World-wise travelers ignore the photography of tourist boards and travel guides. Those “quintessential” scenes of bucolic splendor are almost always taken from a quickly-disappearing countryside. In the travel material for the Calvados Department of Lower Normandy, you usually find photos of medieval-looking half-timbered long houses with steeply pitched roofs and attic gables. I headed to Normandy hoping to sight at least one prime example on my travels. (Which, of course, I would immediately photograph, perpetuating the fiction of their quintessentiality.) In this case, the travel brochures don’t exaggerate. Those amazing old farmhouses are everywhere. I considered pulling off the road at the sight of the first one, and when I saw another converted into a restaurant a little further on, I stopped in for lunch. I wasn’t taking any chances. As I drove on, not only did the farmhouses begin to proliferate, it actually became difficult to see any other structures. I’d been in Normandy an hour, and already I’d feasted on French food, cider, and the unbelievable local architecture.
But what the travel brochures don’t mention is something even more interesting for the cider tourist. Many of the buildings were built as dwellings, but a lot of them are were also built to be pressoirs—press-houses for making cider and Calvados (a kind of apple brandy). These old buildings, dating from the 17th century onward, were constructed from the material available to people then—wood, straw and mud, and thatch. According to locals, the reason they’re long and narrow had to do with beam lengths. The longest beams were expensive and were used in more elegant chateaux; the farmers only had access to shorter beams, which described the full width of the building. If a farmer wanted to expand, he just added more length to one end. With sharply-peaked roofs, they have attics ideal for storing harvested apples before the press, and the lower portion accommodate oaken casks of fermenting cider and aging liquor.
After my lunch, I drove straight to Glos, not far from Lisieux, to meet Cyril Zangs at his home. Guess what kind of structure it was? We spoke for a few minutes in his kitchen, and then M. Zangs showed me how the rooms were laid out. The buildings are the width of one room, so the houses are segmented—kitchen, living room, bedroom, and so on, rooms adjacent to one another running in a line.
The features particular to Normandy didn’t stop there. His press was parked out front. “Parked” because it was of a mobile design typical of the region. Every farmer may have made cider and Calvados, but they didn’t all own their own presses. Instead, each fall, an owner of the press would drive around, farm to farm, offering his services—this was the practice for generations. Neither did most of them own their own stills. I would see a related contraption the next day in Coudray-Rabut at the Drouin cidery, but instead of a press, it was an old wheeled still that farmers would have used to turn a portion of their cider into Calvados.
It’s not wrong to think of Normandy as cider country, but it’s incomplete. Normandy has an apple ecosystem that begins with cider but continues on to Calvados and pommeau, an aged blend of Calvados and apple juice. Guillaume Drouin, a third generation cider maker at the Christian Drouin distillery, speculates that just a few decades ago there were tens of thousands of farmhouse producers. “Calvados was really a farm product. Every farmer was making his own Calvados even fifty years ago.” The farmers harvested their apples and made cider and later distilled it. Until very recently, in every pressoir in the department, farmers had stocks of fresh cider and barrels of aging Calvados. The farmers didn’t think of themselves as cider makers or distillers, they were farmers, and cider and Calvados were just part of their produce.
Once I left the Zangs cidery and was driving the roads through lush farmland, I started to think about all the half-timbered buildings I could see. How many of them had once been put to the service of the orchards? Apples and their assorted nectars are so central to this region, I almost wondered if it didn’t ooze from the earth.
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