Autumn in Normandy, or indeed elsewhere is typically associated with the months of September, October or November, but this year the mild scents of Autumn have lingered through the traditional autumn months and carried into December.
Two weeks ago we picked seven kilos of sloes in a lazy afternoon sunlight, at the edge of the Eawy forest.
As we picked the sloes, bare handed for once, (able to retain twelve before transferring them to our bag), I thought of the marriage of these sloes to the large apples we had been given a few days before.
Apples are the principal feature of a Normandy autumn. In our part of Normandy – the Pays de Bray – orchards remain common sights in almost every village, instantly recognisable by the trees in regimental rows, by their scarlet fruit, and the multiple “nests” of mistletoe. This year has seen a bountiful apple crop, so much so that feeble old trees have toppled and broken asunder beneath the weight of fruit.
Traditionally farmers made their own cider, thereafter distilling some to produce the fiery spirit or apple brandy known as Calvados.
At the turn of the century it was common practice to employ itinerant workers to collect the apples, and then a specialist artisan with his mobile distillery of gleaming serpentine copper pipes, to convert the apples into cider and calvados.
One can still find these services offered, but like many a rural art, they are now few and far between, and have to be sought. I’m told that in previous times, the permitted amount of distilled cider was limited to ten litres, before one attracted the attention of “Douanes” or Customs and Excise – and an inevitable tax!
Cider making has always been a relatively simple process, (the fermentation of apple juice), but like many a harvest “procedure”, the value of the occasion to rural folk, was not only measured by the end product, but by the social ritual of a shared event.
Neighbours would help neighbours so that cider making would rotate from farm to farm.
Mobile mechanical devices, with wide-mouthed vats directing the fruit towards blades, would chop the apples into a crude pulp at the turn of a handle. The masticated apples were then laid between alternating layers of straw or reed, and finally pressed in huge oak presses. In Wiltshire this straw and apple “sandwich” was referred to as ‘the cheese’.
As winter emerges from the relative balm of autumn, the apple orchards become skeletal and bare. But instead of finding this depressing, I remind myself that each orchard in spring, with their generous emergence of heavenly pink blossom, will do more than perhaps anything other, to signal the miracle ‘renaissance’ of nature.
And then I shall be compelled to turn my thoughts to Madame Bovary and how her carriage must have weaved through the lanes around nearby Ry, lined with orchards, and gilding even her already avid mind.
Our sloe and apple jelly made a delicious accompaniment to roast duck.
Happy New Year everyone, Sir Philip