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At a recent holiday event, a number of party goers were surprised that France produces cider. France is synonymous, of course, with wine, champagne, cognac, and a host of other delicious spirits and beverages, but cider?
Yes. It's true: France is known for cider (called cidre in France). In fact, France is the largest cider producing country in the world!
And it's been producing some of the world's finest ciders for a very long time.
It appears that cider has been made in France since as early as the Celtic Gauls (1st century BC) and also under Roman rule (100 to 300 AD). There are historical references in the 9th century about Charlemagne ordering the planting of apple trees in Northern France so that he could always have a supply of cider. It is also mentioned during the time of William the Conqueror, the Norman duke who claimed the throne of England after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Cider was widely consumed by these early Normans, because grapes didn't (and still don't) grow so well in the cool, cloudy Normandy climate. The abundance of apples made cider easier to come by on a daily basis.
Cider was a mainstay in France during Medieval times. Water was impure and often unfit to drink in most towns and villages. And when plague struck between 1400 and 1700, many frightened villagers in France gave up water and drank cider instead. Even the kids drank cider since it was much safer than drinking the water.
From the 1800's to the 1940's, cider-making was very popular in Northern France. The 1929 agricultural census gives an idea of the area formerly covered by traditional orchards: 100 million apple and pear trees. During this time, cider was mainly produced by each family as a drink for the farm laborers ....with some occasionally making its way to the village cafe for sale to the public. This cider was put into Champagne-style bottles and corked for transport and came to be called Cidre Bouché (cider stopped with a cork!)
During World War II, many cider apple and pear orchards in Normandy were destroyed. After the war, Normandy farmers began an intensive effort to rejuvenate the orchard economy. It was at this time, that the famous Pays d'Auge Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) status was granted by the French government to the tiny Pays d'Auge region nestled in the heart of the Calvados department in Normandy.
At the peak of traditional orchard farming, in the early 1960s, France had the most extensive fruit orchard meadows in Europe, with one million hectars (about 2.5 million acres). However, due to a weakened economy from 1960-2000, traditional orchards largely declined as farmers cut down the orchards to make way for more profitable crops. In 2002, the remaining traditional orchards covered about 146,000 hectars (about 360,000 acres) with 5 million trees.
Despite the decrease in cider orchards in the last 50 years, the tradition of cider making is alive and well in France - and making a come-back - as the adult children start to return to the orchards of their parents and grandparents to rejuvenate this important part of French culture. There are about 11,000 small farms in Normandy that grow cider apples and produce cider today, making most of it for a local clientele. You'll find cider producers in the Normandy, Brittany and Hauts de France regions (Hauts de France was formerly called Picardy). There is even a famous cider route in the Pays d'Auge region in Normandy called La Route du Cidre (the Cider Route) where you can ride a bike or drive from farm to farm tasting cider and its sophisticated cousin, Calvados, at 20 different producers located on the route.
So, as you decide what to serve your guests this holiday season, be sure to try some French ciders and poirés (pear ciders). They're champagne-like, festive, and low calorie as well. This holiday season is the perfect time to discover what you've been missing!
We currently distribute cider, poiré, Calvados, Armagnac and Cognac to fine restaurants, bars, clubs, wedding venues and specialty retailers in the states of WA, CA, NH and Maine through Beauchamp Imports, Inc. To request a tasting for your licensed establishment, or to inquire about distributing our products, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to sharing our portfolio of fine products with you!