Last year at this time I was in Normandy where I developed a fixation for hard cider that rivals my fixation on Audrey Tautou. Difference is, one can be done at home and the other probably could be done at home, so long as your home is Versailles.
Normandy, host of the 1944 D-Day invasion, is in northern France, and this century, now that the Germans have promised to behave themselves, it’s apple country all the way. Beside the artisan apple brandy called Calvados and a world-renowned arsenal of apple-based sauces and desserts, it’s home to a unique barrel-aged, almost Champagne-like product called cidre. Cidre, or cider (no real need to add the ‘hard’—in France, alcohol content is a given) can be found in various strengths and sweetness levels throughout the region with terminology identical to Champagne’s: Doux, Demi-sec and Brut.
Strongbow and Woodpecker are the familiar brand names to U.S. consumers, with the latter now producing cider here, albeit from an Old World recipe.
Unfortunately, that particular Old World is Great Britain, not France, and whereas our English cousins have cornered the market on genuinely funny sitcoms and tooth decay, in most things culinary they’ve been lagging behind the Normans basically since 1066 when Duke William tried his best to sort them out. As a rule, U.K.cider tends to be less acidic, less fruity and less tannic than French cidre—all subjective flavor failings due, perhaps, to a lack of a British winemaking tradition. No doubt there’s small-time British producers making wonderful ciders that never float across the pond.
But back to Normandy. Having cranked out the great stuff since the Middle Ages, Norman cider makers know that the key to a top-shelf product is blending apples, mostly kinds unknown to Johnny Appleseed; varieties like dabinette, frequin rouge and muscadet de dieppe.
Cider apples are generally troll-ugly, bitter and inedible. Up to seventy percent of cider content is fruit we wouldn’t throw at a rabid pitbull; about twenty percent of the rest is added for sweetess and another ten percent for acidity. None are what we refer to as ‘eating apples’, Jonathans and Macintoshes et al.—virtually all that’s available here.
So, when I get to the do-it-yourself part, understand that we’re going for a vague approximation of Norman cider, not the real deal. Like dating Audrey Meadows instead of Audrey Tautou.
By mid-October, Michigan mills are pumping out fresh cider by the lake-load, but however delicious, consuming unfermented cider is like eating cookie dough—really good, but not quite done yet. Making drinkable hard cider is so easy it’s silly—easier than winemaking and easier than beer.
As in all fermented DIY projects, cleanliness is the first and most crucial step, so rinse everything in a weak bleach solution, or a sulphur-based sterilizer. All equipment is available on line, or at my favorite outlet, Wine Barrel Plus in Livonia(734-522-WINE): www.winebarrel.com
The general equipment you’ll need is covered in my article about home brewing beer; also, the secondary fermentation step, through which the cider will get its fizz, is identical to beer making and is covered in that piece, so I won’t repeat it here.
5 t. yeast nutrient
3 T grape tannin
1 5 oz. bag of oak chips
1 package Champagne yeast, dissolved in warm water with a little sugar
The bucket gets covered, and sits near a heat duct until a vigorous fermentation starts, usually within 24 hours. I then move the bucket to a slightly cooler area and allow to ferment for a week (no longer), stirring twice a day with a big spoon until the primary fermentation slows down. Then, I transfer it into a five gallon carboy, putting the oak chips in by hand—this will simulate some oak taste if you don’t own a barrel, and cap it with an air lock.
After a month, I bottle. See the beer making article on how to prime and cap the bottles. You don’t have to prime if you want to drink ‘still’ cider; it won’t effect the taste or punch. Heck, you don’t even have to bottle if you figure you a
nd your lunatic buddies can down five gallons of cidre before it spoils—a couple days once you let air into the carboy.
Whatever you do, the result is a multi-layered, scrumptious beer alternative, and if you start it this weekend, it will be ready by Christmas.
So I’ve cut a few corners compared to those lovely but anal-retentive Normans—neither do I pretend what I’ll be drinking under the misteltoe compares to Etienne Dupont Cidre Bouché Brut de Normandie 2007.
When it comes to homemade cidre, I cheat. With Audrey Tautou, never.