Normandy and Brittany have my heart and yet they don’t produce wine, my passion; yet they do produce cheese, and glorious cheese at that. Cheese was what propelled me to the region, but the splendid countryside is what kept me there. I went to a magical town Lyons-la-Forêt for lunch one day and thought I’d dropped into a rabbit hole. The town was a movie set of enchantment. I will never forget my glee. The architectural gem has maintained an array of magnificent half-timbered, pink brick or tinted cob (clay and straw) houses. It is close to Rouen but within the largest forest in Normandy. Rolling hills, muddled cows, horses and all those apple trees, especially in Spring when they blossom like white clouds.
These two regions are renowned for their Cider, Pommeau and Calvados utilizing those apples. There is even a Cider Route to drive in lower Normandy with more than 20 producers to taste along the way. The real fun in looking out for the sign Cru de Cambremer, being off the highways and finding picturesque historical towns and charming families that share their craft with visitors. Delve into their barreled cellars where you can see and hear how it is made. Cool and moist climate along with fertile soil seems to be perfect for the 800 varieties of apples grown here. Apple orchards have been part of the landscape and written about since at least the 8 century.
I don’t know which legends are correct, but some say that the art of cider came via the way of the Spanish Basques in the 12 century or from the Celts from Great Britain that resettled here. But some of the earliest traces of cider seem to date back to the Romans, cider did become a staple in the Middle Ages. Currently, Cider has found a new popularity around the world both in drinking and cooking with it.
Pommeau is an apéritif consisting of apple juice and Calvados selected from family recipes that go back into the mists of time. It also ages while in oak casks and takes on a lovely amber color as matures and it has its own AOC designation.
Fact: Calvados is the only spirit with a fruity taste. If you are lucky to be in Pont L’Eveque for cheese, there is a new attraction for learning about Calavdos housed in the famous Père Magloire’s former warehouses, refurbished by Spirit France, the global Calvados producer. Six million bottles are produced each year, most from large producers but also look out for the small family run producers; like Camut. Since the 1800’s, the Camut family has grown 25 different varieties on their 115 acre farm in the Pays d’ Auge. During the first two years the Calvados is frequently transferred between barrels in an effort to promote oxidation. No new barrels are used, up to 50 year old Limousin vats or foudres are kept between 2/3 to 3/4 full allowing constant exchange of oxygen to concentrate the apple brandy. Time alone mellows it's palette.
The beautiful bucolic cows in this area have a role to play as well in the orchards, obviously grazing in the verdant meadows around the trees and of course, providing fertilizer. The cattle are rewarded for their labors by getting apple “cakes,” the left over pressed apples from the traditional presses. No wonder the cheese is so fantastic!
In neighboring Brittany, Lambig de Bretagne also known as Fine Bretagne, is their liquor produced from distilling dry cider for a minimum of four years in oak. It comes in both a Classic or Old Reserve versions which is a blend of vintages of three to eight years or even more. It gives off a slightly woody aroma with the very roundness of a fine brandy.
Interestingly, during WWII many farmers in Normandy and Brittany buried their barrels of cider and precious Calvados in their orchards to keep them from German hands. Unfortunately, many orchards were destroyed by bombs, but barrels and bottles were dug up and shared with the troops as they passed through pushing back the Germans. After the war many barrels resurfaced and offered to the Allied liberators. To the Victors!