'Do you remember this place, Julie?'
The two towers of Jumièges Abbey soared into the air in front of us, shimmering in the sunlight.
'Oh, yes! The 3D images on the tablet! It was great!'
This visit has left quite an impression on her. About the history of the place, the architecture, the gardens... Nothing. But augmented reality, of course she remembers (well, I must admit I enjoyed it too...)! And I promised myself, when we visited the abbey some time ago, that we would come back to cycle in the area.
We took the bikes off the car and were all set for a dozen of kilometres along the Fruit Trail: a waymarked route in the middle of the orchards of the Seine valley. We are only going to do a short loop from Jumièges to Les Sablons, Le Mesnil-sous-Jumièges, then Le Conihout, before coming back to our starting point.
'Are you sure there's no hills?' Clara asked.
At least, I didn't see any relief on Google maps...
Indeed, the small road is fairly flat (phew!) and, what's more, quiet. A little country road lined with traditional half-timbered houses and, fruit trees here and there in the gardens.
After a few short hills (but nothing too challenging), we can see the Manoir de la Vigne, a group of squat buildings dating back to the 13th century made with white stones, probably coming from the stone quarries in Caumont, just like the stones of Jumièges Abbey and churches in Rouen.
It is in this manor house that Agnès Sorel died in 1450; she was said to be the most beautiful woman in the Kingdom of France and, incidentally, the favourite mistress of King Charles VII. She was known for her plunging necklines, which indeed would go down in history: she and her necklines were the models for many paintings, especially (who knows why...) for Virgins breastfeeding the Christ Child.
Then a gentle slope led us to the bank of the river Seine, on the towpath that follows the meanders of the river.
Finally, here are the orchards, divided in small plots stretching from the river to the road. These plots became narrower and narrower with time. Today, some are as narrow as a corridor: indeed each owner had to access both the river Seine to load the fruits on the boats sailing down to Le Havre and the road for the carts going to Rouen.
But it was from the little road along the river Seine that we could really admire the crops: apple trees, pear trees, plum trees, cherry trees... everywhere. Not to mention the raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and blackberries that are also grown here. I am jealous of the inhabitants who enjoy this wide range of colours that changes with the seasons, from the flowering cherry trees in spring to apple and pear picking in autumn. We could tell that this landscape, even though it looks natural and harmonious, is in fact the result of the efforts of men who have shaped it century after century. Thus, these meanders of the river Seine were used to grow vines in the Middle-Ages! Yes, that's right, wine was produced here! To tell the truth, it was not really good. Insomuch that this horrible plonk gave rise to a saying: Du vin de Conihout, ne beuvez pas, car il vous meine au trépas... (Wine from Conihout you shall not drink, as it would lead you to death)
All of a sudden, shouts from Clara and Julie! Eh! What! What's going on? There's an accident? Quick, U-turn!
Actually there was no accident, but a stall with strawberries on the side of the road...
While the girls were filling up on strawberries, I took the opportunity to ask if farms were open to visitors in the area.
'You can go to the Clos des Citôts in Heurteauville. It's right after the river ferry in Jumièges, at the far end of the village' the lady told me. 'If you want to learn more about farmhouse cider making, it's the perfect place!'
A few minutes later, we arrived at the Clos des Citots, where the owner, Gérard Lenormand, greeted us:
'A guided tour will start in a few minutes if you are interested...'
But here was Julie shouting again! What? More strawberries? No, this time she was fascinated by an aviary and a duck pond!
The visit started next to a kind of curtain side van:
'In the Seine valley, there are about 200 hectares (495 acres) of orchards! Indeed there is a microclimate particularly suited for apple production: with the cliffs that reflect the light and provide shelter from the wind, temperatures are milder than normal. Frosts, for instance, are rare. We produce organic apples and pears here as well as various apple-based products: farmhouse cider, of course, but also apple juice, Pommeau and brandy. With 13 hectares (32 acres) of orchards, we produce about 120,000 litres of cider, 20,000 litres of apple juice and 1,000 litres of brandy. But first, the alembic!
The owner then turned around and opened the side of the van: it's a mobile alembic!
It was full of tubes, filters and pipes tangled together, the result of centuries of adjustments of the heating system to distil apples.
After the tanks, the processing and bottling plant, then the tasting session and finally the shop! Ideal to buy gifts and local products: three bottles of cider (dry, sweet and semi-dry), one bottle of apple juice, one apple and calvados jam (it looks like we are going to make pancakes soon... yummy!).
'So, this is cider we should drink chilled, if I understand correctly?' Clara asked showing a bottle labelled "ice cider".
'No', Gérard Lenormand answered. 'It's a new technique inspired by our colleagues from Québec, who make cider from frozen apples. We, along with about ten other producers, copy this technique with the apples of the Seine valley. Here, try it!' he added while he poured us two little glasses, clearly happy to tell us about his production.
Frankly, it smells of apple, a perfect balance of sugar and alcohol. Clara and I glanced at each other and agreed to take one as an aperitif.
With our shopping, reaching less than 30€, we met Julie outside, still in front of the duck pond. Ducks and...
'Er, what's that?'
'Pheasants! And there, mandarin ducks!' the owner said smiling.
'Is it for Norman dishes, like duck in blood sauce our duck with cherries?'
'No', he said amusingly. 'We don't eat them; I just like having animals on the farm...'
Attracted to the owner's voice, a goat in the neighbouring pen came jauntily closer.
'Oh be careful', Gérard Lenormand warned us, 'he has a very special character...'
'What, is he dangerous? Julie, stay away!' Clara said suddenly.
'No', he said reassuringly, 'he just loves cuddles, he likes having his head scratched, it may be surprising! Look!'
Julie held out her hand and the goat stood up straight away to show his nose and have a pat!