Drinking France: It's delicious, sparkling and very French - but it's not champagne

In fact, it's cider, and it's nothing like the stuff you used to drink as a student, says Emily Hatchwell
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I'd been looking forward to our gastronomic tour of Normandy for weeks. We were staying in a farmhouse near St Pierre sur Dives, south-east of Caen. St Pierre lies at the edge of the Pays d'Auge, a picturesque region with an intimate, hilly landscape of pastures and orchards dotted with mellow, half-timbered manor houses and farms. What's more, it's a gastronomic hotspot. The cows that graze in the fields produce the richest milk and some of the creamiest cheeses in France, while the apples that grow in the orchards are transformed into the country's best Calvados and cider.

Based on my romantic idea that a town famous for its cheese should look pretty, the three cheese centres of the Pays d'Auge – Pont l'Evêque, Livarot and Vimoutiers – were a bit of a disappointment. Like many other towns in Normandy, they had a significant chunk of their past obliterated during the war.

The village of Camembert was more like it, set in a picture-perfect valley four miles from Vimoutiers. Furthermore, in an era in which most of the Pays d'Auge cheeses are made in dairies rather than farmhouses, we were delighted to be able to buy some cheese from François Durand's farm, the only one to produce Camembert actually in Camembert.

As we sat overlooking the preposterously pretty Touques valley, munching the real McCoy (none of that pasteurised, mass-produced stuff you get in supermarkets), I decided that all I needed now was a mug of cider to wash it down.

The Route du Fromage might have died a death with most farmhouse producers, but the Route du Cidre, which loops through the hills west of Lisieux, is alive and sipping.

We picked up the driving route at the village of Cambremer, which gives its name to a badge of authenticity – Cru de Cambremer – earned by local cider and Calvados producers and displayed outside their farms to attract passers-by.

Pierre Huet's set-up in Cambremer itself was less rustic than some, but that's what comes of being one of the best producers in the Pays d'Auge. On a tour of the production area, our chatty young guide lambasted English cider, and as if to prove her point we were given generous tastings afterwards. Having hardly touched cider since I drank Strongbow by the pint as a student, I was surprised by how deliciously light and sparkling French cider was, though the dry version was too manly for my tastes. We went on our way with inane grins on our faces.

It's wise to buy farmhouse cider from the producers, since the best stuff rarely reaches the supermarkets. Most cider in Normandy is made in factories, but there are also hundreds of producers of farmhouse cider (cidre fermier). The best comes from the Pays d'Auge, which even has its own appellation contrôlée to guarantee adherence to traditional methods.

The skill of the farmhouse cider producer, I learnt, lies in the balancing of sweet and sour apple types to create the right flavour. Unlike in the production of factory ciders, no sugar or yeast is added, and there is no artificial carbonation. The degree of sweetness and fizz is dictated instead by natural fermentation, which begins in the barrel and continues after bottling. Farmhouse cider bottles are sealed with a champagne-style cork and wire cap, hence the name cidre bouché ("corked cider").

The best months in which to drink cider are between April and August, by which time the cider has had a chance to ferment since the previous year's harvest. The younger, sweet (doux) cider goes on sale first, with the older, dry (brut) cider following on later, with demi-sec in between.

Cider and Camembert covered, on the Monday we headed to the town's vast weekly market in a splendid, medieval market hall the size of a football pitch. The most entertaining bits were outside, however, where shoppers bargained with stolid, rural types for ducklings, rabbits and other creatures, some for pets, others for food. Elsewhere, local producers stood at ease behind their stalls, letting the pyramids of boxed cheeses, jars of foie gras and bread in all shapes and sizes do the talking. Charcuterie vans offering a better-than-average array of goodies lured customers in with the aroma of freshly roasted pork.

I enjoy kidneys, tongue and even duck hearts, but I've always drawn the line at intestine. Under the obligation to try everything, however, we bought a single andouillette (chitterling sausage) from a butcher in Falaise. Jane Grigson, in her book Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery (1967), says that andouillettes are "of bland and mild flavour, making an excellent picnic lunch".

When I fried the sausage that evening, its pale, wrinkly gut casing shrank and the innards were gradually disgorged into the pan. The fantastic smell rising off a gigantic dish of andouillettes in the market at St Pierre had obviously been due to the cider, and definitely not to the sausages.

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