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All about Deux-Sèvres (79) & Vendée (85)

More rural than its neighbours, Deux-Sèvres has much to offer individuals seeking a quieter life. Without a doubt, the Marais Poitevin is the département's jewel in the crown but there are plenty of other gems to be found if you know where to look.

To find out more about the Deux-Sèvres, read our visitor's guide here.

The Vendée département stretches along the Atlantic coast with 140km of glorious beaches and is home to the Vendée Globe round the world yacht race. Inland, Puy du Fou, the world renowned theme park, draws the crowds. Pine forests, bocages (wooded hills) and marais (marshes) can all be found in the Vendée and were the sites of many battles in Vendées turbulant history.


A pressing time - cider-making in Deux-Sèvres

A pressing time - cider-making in Deux-Sèvres

This is the time to turn apples into a delicious drink to keep you going through the cold winter months. Mike Davis, a cider man from way back, explains just how to go about it – and to cook with it too... 

cider-making-deux-sevresLong ago and far away – well, at least during the 1990s in Solihull – my wife Erika and I bought a house with apple trees at the bottom of the garden. My neighbours had them too and together they cropped prolifically. Each year we ate apples, cooked with apples and stored apples. Yet we still had a huge surplus which rotted underfoot, attracted wasps and were a real problem. But every problem has a solution and the solution to our apple problem – and that of our neighbours – was cider.

Now fast forward a decade. We’re in Deux-Sèvres. Again we’ve an abundance of apples. Same problem? Same solution! But Worcestershire, where our apples were previously pressed, was not an option. This necessitated the search for a press. We bid for a few on internet auction sites but were always beaten. Then, just as we were beginning to despair, we saw just what we were looking for – a press that was not too large or small with a capacity approaching 200 litres which, when filled, would yield over 120 litres of apple juice. And its owner was fewer than 50 km away. We bid the opening price, expecting to be beaten again. But we weren’t. In fact there were no other bids. So for €100 we acquired a press - with a crusher thrown in.
The press wasn’t that small or light but was in excellent condition. It took a box van, three strong men and a back injury to move it from the vigneron’s cellar to our old bakery. Installed there, we were ready to recommence cider production that autumn. Only that year, unlike those that had preceded it, the apple crop was very disappointing.

So we put the word out amongst friends and neighbours, and trading the finished cider-to-be for apples, we made repeated forays with the car and trailer into the surrounding countryside to gather the apples offered. Many were not cider apples – the classic sweets, sharps, bittersweets and bittersharps – but a wide mix of eating and cooking apples. However, happily there was a preponderance of Clochard – the local Parthenaise variety of apple - whose sharp and sweet flesh lends itself well to cider. Other types to use include Court Pendu Plat and Reinette Grise du Canada.

Having gathered the windfalls and shaken down our own trees and those of others, we soon had enough apples to begin. apple-harvest-deux-sevresUnfortunately the crusher that came with the press was less than efficient - which was not the case with the petrol-powered garden shredder that we used instead! Our neighbours looked on in amazement, enquiring why we were putting apples where garden waste should go. But the shredder produced a fine pomace (solid remains of fruit) and in no time the press was full.
With the lid on and blocks in place, the bar and screw applied the pressure that soon had golden apple juice flowing out of the press into the bucket beneath. As the flood dwindled to a trickle, we applied ever more force to screw the press down until, some 24 hours later, the ‘cake’ of apple pulp yielded no more juice.

Our fermenting vessels were soon full. Sadly these weren’t venerable oak casks but plastic drums, with air traps, we’d sourced from home-brew shops when living in the UK. Not pretty but practical, and soon they lined the wall of the old bakery and contained nearly 500 litres of apple juice!
Eschewing tradition - which allows the wild yeasts that are already present in pulped apple to kick off the fermentation process - we used Campden tablets to kill the wild yeasts before adding commercial wine yeast to each drum. This makes a less sweet but stronger cider.

Soon the comforting ‘bloop, bloop’ sound of fermentation in progress echoed around the old bakery, enabling us to leave the apple juice and nature to take their course over the winter months. Unlike modern ‘turbo cider’, we allow our cider a long, slow fermentation to enable nearly all the fruit sugar to be converted to alcohol. Often this can take six to eight months. The Clochard apple juice, in particular, seems to appreciate such patience. The result is a strong – often as much as eight percent alcohol – and dry cider.
By the following spring, fermentation was complete and we were ready to rack off the cider. By now the lees (deposits of dead yeast) had settled at the bottom of the drums and so using  siphon tubes we carefully drew the cider off into another drum, leaving the lees undisturbed.

davis.ciderWhen making hundreds of litres of cider – and not possessing a commercial bottling plant – it makes sense to store the finished product in barrels. But even with small barrels, unless drunk rapidly, the risk of oxidation – which spoils the cider - is real. Our solution to that problem is to use not barrels but 32 litre ‘bag in boxes’. Having bought our wine en vrac, when we lived in the UK but holidayed in France, we’d built up a fair stock of these. Being cubes, they stack well for storage. Turned on their side, with a tap attached to the opening, the bag collapses down as the cider is drawn off, keeping the liquid fresh by avoiding contact with air.
We quickly realised that we were producing more cider than we could drink. But we didn’t seem to have much difficulty in finding friends to help us enjoy it!  

And the versatility of cider means that Erika makes considerable use of it in our kitchen. Much in vogue nowadays, homemade cider vinegar is the best and most effective. Blended with eau-de-vie, in which apples and sugar have been steeped for several weeks, cider produces a delightful aperitif called ratafia. Cider also finds its way into Erika’s conserves. Her soups and sauces benefit from cider. Cider works well with her fish, pork and cheese dishes. Her pears poached in cider are incomparable. And in the dark, cold days of winter, nothing warms the soul like mulled cider. That is, if there’s any left by then!

Published in Living Poitou-Charentes in 2011  © All Rights Reserved