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Food Explorer #14: A South African food scientist finds fabulous food in France

Lisa Ronquest is one of South Africa’s top young food scientists, now transferred to the Netherlands in a global food R&D role for Mars. She’s been sharing her European impressions, insights and travels with FOODStuff SA readers in a regular blog, and we’re proud here to publish her 13th episode. This time, Lisa explores cider, wine and pastry in France.

It’s first off to Normandy – apple country, situated in the region of Calvados, and home to some 43 000 farms. In among the memorials and remembrances of D-Day on 6/6/1944 between Omaha Beach and Ponte de Hoc, along the narrow streets with old buildings and spring blossoms, we stumble across the charming Bernard Lebrec, proprietor of a wonderfully ramshackle chateau where he continues the long family cider-making tradition.

In fact, cider making in Normandy dates back to before Christ with ‘zythos’, a precursor to cider, mentioned by Strabo, a Greek geographer and traveller. There is, too, a specific Cider Route of 40 km long in Normandy’s Pays d’Auge area.

Lebrec and his family now host astaggering million visitors every year in this famed tourist area, meaning they don’t have to ship one bottle off site to be sold.

He has 7 hectares of apple orchards with 12 different varieties. We’d seen a glimpse of the range of apples apples from a visit to the market earlier that day. Varieties like  some of which I’d never heard of.

From a range of apple varietals – Pink Lady, Royal Gala, El Star, Chantecler, Ariane, Canada Gris, Golden Rosée and so on – Lebrec makes apple juice (jus de pomme); and adding yeast to the apple juice, he produces brut (dry), demi-sec (semi-sweet) and doux (sweet) cider (Cidre Bouche at 4.5% alcohol).

He double distills the cider further and allows it to age for at least two years to create the renowned Calvados (42% alcohol). Pommeau or the apple apéritif (17.5% alcohol) is made from Calvados blended with apple juice. It is sweeter, tasting of cooked fruit, vanilla and honey, amber in colour and gets the juices going before enjoying one of those magnificent French meals.

The leftover apple mash is was used to fatten up beef cattle. We’d heard stories of Normandy pigs that specifically knocked apples off the orchards onto the ground waiting for them to ferment and were permanently drunk wondering around the fields. Not a bad life, we thought as we drove through this gorgeous part of France towards Bordeaux.

Exploring Bordeaux

In Bordeaux, we discover that just the week before the area suffered devastating frost in spring, spelling disaster for the grape crop of 2017.

The last time this happened was 1991. As we speak to different chateau owners, we hear about losses from 50 to 100% for the 2017 season.

The esoteric winemaker of the chateau we were staying on was spraying his vineyards with a Valium concoction, and activating his irrigation water through alignment with the stars in an effort to resurrect his decimated vines. This story could be my mis-interpretation of his ‘Frenglish’, but his Steiner-based methods are certainly unconventional!

Bordeaux is both a city and a large region and there are six different wine routes to choose from.

Fed by the Garonne and Dordogne River and just east of the Atlantic Ocean, these bodies of water play an important role in the wines produced in Bordeaux. There are around 7 000 wine producers with 65 Appellation of Controlled Origin (AOC), producing 5 million hectolitres per year (SA produces 9.7 million hectolitres in total) in this region alone. Not surprisingly, it’s the largest wine producing region in France.

Spoilt for choice of chateaus to visit, we randomly pick Chateau du Taillan located in the Haut-Medoc area (higher grounds of the Medoc appellation). The main varieties grown in this area are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. We begin our tour in a building that could date back to Roman times, but at least the 16th century according to records found.

Winemaking has been part of this estates history since 1897 when the German family, Cruz and wine merchant bought it. It was then that he started to produce wine. Now still family owned, 5 sisters run the show with the oenologist sister living in the original chateau. We explore the cellar where barrels of French oak containing ‘Chateau de Taillan’ are maturing. These wines undergo 2 fermentations (alcohol and malo-lactic fermentation before entering the barrels.

Bordeaux introduced the concept of classification in 1855 under Napoleon III, and it now serves as an endorsement of quality and tradition recognised around the world.

The principle of the crus classés or ‘classified growths’ recognises the combination of a region’s typical terroir characteristics and the winemaker’s reputation to ensure quality.

There are several classifications in Gironde, listed in order of prestige: The 1855, The Graves, The Saint-Émilion, The Crus Bourgeois du Médoc and The Crus Artisans.

After a fun conversation with a wine shop assistant in Saint-Émilion about the merits of visiting Cape Town, he was generously allowed us to taste a Premier Grand Cru Classe, the highest class in the Saint-Émilion classification, with only 18 of 800 chateaus in Saint-Émilion holding this title.

We savoured our sips of the €175/bottle Chateau Valandraud – and in this special wine rests a wonderful story of how an underdog winemaker, Jean-Luc Thunevin or ‘Bad boy of Bordeaux’, in 2012 rose overnight from making wines ‘garagiste’ style to the Premier Grand Cru Classe status. An unheard of event.

In 1995, Chateau Valandraud (name after his wife) was given a better rating by the infamous America wine critic, Robert Parker than Château Pétrus (widely regarded as the best wine of the Saint-Émilion appellation). Chateau Valandraud has gone from strength to strength since then.

More than just wine

So it wasn’t only cider and wine during our visit to France. What do you do with all the egg yolks from the egg whites used to clarify red wine? You make canelé (pronounced “kan-le”), of course.

These are a small pastry flavoured with rum and vanilla, with a soft custard centre and a dark, thick caramelised crust. They look liked baked flambe’s in both shape and colour. They’re a real and delicious specialty to the Bordeaux region.

Before the bright Ladurée macarons (pronounced “ma-ka-roh”), so popular all over Paris, or the coconut macaroon (pronounced “ma-ka-roon”), there were the original French macarons: thin, sweet almond wafers made first by nuns in 17th century. The recipe was passed down through local families over the generations and consists simply of almond flour, egg whites, and sugar.

We came back to Holland a few kilograms heavier than when we left. But with big smiles on our faces at discovering the layers of history, culture, natural beauty, people and especially the unique food and beverages to have come from France and which have shaped cuisine and food experiences so profoundly

About this blog:

Lisa PolandLisa Ronquest is currently Head of Product Development – Global Food R&D at Mars, based in The Netherlands. The intention of this column is to be both a personal and professional account of a South African food scientist exploring life and work in a developed market.

You can contact her at

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