Words & Photos Julie G. Koch

Orchards of Antiquity: Why Breton Cider is Second to None

Feb 03, 2017

I am Breton, which means I grew up in Brittany, the western coast of France. In this largely rural region of Cote D’Armor, orchards and cider mills are nearly as ubiquitous as corner bodegas are in Brooklyn. Like the smell of briny bacon grease for Park Slope children, my morning commute to school had the olfactory backdrop of sweet, apple-rich manure. My seaside town is full of apple orchards (like most in the area), full of gnarled, ancient trees bearing beautiful, tasty fruit.

I have a fat scar on my knee from stitches after slipping on a rotten apple during recess in first grade. When a substitute teacher didn’t have a movie to screen, we'd take a field trip to a cider mill. Galettes (buckwheat crepes) and salted butter are the core of Breton gastronomy, while cidre (containing up to 6% alcohol) and apple-filled deserts are dinner staples.

Historically, the regions of Brittany and Normandy are linked to cider. Writings from this region dating back to the Middle Ages contain references to tavern beverages concocted with all sorts of wild, fermented apples. A bottle of Breton cider may contain over 15 varieties of apple; you can almost taste (and smell) the history in its complexity and earthiness. The invention of the cider press in the 13th century facilitated cider production. Taxes on hops as well as a migration of vineyards to Southern France around that time made cider more accessible than wine or beer, so that by the Renaissance, the Breton countryside was dotted with orchards and cider mills.

Decades after my stitches healed, armed with more taste-bud wisdom and my camera, I took another cidrerie field trip. Nestled in a corner of northeastern Brittany, 25 km south of Rennes, Cidrerie de la Vallée de la Seiche has been producing artisanal and organic cider since 1924. Using mid-century equipment and techniques (kudos to these wonderful, diehard purists), the mill maintains and harvests apples from its own orchards, and handles its own distribution. When my husband and I got married, the owner himself, Mr. Maman, drove our order of 50-odd bottles to the wedding, complete with bolées (traditional red-and white striped ceramic bowls used exclusively for drinking cidre).

The mixture of apple varieties is crucial in cider production. Each region has its own soil qualities, and its fruit produces different ciders. Sour and bitter apples produce aroma and freshness; sweeter, sugar-rich strains balance out the cider. Because most ciders are made from local apple varieties, each region preserves its flavor profile. In Janzé, where Cidrerie de la Vallée de la Seiche is located, the strong cider character comes from an even mix of sour and sweet apples, and about a 10% ratio of bitter ones.

Cider is pressed between September and December, when the cider apples are mature. The fruits are delivered to the cider’s grange where they are organized in piles by flavor profile, and rinsed. They are then pushed into a little water-filled canal, which washes them and transports them to an apple elevator, which takes them to the grinder. For the type of farm cider produced at Cidrerie de la Vallée de la Seiche, they use a crate grinder, which cuts them into chunks. The apple pieces are left to rest for several hours so the apple cells fully release their juices. The resting period also allows the apple tannins to properly oxidize, giving the cider a particularly unique taste and color.

The apples chunks are then crushed into a thick paste in order to create even layers for the press. The press itself is simply 30 pallets layered with 30 burlap sheets. Two people spread the apple mixture evenly on each layer, top it with a fresh pallet and sheet, and the tower of 30 pallets is pressed with 300 tons per square meter of pressure. The extracted juice flows directly into a bin, from which it is pumped into giant tanks for purification, filtration, and fermentation.

I have few memories of my grandmother Mémé, but I remember sitting across from her at a farm table while she sipped from her bolée. Mémé, a stubborn purist (like many Bretons can be when it comes to culinary loyalty) allegedly drank only cidre and refused water to her dying day. Factual or apocryphal, the story is illustrative of the role cider has to this day in traditional rural Breton society.