Bretagne, Cider Country

Finistère in French means the ‘end of the earth’. The ancient people believed the world ended after one reached the sea and could no longer see land past the horizon – and that’s how Finistère, a sub region of Brittany in the north western part of France, got its name.

I recently visited Finistère – a once Celtic kingdom. Evidence of its ancient past abound everywhere including numerous gigantic dolmens (horizontal large granite capstones) and menhirs (of Asterix and Obelix fame). Thought to be used by the Druids for religious purposes, all of these free-standing stones were erected in 4000 B.C. at the same time Stonehenge was built in England.

As a land mass, Finistère juts out 150 miles into the Atlantic Ocean to the west with the English Channel lying to its north. Climatically it is foggy in the morning, sunny in the day and it often rains overnight. Storms blowing in from the sea is common – all this defines Finistère and Brittany – and perhaps explains why the way of life, architecture drink and cuisine makes for an experience that is truly unique.

The humid climate all year long and temperate winters is hardly ideal for grape growing but apple trees thrive here. The people of Brittany hence enjoy an apple brandy called Lambig although the most popular drink is cider, made from the fermentation of apples.

Dining with locals, I too, happily ordered up ciders with my meals and discovered that not all ciders taste the same. There are farmstyle-, boutique-, traditional- and pasteurized- ciders – each in a category of its own, and even then they taste different. Some are colourless or light in colour with yellow hues, others are dark orange. Certain ciders are cloudy with sediment, others are completely clear. Some taste strongly of apples, others are lightly flavoured. And there is a range in sweetness starting from dry (not sweet).

Like wines, where the ‘cru’s refer to wines near the top of the quality tree, the best ciders, are awarded an Appellation d’Origine Controlee (an AOC label guaranteeing quality). The locals recommend Cornouaille and Fouesnant as the best ciders.  Cider is produced in the 38 communes of Cornouaille whilst Fouesnant, the sea resort on the south coast of Finistère hosts the yearly ‘Fete des Pommiers’ (Festival of the Apple Trees).

In Brittany, most ciders are sparkling and it is traditionally served in a ceramic cup resembling an English Tea cup. In Finistere, I enjoyed ciders with crepes – another of Brittany’s unique dishes. The dry ciders were the perfect complement to the buckwheat crêpes called galette de sarrasin (that came garnished with savoury items such as meat, fish, cheese or egg). The sweeter ciders I found to be delicious with crepes made form wheat flour that are served with a sweet filling (banana, pineapple, honey, sugar with lemon, etc.).

One of my favourite ciders came from Patrick Gourlay, a boutique producer. It had a medium body, a lightly sweet balance with a mid palate of apples and an uplifted finish with absolutely no taste of alcohol. Another favourite was from Le Brun – it was a brut – sparkling and finished dry. This cider was the perfect match for cold andouille sausages – made of smoked pork, offal and spices.

If you like sweet cider, go for Cidre Doux with about 3% alcoholic strength. ‘Demi-Sec’ is less sweet whilst Cidre Brut is a strong dry cider of 5% alcohol or more. Most French cider is sold in champagne-style bottles (cidre bouché) and you have to undo the wire to release the cork like for Champagne and sparkling wines.

Thankfully cider is readily available in supermarkets and there is no need to go to the ends of the earth to enjoy them.

How is cider made?

Whole apples are ground down using pressing stones (traditional) or crushed in a ‘scratcher’. The crushed apple pomace is collected in jute/hessian frames and then several frames are stacked in a cider press. The apple juice is squeezed out, collected and fermented by wild yeasts at a temperature of 4–16 °C, often in wooden barrels. Like for wines, a second fermentation, the malo-lactic fermentation can also take place – it converts the malic acid to a softer tasting lactic acid. The cider may be aged for six months prior to bottling. A variation is to ferment the apple juice in a sealed tank (Charmat method) so that any carbon dioxide that is produced from the fermentation stays in the cider – hence a sparkling cider is produced.

Visit also the Musée du cidre de Bretagne; Route de Brest, 29560 Argol.