Canada's Apple Elixir: Quebec's special styles of fermented cider are a perfect pour for cheese
Between 1600 and 1750, Normandy, France, and its environs were the primary source of immigration to Québec, the “New France.” Pioneering habitants felled forests, tended pastures, planted orchards, and developed the hardy Canadienne dairy breed from Norman/Breton stock, gradually reconstructing the place and tastes of their ancestry. These centuries-old foodways remain vital today, especially with regard to cidre and fromage production. Québec produces over 300 fermented ciders and approximately the same number of cheeses. And—no surprise—they make brilliant partners.
If you’ve ever watched a jug of unpasteurized apple juice becoming “prickly” over time, that’s the result of ambient yeasts fermenting the fruit sugar. Cider making simply refines this natural process. The first step is selection of appropriate apple varieties. Just as few table grapes make good wine, mild, sweet snacking apples don’t create quality cider. Puckering acidity and astringent bitterness are desirable attributes in cultivars—nicknamed “spitters”—intended for cider fermentation. Most ciders are a blend of varieties, each lending a different dimension to the final beverage.
Beyond the choice of apple, cider style is determined by managing fermentation to create different results. The Québec cider industry identifies three major types: still (tranquille); sparkling (pétillant, effervescent, or mousseux); and ice cider (cidre de glace). The first two categories are extremely broad, so read front and back labels carefully. Still cider has an alcohol content of 1.5 to 15 percent. Lighter versions often have more residual sugar and are described as doux, while stronger bottlings are drier (sec). Sparkling cider ranges from 2 to 12 percent alcohol and may be brut, demi-sec, or doux, in increasing order of sweetness. As with sparkling wine, there are several ways to “get the bubbles in the bottle.” Cheaper, simpler beverages are carbonated (gazéifié), with coarse, quickly dissipating foam, while more complex styles experience secondary fermentation in the tank or bottle, yielding a cidre traditionnel, classique, or bouché, with fine persistent effervescence and earthy yeast-derived flavors.
Ice cider, conversely, is always lusciously sweet, moderately strong, and quintessentially “apple-ish.” This 1990 Québec invention, inspired by ice wine, entails freezing whole fruit or juice to concentrate the must. Yeast works slowly in the viscous liquid and eventually dies, leaving 8 to 12 percent alcohol and copious natural sugar. Each 7- to 12-ounce bottle, of the half million produced annually, requires the juice of 50 to 60 apples and retails for $20 to $50. Cidre de glace is hailed internationally, and its originator, Christian Barthomeuf of Clos Saragnat, received the Order of Canada award for his creation. (His exquisitely complex elixirs are especially worth seeking out.) Ice cider may be the most prestigious player in Québec’s orchard economy, but it is the scope of fermented apple beverages that truly enriches the province’s already well-provisioned larder.
For every cheese, menu, and drinking occasion, there is a perfect cider to match. Just be sure to serve it well chilled (ice cider especially so) and in stemware appropriate for sparkling, still, or sweet white wine.
Strong/dry/still still ciders like Michel Jodoin “Cuvée Blanc de Pépin” with a tangy, full-flavored, firm cheese like Cheddar from Alfred le Fermier.
Ice cider with Clos Saragnat “L’Original” with piquant blues, aged chèvre or brebis like Ermite or Tomme d’Elles.
Written by Julia Rogers