An hour and a half’s drive south of the ferry port at Ouistreham there’s a little island on the Normandy-Maine border where the perry tastes of tangerines.
It isn’t a proper island, though the heavy, fringing woodland of the national park gives it the isolated feel of an albeit-agricultural one. Rather, in Normandy’s vast ocean of apple tree orchards, it is a tiny landlocked island of perry pear trees.
There are only two places in the world where perry counts more than cider. One of them is the region of Mostviertel, in Austria. The other is here. Pays Domfrontais; this crumb of land in south Normandy, where there are no more than perhaps twenty producers, where production is perhaps a per cent of Normandy’s total, if that, and where the perry might just be the best in the world.
The landscape is all but flat; it ripples, rather than rolls, only rising to a swell at the ridge on which perches the medieval town of Domfront. Everywhere is agricultural; every patch of land tilled and tended, covered with corn or cows, narrow, sunken lanes cut into the sea of green. But, as in Austria, it’s the pear trees that make you coo and gasp. Rather than Mostviertel’s ubiquitous lines along the side of fields, here they just as often dominate widely-spaced orchards; always tall, high-branched— haut tiges in local parlance — towering over the handful of apple trees that cluster around them.
Why are there pear trees here? Surprisingly sources aren’t conclusive, though one unverifiable suggestion is that pear trees weren’t subject to tithe before 1789. The simplest answer seems to be that, like the land around the south of May Hill in England, where Herefordshire borders Gloucestershire, it wasn’t a particularly good place to grow apples, so they mainly planted something else. Pear trees can manage in this thick, cold, squelchy clay, underpinned by granite. Apples weren’t as keen. As far back as 1588, Julien de Paulmier was remarking in ‘De vino et pomaceo’ that the great cider areas of Normandy, like northern Cotentin, didn’t bother much with perry. What trees there are to the north were historically just to add a bit of acid and tannin to liquid for distillation. Domfront has always been Normandy’s pear country. As recently as 1963 there were over a million pear trees in this miniscule appellation.
Yet for most of the last couple of hundred of years, perry was the most minor of concerns — almost exclusively a means to an end; that end being spirit, and mostly illegal spirit at that. As bizarre as it is to imagine in this soft, rural landscape, for decades — and within short living memory — Domfront was bootlegger country.
Normandy, of course, is famous for its Calvados — apple and pear brandy, mostly the former. Cider (and perry) distillation has been recorded in the region since 1553. At the start of the 17th century the distillers unified within a guild and when grape brandy was devastated by the phylloxera louse in the 1860s along with the rest of the wine industry, Calvados transformed its rough-and-ready image into something more sophisticated, increased production astronomically and became, for a short while, France’s premier spirit. Although grape brandies like Cognac and Armagnac would ultimately reclaim their crown, by 1900 there were an astonishing 100,000 Calvados distillers in Normandy — from tiny farm operations to industrial concerns.
But in 1875, just as French spirit lovers were in need of a replacement for Cognac, and the orchardists of Normandy were starting to get Franc signs in their eyes, the French government passed a hugely unpopular law. From now on a farmer could make as much spirit as they wanted for personal consumption — tax free — but on every litre sold the new tax meant they would have to quadruple the previous standard bottle price to make the same money. In 1916 the law was tightened to allow a maximum of 10 litres for personal consumption — with regular checks from custom officers to enforce the law.
Given there were, at this point, well over a million pear trees in the Domfront area alone, given pear trees yield twice as well as apples, given the number of French bistros almost doubled during this period — to 500,000, or one for every 80 people in the country — and given Domfront’s geography and infrastructure of sunken lanes and poorly-kept, narrow roads far from any big city, what happened next was probably inevitable.
The départment of Orne, covering a fifth of Normandy, was the leading producer of spirit in the south of the region, and tiny Domfront made over half of Orne’s output: an astonishing 176,333 hectolitres per year. (For context, in 2021 there were 651 hectolitres of Calvados Domfrontais distilled). Of that, over 90% was absolutely illegal.
The scale of smuggling was incredible. Spirit was sold by the gallon to bistros around the country and to the mines of northern France. It was doctored with caramel and with cherry and apple sticks to give the impression of maturation and sell for a higher price, and white spirit was sold in bulk to transform into super-fashionable pastis.
The farmers and smugglers would hide their stills and spirit anywhere they could be squirrelled away, with varying levels of ingenuity and safety. In childrens’ bedrooms, in flattened barrels stuffed into wall cavities, under bales of hay. It was a regular occurrence for fire brigades to be called out to deal with barns being consumed by flames the shocking blue colour of fired brandy over a Christmas pudding.
