Scooter trip to Normandy and Brittany
Simon Gleadhill asked for advice from ukcider before venturing on a scooter trip to France, then reported back afterwards:
We had a great week in Normandy and Brittany and in one week (around 800 miles round trip from London) we spent time in the Calvados/Pays d'Auge region, in Carnac (South-West coast of Brittany), and in Domfront. Each of these areas has something of interest for the cider-lover.
After some general (i.e. not cider-specific) tourism, taking in Mont St Michel and a night in Rennes, we ended up in Carnac. The main reason we were there was to see the 5,000 year old alignments of stones. There are lots of formations of standing stones in the area, as well as tombs and tumuli. It makes Stonehenge look a bit limited. There are also a few cider producers in the area. On the way into Carnac, we saw a sign pointing down a small track saying "Cidre Biologique". My poor French was enough to translate that as "organic cider", and we pointed the bikes down the little track to see what we would find. After a mile or two, we were directed into a small farm yard and there we saw Madame coming out of the cider shed. My French was good enough to translate the sign for cider, but it appeared that it wasn't anywhere near good enough to charm Madame into a discussion of how she makes her cider. After a few attempts by me to start some conversation I gave up on Madame Grumpy, bought some of her (quite nice, actually) cider, and took it back to our hotel to chill (the cider, then us).
French cider was widely available in shops (both liquor shops and tourist shops selling local specialities), bars, and supermarkets. Cidre is the normal accompaniment to food in creperies, so they are always a good bet in the unlikely event that you can't get cider anywhere else. Expect to pay around €3 - €4 for a 75cl bottle of decent AOC cider in a supermarket. We tried our best to get through a good amount of the range on offer (given the limitation that we were on our scooters nearly every day), and we've taken pictures of the labels, which I will post together with some rough tasting notes. Our B&B host (after asking his father in law, who, apparently, was a real cider fan) recommended that we look out for a Brittany cider called Royal Guillevic, but told us that it wasn't available in many places and that he didn't know anywhere local that sold it. Hold that thought. We come back to it later.
After Carnac, we went to Domfront. Domfront is in Normandy, West of the Calvados/Pays d'Auge region, and not far from the tiny village of Camembert, where you can go to the cheese museum and have a plate of local cheeses served with a glass of cider. They probably have all sorts of interesting cheese information as well, but we only stopped for a snack and a drink and were on our way sharpish to Domfront itself.
On the ride in to Domfront, you start to see apple and pear orchards, and signs marking out the Route du Poire. Just outside Domfront is the Maison de la Pomme at de la Poire, which is well worth a visit for any cider or perry fan. It's an old farm, with beautifully restored half-timbered barns housing a museum and a small shop. The museum is in two barns, and we both found it very interesting. There was a good video about perry production in the region, as well as lots of maps, old photos, displays about high stem and low stem cultivation, pictures of farms from 100 years ago and from 30 years ago, showing the differences in the landscape and the depletion of fruit trees, old stills, and an old twin-screw press and horse-driven mill (see pictures). The man looking after the museum was very friendly and we had a conversation (of sorts, and involving lots of hand gestures) all about cider and perry while he was giving us tastes of some local perries (all of which were excellent). They also have an orchard with specimen cider and perry trees, which was looking lovely in the sunshine.
Domfront itself was a wonderful old town built on a rise in the ground, so you got a good view from the old town walls, down over the river and orchards. It was the evening of the World Cup final, so we thought we were very lucky to find anywhere open and serving food. We thought we were extra lucky when we saw that the small restaurant - the only place open apart from the local sports bar - also served local organic perry and cider. Without that perry to line our stomachs, there's no telling what all the fizzy lager that we had to drink in the sports bar would have done to us. Remember - food is medicine.
