Photo by Alex Crétey Systermans
Photo by Alex Crétey Systermans
Meet Jean-François Leroux, the French cider maker who helped usher in the first fully organic cider appellation in France.
In an ancient apple-growing region 90 minutes from Paris, a group of French cider makers are playing by their own rules.
Just before we land at Orly Airport, the Air France flight attendant asks if Paris is my final destination. “Actually, I’m driving to Le Perche,” I reply.
“Never heard of it,” she says, shrugging, as she pushes her cart down the aisle.
This little-known part of lower Normandy—far from the touristed D-Day beaches—may still be one of France’s best-kept secrets. For now, at least. Travelers are starting to take notice, thanks in part to the 2018 reopening of D’une Île, a rustic country hotel and restaurant run by Bertrand Grébaut, the Parisian chef behind Michelin-starred Septime. I, however, am going for the apples.
Ninety miles west of Paris, I steer my rental car off the highway into a landscape of golden hills blanketed with large apple trees. Their long trunks and rounded crowns look nothing like the small, heavily pruned varieties I’m used to seeing back home in New York’s Hudson Valley. It’s late August, just before the fall harvest, and their branches are full of fruit. I pass by stone manors and humble farms, their pastures bordered by ancient hedgerows so dense, they form giant tunneled walkways. (A few days later, while walking down one of these paths, I will pass a man with giant snails, antennae waving, perched on each of his outstretched fingers.)
A wooden sign shaped like a bottle and painted with the word cidre lets me know I’ve reached my destination. Pulling into a driveway, I see a stone farmhouse with a red clay roof and blue shutters: Domaine du Ruisseau, one of the most acclaimed cider houses in Le Perche. Standing outside is owner and cider maker Jean-François Leroux.
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I first met Leroux in 2011, when he, along with several other Percheron cider makers, visited the Hudson Valley to share their centuries-old knowledge with local growers and makers. (Their visit culminated in a tasting event that landed their bottles in many of New York city’s top restaurants and inspired an annual Cider Week.) The integrity and refinement of their ciders made such an impression that, four years (and multiple events) later, I opened New York City’s first cider bar to spread the gospel. Ever since, I’ve wanted to visit the region that inspired me in so many ways. Finally, I’ve arrived.
Leroux, now a little grayer around the temples yet still full of passion, ushers me inside his cozy tasting room, which is filled with elegant bottles of cider, honey, and jams made on-site and CDs of his traditional folk band. As a founding member of the Syndicat cidricole du Perche, Leroux leads his fellow Percheron cider makers in a Normandy-wide effort to revive cider, a beverage still considered an old man’s drink in France—or synonymous with the cloying plonk made from apple concentrate and sugar that’s served at most French bars.
Leroux opens his award-winning Cidre Fermier du Perche, a semisweet style typical of the region. I take a sip, and it’s just as sublime as I remember. It’s light and perfectly balanced (bittersweet, and just a touch acidic) with delicate bubbles on par with the best champagne. “We are not making cider to make soda,” he says emphatically. “We are making a beverage to put on the tables of the best chefs. A noble product!”
Later, Leroux and I stroll by his pastures and his beloved donkey, Voltaire, to a small orchard where he grows 36 of the 50-plus cider apples endemic to Le Perche, many of which were nearly lost when, in the early 20th century, orchards were replaced with industrial grain fields. He points out sweet Bedan, bittersweet tardive de la Sarthe, and acidic pomme de Boué. It’s that last element—acid—he explains, that distinguishes Le Perche ciders from other Norman ciders.
“Ciders from the Pays d’Auge have a lot of fruit, but not much acidity. In the northern Cotentin region, you will find more bitterness," he says. "Here in Le Perche, first you taste sugar, then bitterness, but you always finish with a bit of acidity that gives freshness and balance to our ciders,” he says with obvious pride.
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It turns out that Le Perche’s apples owe their depth of flavor, and their acidity, not to soil, but to the region’s inland climate. Located far from the moderating effects of the Atlantic Ocean, Le Perche is drier, with hotter summers and colder winters than the rest of Normandy—paradise for apples, which achieve maximum flavor with dramatic swings in temperature.
This terroir distinction is the reason that in October 2020, after 22 years of lobbying, Percheron ciders finally received their own AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) and AOP (appellation d’origine protégée). The designation makes Le Perche the third official cider appellation in Normandy. Impressively, it is also the first fully organic cider appellation in France.
Back in the tasting room, I sip another glass of Cidre Fermier and marvel that Le Perche is everything I’ve imagined and more. For years, I watched Leroux and others fight for recognition. To be here, enjoying ciders made from apples rescued from oblivion, in a region finally getting its due, I can't help but feel I’m witnessing the rebirth of a vital tradition.
Although there is no official cider route, the Parc Naturel Régional du Perche has an excellent map you can download or purchase at its offices in Nocé. Le Perche’s gentle rolling hills are ideal for cycling, so you might want to consider planning a visit on two wheels.
In this small, charming domaine, travelers can buy Jean-François Leroux’s award-winning ciders, pommeau, and calvados. He also sells homemade terrines and honey. Contact for an appointment: email@example.com
The tasting room is open from April through September on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturday afternoons, and Sunday mornings. Otherwise, visits are by appointment only. To book, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Known more for its gardens, this rural property midway along the route still cultivates a historic orchard and offers charming guest rooms. ferme-et-jardin-francois.com
A stone’s throw from Le Jardin François, this small museum has a wonderful exhibit showcasing historic tools and methods used in apple harvesting and pressing. ecomuseeduperche.fr
Open year-round, the Ciderie Traditionnelle du Perche is a state-of-the-art facility with a large tasting room. Inside, fourth-generation farmers Dominique and Nathalie Plessis sell their traditional ciders, poiré, pommeau, and calvados apple juice along with other local artisanal products and books on apple history and cultivation. Every year on the last weekend in October, they host a cider festival with cider-making demos, a market, and tastings. cidrerie-traditionnelle-du-perche.fr
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