The financial reward was worth the risk; pear spirit was by far the most lucrative source of income in the region. One smuggler, Pierre Dubourg, specially modified his Citroën DS 19 to avoid pursuit. It could billow smoke, drop oil and nails, shine dazzling lights in pursuers faces, change its registration plates as it drove … and carry 400 litres of illicit Calvados in two tanks installed in its front wings. Nicknamed ‘the James Bond of smugglers’, Pierre was finally arrested as recently as 1987, and discovered to have a whole fleet of the cars — every one a Citroën DS.
As far as the farmers were concerned, the smugglers were the good guys and the customs officers very much the enemy. After all, it was the farmers who were distilling the spirit. Most hated of all were the legally-encouraged surprise home visits. In February 1935, 5,000 distillers gathered at a farm in tiny Mantilly in western Domfront — their aim to revolt in the name of freedom to distil. Massive demonstrations followed — 3,000 at Céaucé, 7,000 at La Chapelle-d’Andaine and a scarcely-believable 15,000 at Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcouët, to the west, where windows were smashed and a guard bus set on fire. To place these numbers in context, the population of the town of Domfront today is 4,000.
In the face of these numbers and with customs officers being menaced, assaulted and even kidnapped, the government deployed the army to the Orne to restore order. But in June they relented and abolished home visits. Almost 200 years after Lord Bute’s English government had been forced into a similar retreat in the face of the 18th century ‘Cider Riots’, it was made clear that a French person’s home was also their castle.
Smuggling continued to be endemic in Domfront throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. Jérôme Forget recalls men driving around the countryside with little vans full of illicit spirit as recently as 1996, when he started making perry in the area. But with improved roads and more enforceable regulations, the practice was dwindling — and with it the pear trees of Domfront.
By the late 1990s, pear trees had been uprooted at an eye-watering rate. From that peak in the 1960s of over a million they had dwindled to less than 100,000; torn down to make space for cornfields, and to sell for Italian furniture.
Desperate to halt their decline, and preserve drinks which have been here for perhaps a thousand years, a group of producers banded together to apply for appellation status — France’s highest level of regional protection for produce. No longer solely concerned with distillation, they wanted protection for perry itself as well. In 1997 Calvados Domfrontais earned the legal status of an AOC — and appellation d’origine controlée. In 2002 it was followed by an AOC for perry — Poiré Domfront AOC.
The requirements that a perry must fulfil to be labelled ‘Domfront AOC’ are strict. It isn’t enough for the perry to be made from 100% fresh-pressed juice; that juice must be pressed entirely from pears that have grown on the ‘haut tiges’ trees and harvested from the ground — no picking from or shaking of the tree is allowed. The perries must be naturally carbonated (pétillant naturel, keeved or cold-racked, is standard here) and dilution, added sugar and pasteurisation is absolutely forbidden. Significantly, every Poiré Domfront AOC must contain a minimum of 40% Plant de Blanc pear in its blend. In practice it’s rare to find bottles with less than 60%, and single variety Plant de Blancs are common.
Why this pear in particular? Different producers I speak to offer different justifications. Jacques Perritaz suggests that it is the easiest variety to harvest with machines, rather than by hand, whilst Jérôme Forget — who was monumental in instating the AOC, so really ought to know — explains that it was the one variety that every producer was well-supplied with.
What seems to be universally agreed is that it is a pear of truly exceptional quality. In fact, given its role in Poiré Domfront, it’s arguable that Plant de Blanc is responsible for the flavours of more outstanding perries than any other individual pear in the world. Intensely aromatic, with low tannin, a gorgeous, rounded mouthfeel and just a tiny flickering of citrus acidity, it billows with ripe grapefruit, pear and tropical lychee. But most of all, at least to this taster, it always presents a teasing, spritzy, pillowy perfume of tangerines.
Ferme des Grimaux, run by the Pacory family who give their name to their brand, is the Domfront appellation in a nutshell. 1,000 pear trees (and 600 apple) planted in classic thick soil over the granite water table. The trees get their roots in deep, and stick around. There are more than a handful of 300-year-old veterans on the farm.
Despite the presence of the apple trees, there’s no question which fruit is top dog. By appellation law Calvados Domfrontais has to contain a minimum of 30% perry pears, but Pacory’s never has less than 70% — and they sell at least one that’s pear-only. Simon Pacory, the fourth generation of his family on the farm, tells me that most smaller Domfront producers would prefer the legal minimum to be higher, but bigger, powerful players outside the appellation lobbied for the lower 30%.
