A picturesque medieval walled town overlooking the Varenne river, Domfront grew up around the strategically situated stronghold Domfront Castle in the sixth century. It was here that the dispossessed Henry Beauclerc, youngest son of William the Conqueror, rallied support among local lords and was eventually crowned Henry I of England in 1100 and Duke of Normandy in 1106.
At the crossroads where the regions of Normandy, Brittany and the Pays de la Loire meet, the Pays de Domfront is Normandy’s cider country and is known for its pear orchards, which are unique in Europe. Poiré (pear cider or perry) produced in the Pays de Domfront carries the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) label. It is the perfect accompaniment to every course from aperitif through to dessert and is particularly popular as an alternative to champagne/crémant during the festive period! This autumn just gone I decided to visit one of the 20 producers of Poiré Domfront, Frédéric Pacory, who runs the Ferme des Grimaux cider farm with his wife Catherine, to see what all the fuss was about.
These days, the surname ‘Pacory’ is inextricably linked to the Ferme des Grimaux, which lies deep in the heart of the Pays de Domfront. Boasting an abundance of apple and pear trees, this 49-acre plot of land was bought by Calvados connoisseur Marcel Pacory, Frédéric’s great-great grandfather, in 1939. So self-sufficent and impassioned by cider production was Marcel Pacory that he actually built his own tractor from scratch!
Marcel’s three sons, Paul, Claude and Marcel, were brought up running the family business alongside their father, and in 1953, Claude and Paul took over the farm. The Ferme des Grimaux was originally famed for the production of Calvados Domfrontais, which is very different from the Pays d’Auge Calvados that you might see on supermarket shelves in the UK, on account of the high percentage of poiré pears used alongside cider apples, the soil (granite schist) and the single-pass distillation process. Domfront Calvados also differs from other Calvados appellations, thanks to its floral, fruity, mineral character. In 1971, the Ferme des Grimaux won the coveted first prize for Calvados production across the whole Normandy region. Six delicious Calvados samples, ranging from one to 12 years in age were judged by an expert panel, and the grand prize was presented by the President of the French Republic himself!
In 1960, Claude’s son Frédéric was born. By this point, farmers across France were beginning to hope that their offspring would embark on careers that didn’t involve farming, and Claude was no different. Frédéric studied a Baccaauréat in Science; however, his love for his heritage and and the family business led him back to agriculture, and he went on to study at Le Robillard Agricultural College near Caen. It was here that he met fellow cider enthusiast and future wife Catherine, who was also from the Pays de Domfront! Frédéric bought his uncle Paul’s share of the farm and in 1986 he took over the Ferme des Grimaux with Catherine. The Ferme des Grimaux has since received several awards, in particular for its Calvados Domfrontais and its Poiré Domfront.
It is the Poiré Domfront that I have come to try today. Arriving late one afternoon in September, Frédéric greets me with a big smile and takes me on a tour of the orchards. ‘We must always remember that these pear trees are not ours but those of the generations who came before us,’ he tells me. ‘We are moving into modernity, but we must always respect and appreciate this rich heritage that came before us. Sometimes, when I am kneeling down, collecting and sorting pears, I think to myself how those who came before me did exactly the same over a century ago!’
It certainly would seem that the Ferme des Grimaux has moved with the times while retaining those all-important links to its past. Today, the farm has 800 pear trees and 600 apple trees, spread across 247 acres of land. This includes the original 49-acre plot where the oldest trees can be found, some of which are approaching 300 years old. As Frédéric tells me, the proverb goes: ‘100 years to mature, 100 years to bear fruit, 100 years to die’.
There are 90 varieties of poiré pears, but the variety that surpasses them all is the plante de blanc. Juicy and acidic, Frédéric tells me that the Ferme des Grimaux uses mostly this variety, which gives Poiré Domfront its distinct flavour: fruity, aromatic, slightly acidic and naturally sparkling.
Poiré Domfront is a traditional drink which is the result of fermenting pear juice. Below are the stages of production, as they appear on the Poiré Domfront website:
- During October and November, the pears fall from the trees and are collected by hand or by machine.
- After sorting and crushing, the pears are pressed to produce a pale gold juice with a distinctive floral bouquet.
- Placed in vats, the poiré slowly ferments over a period of three to four months under the watchful eye of the producer.
- Fermentation continues in the bottle where the pears’ natural yeasts create the bubbles.
- To be accredited the AOP label, batches of Poiré Domfront are tested by a panel of experts.
After my tour of the orchards, Frédéric treats me to a tasting session. I try out four types of Poiré Domfront produced at the Ferme des Grimaux, ranging in taste, quality and price, from the Poiré Fermier, tasty, fruity and not unlike good old scrumpy, to the more refined Poiré Domfront, which can only be described as refreshing, fruity and lightly sparkling… not unlike a glass of bubbly!
‘What’s your favourite?’ asks Frédéric. ‘It has to be the most expensive one!’ I reply. It was like nothing I’d ever tasted. I had always imagined Normandy pear cider to be like the pear cider you’d find in a pub in the UK; synthetic-tasting, overly sweet and not very pear-like. This was the complete opposite. It dawned on me that there was a whole world of poiré-related fun out there – poiré as an aperitif, poiré with fish or chicken, poiré with dessert, poiré for special occasions, such as New Year’s Eve… The possibilities stretched out before me. I promptly bought a bottle of each type of poiré for good measure.
So there you have it, Poiré Domfront in a nutshell, the drink I never knew about that I now can’t get enough of! I can’t wait for my New Year glass of poiré now…
The Ferme des Grimaux cider farm is open all year round. Simply email Frédéric and Catherine in advance to arrange your visit – firstname.lastname@example.org – and stock up on poiré, cider, aperitifs, juices and Calvados Domfrontais galore!
For more information on the Ferme des Grimaux, visit: www.pacory.eu
For more on Normandy food and drink, visit the Normandy Tourism website.
Text and photos © F. Lambert/Normandy Tourism unless otherwise stated