In Praise of Doing the Bare Minimum
For 30 years, Christian Barthomeuf has been refining the art of making ice cider with neither additives nor overtime.
It’s warm in Frelighsburg at the end of November this year. In the Clos Saragnat orchard, a few apples still cling to the branches, dark red spheres suspended in the prevailing grey. Christian Barthomeuf points out a section of the orchard that was covered in apples at this time of year only a decade ago. Today it is completely bare. “In 10 years, there will be no more ice cider produced in the Eastern Townships,” he says. Because of climate change, the apples fall earlier each year — before they’ve reached the optimal conditions for production of the precious nectar. “The next ice cider will be from Abitibi or Saguenay,” Barthomeuf predicts.
In any case, he’s already on to other things, his focus turned to the ground and a new way of approaching agriculture. The 70-year-old trailblazer arrived from France a quarter century ago and has just been awarded the Order of Canada. He’s always been 10 steps ahead of the rest.
It was Barthomeuf who, in the 1980s, planted the first vines in Dunham intended for fermented fruit. He was the first to produce Québec icewine. He invented ice cider, exasperated with trying to compete with icewines from all over the world.
A lightbulb came on in December 1989 when, seeing apples frozen on trees, Barthomeuf had the idea to try pressing them. His first sample of cider was a dozen litres of fermented fruit juice. The people around him convinced him enthusiastically to take it further. This is a story he tells, along with many others, in his Autoportrait d’un paysan rebelle [Self-Portrait of a Rebel Farmer], released last summer with Éditions du Passage.
Today Barthomeuf is certainly not the only one making ice cider. But he’s one of the only ones who makes it from frozen apples gathered directly from the trees. Every autumn he waits for the perfect conditions — 10 degrees inside the fruit — before beginning the harvest, which finishes by Christmastime at the latest. “You need the brown colour [inside],” he tells us. For this, the apple must have frozen and thawed while still on the tree, “but not too much, otherwise they become damaged.” In the past four years or so, these conditions have become more and more difficult to obtain.
The apples used in production of his ice ciders (sparkling or not) come from about 40 varieties, with poetic names like Madame Langevin, Primevère, Nectarelle, Liberty, and Nordale. They give the cider its unique taste: fresh and enveloping, aromatic and acidic. The fermentation process takes a year and is done exclusively with indigenous yeasts, found in the fruits in their natural state.
Drawing inspiration from nature
On the Clos Saragnat estate, fruit trees are mingled with bushes and plants of all kinds — plots separated by what Barthomeuf calls “insect facilities,” or humid areas and dry jungles, left to themselves. The farmer experiments with culture fondamentale, governed by one basic rule: keep intervention to a minimum. This means no pesticides, even organic ones, and trimming the trees as little as possible. No spreading of manure or compost either. Instead, chickens do part of the work of amending the soil. “Do we spread shit in the virgin forest?” he asks. And despite his rejection of conventional wisdom, lush fruit trees grow here, supported by precious biodiversity.
At Clos Saragnat, grasses grow high in the summer and disintegrate in the fall, providing the earth with natural fertilizer. Of the 35 hectares, only four are used. The rest is forest.
The trees are planted directly in the long grass. “Trees are very aggressive! They get swallowed up by dense vegetation and still have to find nutrients,” Barthomeuf explains. Some don’t survive; others need too much care, and he has to dispose of them. This was the case with the plum trees, which were prone to disease. He’s also thinking about removing the orchard’s vines, which require an enormous amount of work. “Vines take 80 per cent of our time for 10 per cent of revenue,” he says. In spite of the love he brings to his work, Barthomeuf doesn’t want work to take over his life.
Rejecting the notion of growth at all costs
In late autumn, Barthomeuf and his partner, Louise Dupuis, wait impatiently for hunting season to end so they can get back to exploring Mount Sutton. Working three or four days a week, they still have time for hiking.
When they took possession of the old conventional orchard in Frelighsburg 28 years ago, they made a promise: they would create a business on a human scale. And they’ve kept that promise.
They employ only one person full-time (two in the summer). After consulting for Domaine Pinnacle and La Face Cachée de la Pomme, two major cider producers in Québec, Barthomeuf came to understand that growth at all costs had a price. “Having 20 employees and going on vacation with a cellphone in each pocket: is that a life?” he asks. From the start, Barthomeuf and Dupuis have always calculated the exact number of bottles they have to produce each year to cover their costs, including trips. “And,” he smiles, “we don’t make a goddamned bottle more.”
“The Eastern Townships are turning into a wealthy area; it’s not attracting young people anymore,” he notes with regret. And it’s young people he was thinking about when he wrote his book. “Many are deeply discouraged — they don’t know what to do because they don’t have a certificate, don’t have a diploma,” he explains. “But they don’t need that!” Christian is self-taught and learned everything he knows by reading, travelling, and observing nature. Also by remembering his childhood summers spent in the French countryside, where some of his family practised small-scale farming.
At the end of the orchard, Barthomeuf points out an old tree. “There he is, the beast. See the look on his face!” he exclaims.
Before us, an enormous apple tree stretches out its knotted arms, letting them touch the ground far from the trunk. The tree was planted in 1935, and looking at it, one can’t help but feel somehow moved.
When he bought the land, Barthomeuf stopped treating the tree with fungicides. “I realized that it was conditioned!” The apple tree took some time to recover, only growing blackened leaves for several years. And then, in 2015, it began producing again: large Cortland apples, hardy and very juicy, in great abundance. It quelled Christian Barthomeuf’s critics — he seems to have garnered a few — who had harped about how an apple tree wouldn’t produce fruit beyond 40 years.
At 85, the old Cortland tree is still standing, like a guardian watching over the garden of Eden.
Eugénie Emond is an independent journalist and master’s student in gerontology at the University of Sherbrooke. She writes the documentary series En résidence, broadcast on MAtv, and works with various media including Radio-Canada.