Pacory’s Calvados output is cellared in four tiny barns — no huge whisky-style dunnage or palleted warehouses here — watched over mainly by Simon’s father, Frederick. The range opens with the fresh, intensely fruit-scented three-year-old, and climbs upwards through dusky 12-year-old and rich, dried-fruited 20-year-old to the weighty, stately 30 year old. There are multi-vintage cuvées, unaged pear spirit and, unusually for Calvados, a higher-strength bottling at around 53% ABV, rather than the near-ubiquitous 41-43%, for increased texture, depth and intensity. It’s a remarkable selection, near-universally recommended by Calvados fans I speak to.
It’s the perries I’m really here for though, and Pacory, perhaps more than anyone, showcases the quality and versatility of the mighty Plant de Blanc. Besides their Poiré Fermier, every one of the perries in their range is made entirely from this one pear, yet somehow there isn’t a hint of the homogeneity you might expect. Since Plant de Blanc has an unusually wide window of ripeness, the farm makes an ‘early harvest’ bottling, revelling in the aromas of white flowers and crisp pear, and a richer, headier, weightier late harvest cuvée, redolent of lychee, plump tropical fruit and those perfumed tangerines.
French cider and perry is often accused of being ring-fenced by tradition, yet under Simon’s influence there is a clear layline of original thought, playfulness and awareness of cultures beyond his own. L’Idéal, Pacory’s flagship AOC perry, was the first in Domfront to be disgorged, champagne-style. Another 100% Plant de Blanc, made from their choice of the best fruit of the vintage, it is bristling with aroma, texture and complexity; a showcase of the qualities that have placed this pear in such high regard. Ripeness and depth of fruit is joined and augmented by the toasty, near-biscuity complexity of lees. It is a drink with the weight and grandeur of any sparkling wine.
The innovation continues; inspired by time spent tasting ice cider in Canada, Simon has introduced an ice perry — one of the first in the country — to Pacory’s range. Though Domfront doesn’t offer the coldness of climate required to naturally freeze the juice without assistance, his creation is nonetheless a showstopper. Dripping with honeys and marmalades, offset by perry’s natural acidity, it is a spellbindingly elegant dessert perry.
But perhaps my favourite Pacory of all is the Grim’ de Poire. Pommeau de Normandie, the mistelle made by blending one part Calvados with two parts apple juice, doesn’t have its own appellation in Domfront. So there is no legal definition for a drink made from Calvados Domfrontais and pear juice, but that hasn’t stopped producers from creating one nonetheless, and Pacory’s is a masterpiece. Aged over a year in casks, but with the fruit placed firmly centre stage, it cuts a swathe of frangipane, dried pear, tropical fruit and tarte aux poires. Unlike pommeaux, whose apple juice seldom contains any sharp component, here there is the freshness of delicate acidity, and the light textural grip of tannin. At 17% it is truly dangerous. I want another glass almost as soon as I’ve taken my first sip.
It’s a Pacory — the early harvest Plant de Blanc — that we find ourself served when we stop for lunch in a café in the town of Domfront itself. Looking around, we’re the only ones drinking local. Everyone else has a beer, mostly Belgian, or a glass of wine from further south. I think of Amstetten, in Mostviertel, where the locals drank weißbier rather than the local Birnenmost, and Hereford, where the last mayor only knew two pubs serving perry, and it makes me sad.
Not least because the perry here seems as perfectly-tailored to the local food as Mostviertel or Herefordshire’s is to their own gastronomic cultures. With its aromatic fruit and seam of acidity, it cuts through Normandy’s creamy Camembert far more cleanly than low-acid bittersweet cider does, whilst offsetting poultry and pork and game to perfection. Like every town in Normandy, Domfront has an embarrassment of patisseries; the golden glazes and bright, sticky, sun-filled fruit centres of their wares all crying out for the delicate sweetness, perfume and effervescence of Domfront perry. There is so much versatility here. So much potential for flavours seekers going underexploited. So much being missed.
In Jérôme Forget we meet one of the people working hardest to change that.
Jérôme is to Domfront what Tom Oliver is to Herefordshire, or Toni Distelberger is to Mostviertel. A big-hearted, broad-visioned galvaniser of people and community, a hugely creative, endlessly thoughtful maker utterly in love with his subject and someone who is happy to marry the deepest-rooted traditions with the most imaginative of innovation.
