Pommé: Breton Apple Butter

A jar of pommé, with the last of this year’s Braeburns

I first learned of this traditional preserve of Brittany from a travel guide. In our subsequent trip to Brittany, last spring, my family and I searched the grocery stores and gift shops for pommé. Some people we talked with mentioned a traditional bread or pastry called pommé, but none had heard of the confiture. We thought we’d found what we were looking for at a festival in Dol-de-Bretagne, but the pommé there turned out to be bread with apple filling.

Though apparently once very popular in the eastern, traditionally Gallo-speaking part of Brittany, pommé the preserve is little known today. It rarely appears in shops catering to tourists. As I learned with further research from home, pommé is still prepared, sold, and consumed mainly in the countryside.

Pommé is none other than apple butter, usually made without spices or added sugar, so that a spoonful offers a full taste of the caramelization that occurs with long cooking along with concentrated natural fruit sugars and acids. For farmers in the pays Gallo, making pommé was an excuse for a party. Each autumn, they would empty a barrel of fresh cider into a copper cauldron and add peeled, cored, and cut apples. Family members and neighbors would take turns stirring for twelve hours or longer until the apples had broken down and the cider had condensed to make a thick, brick-red, glossy jam. Once the apples were in the pot, everyone but the person stirring would sing and dance to the music of an accordion player or fiddler.

 Pommé was sometimes called le beurre du pauvre, the butter of the poor, because when you couldn’t afford to buy butter, or needed to sell all your homemade butter for cash, you could spread your bread with pommé instead. This made pommé especially popular during the world wars. After World War II, though, butter was more affordable, and so was the refined sugar for making modern jams. Pommé was nearly forgotten.

In the 1970s, residents of the villages of Bazouges-la-Pérouse and Tremblay began to revive the custom of the ramaougerie (“stirring”) de pommé as a public event, complete with live music, sales of artisanal goods, and cider pressings. The finished pommé is packed into jars and sold to the crowd.

Making pommé in a small batch at home is a less festive but also less time-consuming affair. Constant stirring isn’t actually necessary until the cooking is mostly done. This is how I’ve made pommé:

Small-Batch Pommé

1 gallon sweet cider
5 pounds cored, peeled, and quartered apples

In a big, wide, heavy-bottomed pot (mine holds 7.5 liters), begin heating the cider. Add the quartered apples—you can do this gradually, if you like—and simmer the mixture, stirring occasionally. When the apples have broken down and the pommé starts to spatter, stir it constantly for about 10 minutes, until it has thickened and darkened.  The finished pommé will be glossy and a warm red-brown. The total cooking time should be about 4 hours.

Ladle the pommé into pint or half-pint mason jars. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.

Makes about 4 pints

Eating in Brittany

I hope you don’t mind my diverging a bit from the subject of this blog to share some photos of my recent trip to Brittany.

First, a produce stand at the weekly market in Dinan:

 

 

Above left: Beets are usually, if not always, sold cooked. Above right: A liquor stand in the Dinan market features whiskey made from buckwheat.

 

 

A seafood stall offered various fishes and . . .

 

 

 

 

 

. . . spider crabs and scallops. We chose fresh mackerel for dinner.

 

At the market we saw cured meats in abundance . . .

 

 

And one stall (below) sold blood sausage stewed with apples–a fantastic combination.

This was lunch after a trip to the market. Every day we drank cider, a different brand or style each time. The alcohol content ranged from 3 to 6 percent.

 

 

 

 

For some people the local market isn’t enough; they grow their own produce in home or community gardens. The community gardens we saw had big plots, each with its own shed. Here is a community garden in the castle town of Fougeres.

 

 

 

One day we went to see the oyster beds at Cancale . . .

 

 

 

. . . and bought some oysters, of course, for dinner. Robert chose the salty wild ones.

 

 

 

At left is one kind of oyster we’d never seen before, “little horse foot.” Does it have an English name?

 

 

 

Finally, here’s a picture from St-Malo, on the coast. We didn’t go into La Maison du Beurre, but no doubt it offered some of Brittany’s famous salted butter.

Salted butter?! Our hosts at dinner one night were surprised we’d had it before–in America, yet! Salted butter is unique to Brittany, no?

Actually, we loved Breton butter not for its salt but for its rich flavor and yellow color–a color that comes not from annatto but from grass in the cows’ diet.

More Evidence that Alcoholic Drinks Are Good for You

Here’s to the man who drinks water pure and goes to bed quite sober.
Here’s to the man who drinks water pure and goes to bed quite sober.
He falls as the leaves do fall, falls as the leaves do fall, falls as the leaves do fall.
He’ll die before October.                                                                                                                                                                                                           –Traditional English drinking song

A deep sense of peace settles over our place each autumn once the last of the apples and grapes are picked, crushed, and pressed and bubbling away in the garage. Making wine or cider requires a lot of labor for a few hours, but the work is pleasant and sociable, and amazingly productive when you consider how long it would take to can or dry all that fruit. With fermentation as with pregnancy, anticipating the outcome lends a quiet excitement to life. The first taste is a celebration, for the product of each pressing is unique and nearly always good, if not great. Like a new lamb, a kitten, or a child.

So I always like having scientists confirm that drinking alcoholic beverages is good for us. Carolyn Aldwin and her colleagues at Oregon State University have recently done just that, in reporting results of their eighteen-year study of stress and mortality in middle-aged and older men. The moderate drinkers, the scientists found, lived substantially longer than the teetotalers. What the drinkers drank—wine? beer? cocktails?—apparently wasn’t reported. Maybe the alcohol alone extended their lives, by frequently anesthetizing them against life’s little torments. Maybe the teetotalers shortened their lives by contracting or even skipping the calming ritual involved with having a drink—the sitting at table, the sharing of food, the conversation with friends or family. In any case, says Carolyn Aldwin, “Perhaps trying to keep your major stress events to a minimum, being married, and having a glass of wine every night is the secret to a long life.”

For men, at least. Other studies have found that women are best off without marriage, and that even moderate drinking may increase the risk of female breast cancer. But I trust the wisdom of our ancestors: A little wine or hard cider each day will do you more good than harm. And taking the time to make that wine or cider yourself can only make life sweeter, if not longer.