Normandy - World Perry Capital

Mantilly – World Perry Capital

 
Dave Matthews discovers one of Normandy’s best-kept secrets

 

The medieval town of Domfront lies peacefully in southern Normandy. Not far away, the even sleepier village of Mantilly lies at the very epicentre of the world’s most concentrated perry-making area. Every farm within kilometres of the village seems to have a mature perry pear orchard, and at blossom time the spectacle is one of the Seven Wonders of the Cider and Perry World.

 

Their perry (‘poiré’) is somewhat different to the British style. Whereas our perry is typically dry and on draught, the Normans prefer to bottle-ferment theirs (leaving plenty of residual sweetness), suggesting it be served as an aperitif. An application for Appellation Control for Domfront Perry was progressing nicely back in 1999, until the great Boxing Day storms dealt the farmers a huge blow. Some perrymakers lost all of their trees, and most had a significant percentage blown over. Consider that these trees can attain the size of great oaks, can live for 300 years or more, but that new trees can take 30 years to produce their first significant crop, and you can imagine the devastation. In a race against time, many growers hired heavy machinery to raise and replant their fallen giants, but only a small proportion were saved in this way. After this delay, the Appellation Control is now in place, and Domfront perrymakers who qualify can charge a premium rate for their bottles. They must first pass a monthly inspection of premises, use at least 40% of pears of the ‘Plant de Blanc’ local variety, their perry must pass a stringent lab analysis, and it must get the thumbs-up from an appointed tasting panel.

 

Another local speciality that has Appellation Control is the Domfront Calvados. Bottles carrying the legend ‘Appellation Calvados Domfrontais Contrôlée’ give a guarantee of both origin and quality. Unlike other forms of Calvados, the Domfront version is made from a proportion of perry pears, and thus is a more subtle spirit, with fruitier and more floral notes. Most perrymakers around Mantilly produce a Calvados, but the exact recipe and proportion of perry to cider distilled differs from one to the next.

 

Let’s take a little tour around Mantilly, starting in the village itself. In even-numbered years, at around July 14th, there’s a Perry Festival. At other times, pop into the ‘Petit Mantilly’ bar for lunch and the odd bottle of Farmhouse Perry (‘Poiré Fermier’). It’s a tiny, friendly place, with a tiled floor and wooden tables and chairs. The three-course lunchtime Set Menu is great value for money, and can include a huge pot of boiled beef and whole vegetables. The ‘Poiré Fermier’ on offer is from Michel Leroyer, who farms locally. It’s a 4% abv brew that’s served in a champagne flute, yellow-gold, with rising beads of bubbles. The aroma is enticing, and could almost be mistaken for an old champagne. The gentle fizz on the tongue doesn’t hide the big, full-flavoured fruity/peary taste, and the finish is long and sweet.

 

A short drive through the pear orchards brings us to the perry farm belonging to the Lemorton family (La Baillée-Fêtu, 02 33 38 70 90). There’s a beautiful, mature perry pear orchard, and a ground-floor cellar (with its timeless atmosphere and antique oak barrels) that doubles as a shop. They sell bottles of their cider, but charge a higher price for the ‘poiré’, since, as Monsieur Lemorton told us, “It’s the local speciality!” The Lemortons are famed for their ‘Calvados Domfrontais’, which they distil from a mix of 70% perry and 30% cider. The youngest vintage is a 6-year old, and, as the vintages age, the prices rise until the 40-year old is nearly four times more expensive. They even have a 100-year old ‘Calvados Rareté’. When the Great Storm came, they had half of their 800 pear trees blown over, managing to pull up and save 20 of them. The surviving perry pear varieties enjoy names such as ‘Gaubert’, ‘Poire de Domfront’ and ‘Rubesnard’. The most prized and famous of all is ‘Plant de Blanc’, which is often used to produce a single-varietal perry. British perry pears taste bad enough, but I was nearly sick after biting into a Norman pear. They have particularly high levels of tannins and acids, and the most astringent varieties are considered to have enough flavour to produce the ‘Calvados Domfrontais’.

 

A little further on, near the hamlet of Saint-Denis-de-Villenette, we are welcomed to our next perry farm by Madame Brunet (La Prémoudière, 02 33 37 23 27). She gives us a tour of the farm, starting with the steel mill. The pulped pears, she explained, are allowed to macerate for between 12 and 24 hours, before being squeezed on a twin-bed hydraulic press. The juice enjoys a slow fermentation at 5˚C in fibreglass fermenters. Four perry pear varieties (‘Plant de Blanc’, ‘Faussey’, ‘Blot’ and ‘Gaubert’) are harvested over a three-month period, and blended one on top of the next using the flexibility of fermenters with adjustable floating lids. A typical starting gravity in October might be 1050, and by bottling time in January this may have dropped to 1030. A tiny bit of yeast works away in the bottle, dropping the gravity to around 1025, giving the gentle fizz. The 15 000 bottles produced each year have to be stored upright, so that excess gas can escape from around the cork, ready for sales to start in March. Perry is only one income stream for the Brunet family, and you could do a lot worse than take advantage of their farm B&B and Madame’s wholesome home cooking.

 

Back on the road towards Mantilly, and we stop at the perry farm belonging to Monsieur and Madame Fourmand-Lemorton (Le Douët Gasnier, 02 33 38 71 63). Both have grandfathers who made calvados, and they take a break from perrymaking to show us around the orchard. In 1999 they lost half of their 150 perry pear trees, and only managed to rescue two by relifting. All of the fruit picking for their ‘poiré’ is done by hand, since the degree of ripeness of the fruit, etc, is important. On the other hand, they harvest pears for their calvados by machine, since the fruit quality has far less impact upon the final product. Their calvados is distilled from 80% perry, one of the highest ratios in the area. They opened a bottle of perry for us to share in the orchard, and it was excellent. Pale yellow with rising bubbles, it had an aroma of pale fruit that was mellow and appealing. The taste started with a peary fizz, followed by a long medium-sweet golden and honeyed finish. This 4% abv perry was made entirely from the ‘Plant de Blanc’ pear, and enjoyed some balancing acidity that also acts as a natural preservative.

 

Finally, let’s pop over to Domfront itself, where we’ll find a timber-framed bar in the town centre. ‘La Maison Normand’ serves up local perry in badged ‘Poiré Domfront’ champagne flutes – very civilised indeed. Down the street, Domfront Tourist Information (02 33 38 92 94) will willingly direct you towards the perrymakers. There’s even a painting of a perry pear tree in blossom on the hanging sign!

 

 

 

Information

 

Domfront: see www.domfront.com

 

Perry: go to www.region-normande.com

-          click on ‘Region Normande’

-          click on the box at the lower end of the map with ‘Le Teilleul’

-          click on ‘Produits de Terroir’ on the left side menu.

-          click on the bottle icon beside Mantilly

-          You’ll find the pages of the ‘Syndicat des Producteurs du Poiré Domfront’,

including a list of 38 perry producers.

 

 

Originally published in CAMRA's Good Cider Guide 2005, and reproduced here with the kind permission of CAMRA Books.

 

 

 

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