Apart from perry, Domfront is famous for producing two types of Calvados. One is just called Calvados (there is some land around Domfront which falls under the Calvados Appellation Controlle region), and one is called Calvados Domfrontais. The Calvados is made from distilled cider, just as other calvas are made (although the places we saw seemed to use continuous distillation - column stills - rather than alembic stills, but that may have been coincidence). The Calvados Domfrontais is made with a cider that contains around 30% pear juice. In the morning, we paid a visit to the Comtes de Lauriston outlet to try the difference and take a bottle of each back with us. Both were very nice, and I preferred the Calva Domfrontais as I found it fruitier, but this would have also been a function of the fact that the Calva Domfrontais that we tried was younger than the ordinary calva.
From Domfront, we went on to cider country "proper": Calvados and the Pays d'Auge. We'd mainly stayed in quite cheap, but very nice, B&Bs on our journey so far, and it was coming up to our wedding anniversary, so we'd booked in to somewhere a bit posh (Chateau les Bruyeres - you can google it to find out more) for the last couple of nights. This was a lovely chateau, just outside Cambremer on the well-signposted Route du Cidre, but the main reason for staying there (and the reason I'm mentioning it here) was that they made a speciality of having a wide range of ciders, perries, and calvados, and of matching them with really nice local food. One night I had their special cider-based menu (approx € 45. 7 courses of excellent local food, each one coming with a glass of cider, perry, pommeau, or calvados). Savoury highlights were langoustines in a broth, matched with perry, and rare rack of local lamb matched with a tannic dry cider. When we came to dessert, I was very pleased to see Tarte Tatin, matched with a glass of Royal Guillevic (the Breton cider that our host in Carnac had recommended to us but that we couldn't find when we looked for it in Brittany). I can't praise that food and cider match highly enough. The Royal Guillevic tasted just like Tarte Tatin, and was fantastic. Talking to the lady who runs the hotel late, she told me that Royal Guillevic was the name of the apple type, and that to her knowledge this was the only French cider she had heard of which was a single varietal (although, thinking about it, you can get a French single varietal in Sainsburys - Duche de Longueville). The hotel also had a huge list of ciders and perries available for general drinking by the glass or the bottle (which were very nice served chilled, outdoors by the pool, watching the horses from the stud farm relaxing in the next field).
Route du Cidre
We did the Route du Cidre (we did it twice in fact, as the roads were so good for scootering and the villages - particularly Beuvron en Auge - were so pretty). The Route itself was well signposted and took two to three hours to go round when riding slowly and stopping to take pictures/have a cool drink from time to time.
By this stage we had already bought so much cider, perry, pommeau, and calva that it was going to be a problem getting them back to the UK on our bikes, and we'd also made a brave attempt to sample our way through the cider list at our hotel (which of course included lots of the makers on the Route du Cidre), so we didn't stop off at as many cider makers as we could have done. I did stop off at Calvados Pierre Huet and bravely tasted my way through their wide range of calvas whilst trying to talk about them in French (with diminishing success as I progressed through the range, no doubt, but Madame was very gracious and patient). The interesting thing I came away with from there was a bottle of a pear flavoured liqueur. I tried several times to understand what Madame was trying to tell me about how it was made, and eventually understood that it was a young calva (made with no pears at all) to which they had added a pear flavouring, and which they had then sweetened. I found the result a bit sweet for my tastes, but it would be interesting with a desert (and my wife, who has a sweeter tooth than I do, loves it over ice at the end of a meal).
The whole trip was fantastic, and I would recommend a visit over there to anyone who's interested in cider, perry, calvados, or just nice rural countryside. We found the roads were relatively empty (we live in London, so maybe anywhere else is a refreshing change), and the local drivers were considerate and patient with us when we were lost or dithering. Ferries (Brittany Ferries) were a bit pricey (I'm afraid I can't remember how much they were now, but they weren't cheap), but we could have saved money if we'd had more time and could have gone on the Tunnel.
As I said at the beginning, I hope this has been useful to someone. Thanks again to all of you who gave us helpful tips before we went over there. If I can answer any questions to help anyone, just ask.
link to photos: http://www.photobox.co.uk/album/3592100 (you can see them in a slideshow, or individually. Photo quality is quite high-res in case anyone wants to blow up any details)