It was Jérôme, President of AOP Poiré Domfront and AOC Calvados Domfrontais, who lobbied for the region’s appellation status, identifying the idiosyncratic character of the region’s perries and the importance of saving the old trees and traditional ways of life. The Domfront AOP Poiré he makes himself is as good as any I’ve tasted — indeed the single variety Plant de Blanc 2016 might be the very best of all — yet he is also doing more than anyone else in the area to make perries that sit outside the bounds of appellation rules.
As important as it was to secure legal protection for the trees, an inevitable consequence of the appellation’s installment was an increase in the planting of Plant de Blanc at the expense of other pears. Jérôme, whose farm — La Ferme de l’Yonnière — harbours over thirty different varieties, is now pushing back with a range of perries comprised predominantly of non-Plant de Blanc. ‘It would be boring otherwise’, he says with a smile.
A taste of last season’s fermentations from tank proves the wisdom of thinking outside the Plant de Blanc box. Vinot, a particularly ancient variety mentioned in writings from the 16th century, offers Thorn-like starbursts of gooseberry, rhubarb and yellow, lemony fruit. Fossey, Jérôme’s favourite variety, has the haunting aroma of rose bushes on a hot day, whilst De Fer is a huge-bodied mouthful of grape, sultana and dried tropical fruit.
‘My pickers hate that one,’ says Jérôme. ‘They call it ‘de l’Enfer’ (of hell). It ripens right at the end of the harvest season and the pears are tiny’. Perhaps I’m just writing as the lucky soul who didn’t have to help with harvest, but to me, at least, the resulting flavour justifies all their hard work.
As we taste, Jérôme expresses something I have long felt — that despite pears sharing an orchard with apples, perry is really far closer in style and flavour to wine than it is to cider, and certainly compared to the orangey, bittersweet ciders of Normandy. Like an increasing number of makers in the region Jérôme has dabbled with co-fermentations of grapes and pears; a combination of Vinot with Gamay grapes is an addictive, electric jolt of citrus, red cherry and strawberry laces. I am deeply disappointed when I learn that it isn’t yet on sale.
At their kind invitation we stay for lunch with Jérôme and his partner, Janice, and it is there, in the flagstoned farmhouse kitchen, passing around sausages and veal casserole and local cheeses and bowls of homemade soup, pouring out splashes of Vinot and Domfront AOP, that I feel that elusive, teasing reminder of perry’s place as a stitch in a broader gastronomic tapestry; a drink that seamlessly intertwines not only with glass and drinker, but with food and the table; with company and the ancient act of sharing a meal. Not an awkward outlier, but an integral cog with its own identity and qualities, worthy of respect and recognition on the same terms as any other drink. When I think of perry’s deserved place in the culinary world, I suspect Jérôme’s kitchen, and that shared meal, will remain my point of reference for many years to come.
Edges gently smudged by the generous glass of 1996 Calvados that Jérôme pours us from an unlabelled decanter, we walk a bootlegger’s path to our final port of call. Fringed by looming orchards rent with bird-whistles and the frost-hard, earthy expanses of winter farmland, the road carries a solemn, keening emptiness; a sense of half-expectant waiting, perhaps, that makes me think once more of perry’s ever-quiet, ever-hidden place in the world. Perhaps it’s just the Calvados talking.
Jacques Perritaz, who we’ve come to meet, is not from Domfront. He’s a different proposition entirely. A Swiss maker, whose creations at Le Cidrerie du Vulcain are, by common consent, amongst the best ciders and perries in the world, he’s been drawn to Domfront by the mouthwatering potential he sees.
‘It’s a pain making perry in Switzerland’, he tells us with a wry smile. Switzerland was once covered with pear trees, its perry famed across Europe and written of as ‘the most superlative the world produces’ by English pomologists in the 17th Century. But, fallen from grace in the last couple of hundred years, only a few trees remain, mostly just two varieties: Schweisser Wasserbirne and Gelbmöstler. So when the chance came, Jacques bought a place in Domfront in search of richer, easier pickings. Though he still makes cider in Switzerland — there’s a lot of commuting involved!
As an outsider, Jacques isn’t especially bothered by the appellation rules, nor especially interested in conforming to the styles championed in the region: ‘Domfront is too sweet for me’. Instead, like Jérôme, he is looking at the other varieties available in his own new orchard, and those around him, and making perries that fully express the area’s bounty of flavour.
