Apple trees are never grown from seed, because you can never guarantee that a pip will reproduce the same variety as the tree it comes from, due to cross-pollination and so they are always grafted.

The couple have often taken cuttings from old trees on ancient farms nearby, so as to get as many types of local apple as possible:

“Around fifteen varieties are used in each blend, and it is an art to select and mix them to produce the type of cider we want. We have three different ciders, and will soon add a fourth. We try to keep them similar from year to year, but we cannot use the same recipe every year because there are so many factors at play. Weather is one, as the amount of sunshine, temperature and humidity can make a huge difference to the acidity and sweetness of an apple.”

The flavour of a cider is usually the result of a mix of three categories of apple.

The sweet and bitter-sweet apples are rich in sugar and provide much of the alcohol and help conservation. The bitter apples provide the “body” and bring the flavours together. The acid apples give a cider its freshness and help clarification.

The theory is that you need 30% sweet, 30% bitter-sweet, 30% bitter and 10% acid to make a good cider.

The art is getting it right and taking into account all the subtleties and ever changing influencing factors such as temperature, humidity, terroir etc.

From fruit to fizz

Harvesting is all done by hand at the Cidrerie de Rozavern: “We pick them off the ground,” says Ms Scouarnec. “Not many people realise that an apple is not fully ripe when it falls off the tree, so we have to assess and pick only the ripe ones. We have to know the characteristics of each variety because they all have different signs of maturity. The picking season lasts from September through to December.”

The apples are washed, and then chopped and the whole lot, skins, pips and flesh are pressed in a hydraulic press, the type usually used for grapes: “As the wine industry is far more developed we often have to buy their equipment and adapt it to our needs.”

The juice is put into one of their fibre glass silos which are in a room kept at a constant 8 degrees.

Any solid material gradually rises to the top of the liquid and produces what is called the chapeau brun – the brown top.

The liquid that is left is clear and is siphoned off and filtered before being transferred to another silo for fermentation.

“We aim for a long, slow fermentation which can take from three to five months and which will give more complex tastes than a quick fermentation at higher temperatures. In January, we start blending and tasting. We have basic recipes, but have to alter the proportions every year to get a similar result.”

The cider is then filtered and this requires a great deal of skill to make sure just the right amount of natural yeast is left in the cider before it is bottled, because it is in the bottle that an up to now flat drink will develop its fizz.

At the Cidrerie de Rozavern, the bubbles come from a completely natural process, but it takes another few weeks for this last fermentation period, and it is not until June that the bottles can begin to be labelled and sold.

“It is a long process, and it is why most small artisanal cider makers add gas to give fizz to their drinks. We have to wait until June before we can sell the previous year’s cider and often our stocks are very low. Hopefully we will be able to increase production as more of our trees reach maturity.”

The Cidrerie de Rozavern has three ciders. One is Finisterrae which is bitter-sweet with a roundness of flavour. It goes well with St-Nectaire type cheese, black chocolate or spicy dishes.

Fleur de l’Aber is a balanced dry to be drunk with white meats, vegetables and fish and for dishes cooked with cider. Cidre Soñj is thirst-quenching, sweet and acidulous and best as an aperitif or with dessert.

Nothing goes to waste, so that any cider that has not made the grade or is from bottles which have been opened for testing is made into cider vinegar, or a confit de pommes made from cider cooked with sugar and which can be used a little like honey. They also make pommeau, distil cider to make a Lambig de Bretagne – which won them a gold medal at the Paris Agricultural Show 2019 – and an apple juice from their sweeter apples, which won silver.

They have plenty of ideas for the future: “We are planning another cider and we want to develop apple juice, as there is a huge potential to create a wide variety of tastes and colours, just by using different varieties of apple.”

They sell nearly all of their produce from the farm, to local people and tourists. Keen to spread the word about cider they often host farmers’ markets and have open days when the public can come and watch the pressing.

Five hundred people found their way down the winding Brittany lanes to one event in October, when they were invited to bring their own apples for a communal pressing and special edition cider.

It seems there is a renaissance in the cider world, and Nicolas Mazeau and Jennifer Scouarnec hope cider will come back on the menu as a sophisticated drink, where the differences between ciders can be appreciated just as much as the differences in the wine world.