When the late-autumn season settles in, with its dark days and bone-freezing, humid temperatures, you can choose to cocoon indoors listening for example to vintage son-montuno music, it works well, it's an exhilarating experience, particularly when the piano solo starts. Another way to fight the winter gloom is to jump in the cold but share a heartening experience with friends, and if some booze plays a role, that could help (I don't mean booze must be in everything you do...). That's what I did this saturday near Joigny on the northern-most tip of Burgundy when I joined early in the morning a group of buddies who make cider together every year, for the fun of it, because the product they get is at the same time very natural and pure, devoid of any hidden additives, and because it's damn cheap (but it doesn't really count compared with the two other reasons). There's no organic-hype connotation or commercial motives in this initiative, just the love of real products and the will to keep the old apple orchards in use.
This frigid, grey and misty weather is ideal, my friend Bruno says, to press the apples, which is the first and most important stage of cider making. And if this region is known to be cold, it's not that it's much colder than, say, Paris, but the humidity of this part of Burgundy (same for Chablis which is 40 km away) makes it feel really cold deep inside.
Pic on left : a wheelbarrow load of Avrolles apples, the variety which counts so much for a great cider.
The 4 buddies, Olivier, Bruno, Jean-Claude and Damien, bought 1,6 metric ton of apples for this pressing operation, like they've been doing for years now. They paid 5 Euro-cents a kilo for these apples, which they sourced among farmers of the vicinity who don't have a use for their apples. They look for different orchard owners, checking the varieties' qualities. You can see apples of different colors and aspect, this is because they bought several well-selected varieties which grow locally, and are known to make good ciders. The one on the left is quite big; To my opinion they could be eaten like that as well, even if the taste is a bit more pronounced than table varieties. Plus, the above-average acidity makes these apples easy to stock during the winter, giving the wise appple-lover a steady supply of vitamins.
With all this juice, they will fill 4 casks plus a good number of smaller containers, which will make them a good stock of excellent cider with no fuzzy approach in the manufacturing like in the industrial ciders you find in the shops.
I first tasted their cider during a harvest in Gerard's vineyard near Joigny, and this 2-year artisanal cider was a wonderful discovery, especially when Bruno told me that he had made this stuff by himself and except for a spoon of sugar before bottling, there was no other additive, preservative or color manipulation.
What you see here is the filling of jute bags (I think it's jute) which are kept tight with a wooden frame. Once filled with the right volume, they wrap the crushed apples with the jute sheet, take the frame out, lay another separation board, put the frame back on top and lay open another bag of jute. This way, they pile up a dozen of crushed-apples bags that will be ptessed together. At the end, they're so close from where the crushed apples fall that they have very little room to operate, while at the beginning they need to put a hose to guide the mashed apples (pics on the sides). When they don't put this hose, you can get pieces of crushed apples even at some distance, like I got on my lens a couple of times. On the right, you can see the wrapping of an individual load.
The Sambron company seems to be still running, even though they don't have a website. They're located in Pontchateau in the Muscadet region, and there seems to be another cider-press maker in this village. this press seems very simple to operate and maintain, with its belt drive mechanism and rustic looks.
There will be a total of 1000 liters made this day, actually a bit more but Raymonde and Gerard will not bill the whole volume. The yields vary with the vintage and the conditions of the apples, and Bruno who is now an experienced cider maker (even if officially an amateur one), envisionned yields of 1100 liters for this load of 1,5 or 1,6 tons of apples.
From what he learned in the region this year, there's good volumes of juice from the apples, this depends of the weather and other conditions, a little like for the grapes. But for a given volume of apples, you can have more or less juice, this all depends usually of the vintage, if the apples could store water and keep it until the picking.
When I first had some cider made by Bruno, it was last october during the family harvest near Joigny (picture of the cider treat at midscroll on this page). The cider was a two-year old unpasteurized cider, so good and far from its peak (is there a peak for ciders too ?), deliciously aromatic with a thin bubble texture in the mouth, and I was puzzled to learn that Bruno had made it himself and that it had gone through such a long élevage. They keep the casks clean with a sulphur wick when they are empty, and like they would do in a winery, they water the casks sometime before the pressing day so that they don't leak.
They also use plastic containers, 20-liter cans and 5-liter jugs, possibly for the future ratafia.
Each of them now has a 220-liter cask of cider in the making, plus a few containers for ratafia and for apple juice to give to their children, this all for a very reasonable price especially if you consider the authenticity of the product (each of them will pay a total of 80 to 100 € for about 300 liters of juice, really nothing when you know the price in specialized shops for additives-free artisan cider (or juice).
As said above, the juice will ferment quietly during a month in the barrels, after which they'll close the hole tight with a bung to prevent any air from sneaking inside. After this stage of 3 months, they'll bottle the wine, in march, on a clear day, preferably with wind coming from the west (the old cider makers used to say : no mist or fog).
This is a day I won't forget, I met very nice people, the ones you see here plus others later in the nearby villages and I'll try to come back one of these days.
When the tractor left, Raymonde opening the way in the van, we walked back to the house. The wives had come back from the market and we were to have a nice lunch inside, with the warmth of the cats and the heat of the stove. We also had a ratafia (pic on right), and I learnt that ratafia is made by mixing 50 % of freshly-pressed apple juice with marc (alcohol) and a bit of sugar. The ratafia has to be aged at least a year to integrate all its elements, otherwise it's not as good, because otherwise you feel too much the alcohol.
The 4 friends source their apples from several owners, and recently they found an elderly couple (aged 80) who own a 800-tree orchard in a perfect situation : this is a wonderful orchard on a sloppy terrain above a road, which makes it very easy to pull the big bags to a vehicule. Usually they pay a rate of 100 € for a ton of apples if they have been picked by the owners (then, they just have to drive to the orchard with a van and pick the bags), or 50 € a ton if they have to pick the apples themselves. It's not that long or difficult and they often opt for the later option, if given the choice.