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10 Dec 2008

Cider and autumn

Because Normandy is too far north for grapes, cider is the everyday alcoholic drink. You will find apple trees everywhere. In our own garden there used to be over a dozen, but three or four have died from old age, and four others were blown down in the Great Tempest of New Year's Eve 1999, when a third of all the trees in France were destroyed.

Apple trees do not grow true from seed: the new tree will not produce apples exactly the same as the parent, and for commercial purposes all apple trees are cuttings grafted onto root stock. Cider apples do not need to be identical, so every tree is different: we have green, yellow and red apples, none of which are copies of any others around. As a result, every non-commercial barrel of cider is different from all the others. As in the picture, cows are often turned out into the orchards after the apples have been gathered, though more often it is a pig. Pork from pigs fattened in the late autumn on apples is rather good.

Around October, the cider apples are gathered into piles. All over Normandy there are huge heaps of apples in farmyards and gardens, slowly beginning to ferment. Sometimes the entire region smells like a fresh glass of cider. Apples are not picked from the tree: only those that fall to the ground are gathered, until the last few are knocked down with sticks.

Gathering apples like this employs a unique fork, with six of eight tines, each with a ball on the end to avoid spearing the fruit. The piles are left until the communal cider press arrives, open to the weather, chickens and wildlife, the bottom of the pile rotting, many being part eaten by wasps and other insects. Health & Safety nightmare in the UK, but no problem in Normandy. The sugar in the apples helps preserve them, and the alcohol is a powerful antiseptic.

Cider used to be made by pressing the apples in stone presses. These were effectively a circular trough, into which the apples were forked, and a large stone wheel like a mill-wheel rolled round and round the trough by a horse, or sometimes a cow. The pressed juice then ran off through smaller troughs and pipes into big barrels. There are still a lot of these presses around, but now only used as ornamentation, and with the troughs filled with flowers.

Nowadays, the pressing is slightly more mechanical. The press is on a trailer, taken round by a tractor. It is effectively a steel frame, about a one metre cube, with a screw press mechanism at the top, and mesh sides. A layer of apples about six deep are forked intop the press, then a mat of sisal or similar, like a doormat, is put on top, and more apples added. Another mat, more apples, and so on until the cube is full. The screw is then turned – usually takes two men - and the apples crushed. There is a rim around the trailer, and the juice runs out into a thick hosepipe at one corner. The other end of the hose goes into a huge barrel in the cellar or barn.

When as much of the juice has been extracted as possible, the screw is unwound, and the mats and fibre removed. The compressed apple material is called le fromage, and fed to cows; in Somerset it is called the cheese. The process is then repeated. That is all that happens. The apple juice turns into cider with no further intervention. The sparkle in cidre bouche is natural, and comes from the fermentation process. Farm cider can be very alcoholic.

Cider is a home product, like making jam. Even the supermarkets sell the wire caps to close the bottles, as well as corks and other paraphernalia. The farm cider is a live product. We once put a bottle on top of the fridge, at the back, and forgot about it. After a few months, the warmth and vibrations got to it. There was an enormous explosion, and the entire kitchen was coated with a thin layer of fizzing liquid. Shards of glass were everywhere – there are still dents in the ceiling. Fortunately, no one was in the kitchen at the time. But it took a day and a half to clean every inch of every surface, every utensil, pot and item of furniture, and it took three months to lose the smell of cider.

The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland was mad because of his work. In Somerset, where I come from, there used to be a recognised industrial illness called 'cider brain' affecting farm workers, and manifesting itself in the same behaviour as the hat makers. The cause was basically the same. The hatters breathed in lead compounds used in the process of working felt to make the hats. The farm workers had a gallon of cider (two at harvest time) as part of their pay, and the cider was made using lead pipes. Fortunately, that doesn't happen any more.

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