He’s only just done his first vintage in Domfront, and surrounded by so many new pears seems to have taken a ‘kid in a sweet shop’ attitude and harvested everything he could. Talking about varieties he is instantly animated; everything is ‘so nice’, from Petit Blos (small, with great, tangfastic acidity) to Gaubert, a flat pear with an unfortunate tendency to splatter upon hitting the ground. There’s Du Cloche; fruity, plump-bodied, melony — almost Blakeney Red-esque and similarly ideal for adding a juicy middle to a blend. And, like Jérôme, Jacque is a big fan of Fossey, making a late-harvest cuvée that blends it with Plant de Blanc. (Well, you couldn’t leave it out completely!)
Nor is it only pears that have caught his attention. We taste from a tank of perry co-fermented with Groseille Rouge — reducurrants — alive with the zestiest acidity we encounter on the trip. Jacques mentions cassis growing locally, and an interest in combining it in his cuvées. I tell him how much I enjoyed the ‘Trois Prépins’ blend of apples, pears and quinces that he made in Switzerland, and he replies that he’s planning on planting quinces here too. Shackled to tradition he is not.
Jacques once spent time training with the world-famous former sommelier Eric Bordelet, who makes his perries in Maine, to the south — and it shows not only in the exemplary clarity and precision of flavour in each of Jacques’ cuvées that we taste, but in the interest he shows in the land; the terroir. We spend half an hour in his kitchen as he sketches out diagrams of the local rock formations; not just the granite and clay, but ancient cornean hillocks sheltering wind-blown banks of lœss. Pear trees grow in all three soils and Jacques is intrigued by the differences that each terroir might make to perry. Future experiments beckon. But give him a chance — his first Domfront vintage isn’t even bottled yet. Incidentally, I’ll be at the front of the queue when it is.
It is that soil — the land — that I think of the next day, as we turn the car northwards again, drive back to Ouistreham and take the ferry back across La Manche to Portsmouth. Or rather it is the little miracle that from this flat, ordinary, green-brown patch of earth springs a tapestry of such vivid, technicolour flavour. And that this dazzling, mesmerising, extraordinary tapestry goes overlooked not only by the world at large, but even by makers and drinkers of perry in different cultures. As the crow flies from Reading, I’m as close to the perry pear trees of Domfront as I am to my parents’ house on Merseyside. Yet as I write this a few weeks later, it’s only the dwindling clutch of bottles brought back in the boot that remind me I was there at all. In a few months the bottles will be gone, and with them any chance of glimpsing that tapestry without travelling back to Normandy again. As far as the UK is concerned, Domfront might almost as well be a dream.
And yet. There are makers in England, Wales, America, Germany and Austria whose best perry is the equal of the finest in Domfront. But there is nowhere on earth, to my mind and palate, where the average standard across all makers of a single region is as high. What’s more, as France’s cider and perry scene experiences its own revolution, the traditions that have long underpinned it are transforming from once-restrictive shackles into anchors around which it can drift — a link to rooted quality and tradition; the savoir faire that made it all special to begin with, but no longer a barrier to innovation, new flavours and forward thinking.
So if you love perry, you should go to Domfront. If you love deep, bright, vivid, soulful flavours, you should go to Domfront. Wander the sunken lanes of farms and smugglers; the twisting cobbled, medieval streets; the island of pear trees in a sea of apples that has been there a thousand years. Go there, visit the farms, taste everything you can.
And then, when you come back, tell everyone you know. Because these are drinks that deserve, that need, to be known and found and drunk and shared. The rose-tinted perfume of Fossey, the brooding, deep De Fer. The sonorous mistelles of Calvados and pear juice, the Vinots that crackle over pork and cheese and pastry, the co-fermentations twangling with grape and pear. The Plant de Blanc perries of AOP Domfront that taste of tangerines.
Huge thanks to the Pacory family, Jérôme and Janice, Jacques and especially Yann for making my visits and this article possible.
An absolutely fabulous article Adam. The passion of the region, the skill and knowledge of the cidermakers, is conveyed perfectly. I am moved and inspired and a little nervous! The world of cider and perry gets better and better every year with aspirational cidermakers benefitting hugely from the ever growing interconnectedness of our shared culture. Thank you for this piece!
Thanks so much Albert. I think the most exciting thing about the modern international perry scene is that none of the major regions – the big 3 plus the US – has all the answers. There’s so much that each one has to share with and learn from the others and it’s really exciting to see that start to happen a bit more.
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