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Ice-cider pioneer Christian Barthomeuf, in his grove of cider apples at Clos Saragnat in Frelighsburg, Que. (Adam Leith Gollner for The Globe and Mail)
Ice-cider pioneer Christian Barthomeuf, in his grove of cider apples at Clos Saragnat in Frelighsburg, Que. (Adam Leith Gollner for The Globe and Mail)

The quest for the perfect cider apple Add to ...

The apples in Christian Barthomeuf’s orchard aren’t like other apples. This quixotic cider pioneer tends a collection not of McIntosh and Royal Galas, but of rarities and wildlings. It’s what gives his Clos Saragnat ciders their distinctive touch, a taste he describes as très flyée – way out.

A lanky, mop-topped 60-year-old, Barthomeuf grows a scant 600 apple trees here in Frelighsburg, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Many of them have no name, being peculiarities he found in nearby forests, on the sides of roads, or in people’s backyards. Some are orange, others black-purple, others with red-flecked flesh or blushing pink interiors. One tastes like grapefruit and fennel salad; another is indistinguishable from a potato; one is so waxy and floral it feels like biting into a Crayola filled with rosewater.

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We sample one of his unidentified blue-green crabapples: “Hmm, great acidity, nice tannins,” he muses, chewing. “Rich, very odorante. It might give a sweet aroma as a cider. No idea what it’s called, though.”

Barthomeuf, while not a household name, deserves to be: He invented ice cider. Industry leaders Domaine Pinnacle and Face Cachée de la Pomme both launched with him as their cider-maker, but his personal production exceeds theirs in terms of quality, if not quantity. Clos Saragnat has received dozens of gold medals, as well as awards and accolades from such diverse sources as the Governor-General, Gwyneth Paltrow and high-brow food journal The Art of Eating.

What makes them so good?

“It’s just these apples, that’s all,” he reiterates. His ice ciders, as well as his sparkling ciders, are fully organic, unsulfured and chemical-free. The result is incredibly good – and equally scarce. (His distributor, La QV, long ago gave up attempting to improve sales.) Clos Saragnat’s premium bottling, L’Original, is only available at his farm or select high-end restaurants. The price point is steep: 200 ml bottles of his basic Avalanche cuvée cost $27.40 at the SAQ, the Quebec liquor agency. Back vintages are more (if he’s willing to part with them).

Although ice cider is his creation, Barthomeuf essentially makes cider the way it used to be made, centuries ago, by curious pioneers with a spirit of experimentation. He moved here from France in the 1970s, and focused on viticulture until he discovered a fondness for unlikely apples. One of his prized finds comes from a tree he spotted on the side of a nearby highway. He first noticed it one winter, covered in fruit. For two years, he’d ogle the tree each time he drove by. He finally decided to graft it and now calls the resultant apples “Route 237s.”

Clos Saragnat is not the only cidery making a return to proper raw materials: County Cider in Ontario’s Prince Edward County works with rough gems like Bulmer’s Norman and Tremlett’s Bitter. Sea Cider on Vancouver Island in British Columbia uses American heirlooms like Newtown Pippins and Winter Bananas. Merridale, also on Vancouver Island, cultivates a range of European cider-specific varieties like the Dabinett or the Hauxapfel. And Farnum Hill in New Hampshire has famously rediscovered Jefferson’s favourite apple, the Esopus Spitzenburg.

What sort of cider would they get if they used regular apples?

“The sort that would be like wine made from table grapes,” Barthomeuf responds.

He’s right: We don’t drink wines made with Thompson seedless nor do we buy pinot noir grapes in the supermarket produce aisle. Real cider apples need to be acidic, tannic and high-flavoured. Not meant for eating out of hand, their personalities give ciders complexity.

Unlike the majority of ice-cider producers, who store pressed apple juice outside when the temperature goes below freezing, the progenitor insists upon using apples that stay on the branch into the winter months. Battered day and night by the elements, their exteriors turn brown and leathery, and the sugars concentrate within the flesh. Caramelized and burnt by the sun and wind, these snowy apples yield a nectar of surprising depth and refinement.

Table apples just can’t go there. By the time of my visit, most nearby orchards have already picked their crop; acres stand barren against an autumnal backdrop of countryside foliage. “The McIntosh falls off trees by the end of September,” Barthomeuf says with a shrug. It’s now mid-October, and he hasn’t even begun his harvest yet. (Whatever apples end up falling off the bough are fed to his horses or the flock of Toulouse geese that tend his herbicide- and artificial-fertilizer-free fields.)

The diversity of Barthomeuf’s ragged assortment means that even in difficult years such as this (plus-30 heatwave in March followed by subzero temperatures in April), some of his apples do better than others. Pre-settlement varietals have their benefits. Nevertheless, the weather has already destroyed 50 per cent of his 2012 harvest.

To make up for it, in the next couple of months, he’ll be releasing a 12-year-old cider made entirely out of wild, icicle-covered apples he collected while walking through the woods. This backpack cuvée, called Pomme des Bois, tastes ridiculous – powerfully concentrated, yet still crisp and fresh.

He’s also looking forward to seeing how his crop of Madame Langevins will turn out. The apple is named after a neighbour with a tree in her yard she asked him to propagate. Barthomeuf picks one and runs his hands along its amber, thick-skinned exterior. “This will be my first taste of a Madame Langevin,” he says, and excitedly bites into it. Juice spurts out, but he keeps the apple in his mouth, holding it there with his teeth. For a moment, I imagine it must be so tough and starchy he can’t actually get all the way through. He closes his eyes. I can’t gauge his reaction. Is he dismayed? But no, he merely wanted the full organoleptic experience.

His eyes pop open, and he looks into mid-air, apple still in mouth. He spreads his arms and leans back with a “you gotta be kidding me” gesture. He takes the apple out, chews a few times, and beams at it with happiness.

“What’s it like?” I ask. In lieu of an answer, he turns it over, wipes it off, and hands it to me so I can sample the other side. I oblige. The texture resembles that of a raw Jerusalem artichoke, but its sweet-tart juice is shot through with a delicately musky flavour. Different, but definitely good. It would make for a fantastic cider. “Madame Langevin,” he nods, thrilled. “Très flyée.”

The Fruit Hunters, a documentary based on Adam Leith Gollner’s book of the same name, will be released in theatres on Nov. 23.

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