A Visit to the Ice Cidery
Ice cider, the apple equivalent of ice wine, was invented by Quebec vintner Christian Barthomeuf in 1989. Apples are picked after the first frost, which creates the concentration of sugars that gives the cider its intense, aromatic flavor. Fermented for eight months, it takes the juice of about eighty apples to yield a 375 cl. bottle (a half wine bottle). Ice cider, to me, conveys the quintessence of appleness. Best consumed as an aperitif or a dessert wine, ice cider can be treated like a Sauternes or a Muscat. Of four or five ice ciders I tried, Pinnacle was by far my favorite, as I found all the others a bit too sweet. Pinnacle is sweet, for sure, but it seems to strike a Platonic balance. Barthomeuf is the cidermaster for Pinnacle as well as La Face Cachée de la Pomme. At about $22-25 Canadian per half bottle for most brands (or $40 in the U.S., see below), ice cider is definitely a luxury item.
For Fourth of July weekend this year I went up to the Montreal Jazz Festival with my friend David T.Z. Mindich, whom I met while working on my Ph.D. in American Studies (one of my many dust-collecting degrees). David lives and teaches in Burlington, Vermont. The Pinnacle cidery, near Frelighsburg in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, is about halfway between Burlington and Montreal, so we decided to stop off at the tasting room on the way to the festival.
At the Pinnacle tasting room we were greeted by Karolyn, the charming young woman who poured and described the products. In addition to the regular ice cider, which accounts for most of their production, they also offer a sparkling version and a special reserve. The special reserve, which blends six varieties of apple and requires over one hundred apples to compose a bottle actually disappointed. Described as having a “warm, caramel, baked apple flavor,” it was just too sweet for me. The sparkling version, a Pinnacle exclusive, was pleasant, but ultimately the original ice cider rules.
Ice Cider is one of Quebec’s great gifts to mankind, and as it is difficult to find elsewhere, visitors to the province owe it to themselves to pick up a bottle or two.
After our cider tasting David and I stopped off in Frelighsburg for lunch at The General Store, a place that Karolyn had recommended, informing us that they were famous for their maple syrup pie. Naturally, the menu listed “Our Famous Maple Syrup Pie.” I had no choice but to try it, despite my lukewarm attitude toward maple syrup. I’m a sucker for these kinds of claims to fame. If the menu had listed “Our Famous Sea Cucumber Pie” I might have tried that too. Anyway, to call the pie pathologically sweet would be an understatement. Granted, I know from experience, having traveled in India and Latin America, that there are billions of people who would revel in such sweet overkill.
Pinnacle Update (July 12, 1 PM)
A friend and reader of this blog emailed me to ask where Pinnacle ice cider could be bought in New York. Karolyn at Pinnacle had told me that there were some distributors in the U.S., and that the information could be found on the Pinnacle website. A call to the listed New York distributor proved fruitless. I had much more luck with the Connecticut distributor, Slocum. The woman I spoke with suggested I contact Grapes, a specialty wine shop and mail/phone order business in Norwalk. At Grapes I spoke with Jim Winston, who determined that they could indeed special order and ship the product, but that it could only be ordered by the case, at a cost of $39.99 per bottle, plus tax and shipping. That would be $480 for the case plus about $60 (6% tax and $30 for shipping), with the net cost per bottle working out to $45.
I had a nice long chat with Jim, who is a kibbitzer and a mensch; it's always pleasant to deal with somebody on the phone who isn't an all-business automaton. The Grapes business model relies on a lot of interaction with their customer base. We discussed, among other things, ice wine production in Europe. I came away with a really positive feeling about this business. If you want to splurge on a case of Pinnacle, give Jim a call at 1-800-434-WINE (9463).
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I don’t have much to report from the Montreal food front except that we had a spectacular breakfast the following day at a delightful Persian place called Byblos. Byblos offers the most marvelous fresh baked sweet breads with jams of your choice (I ordered the rose petal/pistachio and David ordered the ginger, both delicious). David had an excellent feta omelet an I went for the halym (Persian cream of wheat). Halym (usually spelled haleem) is interesting in that it includes meat (turkey at Byblos) that is cooked down until it marries with the texture of the cereal. It is a popular dish in India & Pakistan where it is more likely to be savory than the sweet version that Byblos serves. The Arabic coffee, a pot of cardamom-spiced filter coffee was similar in taste to Turkish coffee, but more satisfying as a morning beverage, and the many tropical fruit juice combinations on offer were hard to choose from–in fact, I can’t remember what the third ingredient in mine was, after the banana and tangerine. It’s a laid back, sunny, airy place, and the staff are friendly and eager to answer any and all questions about the menu.
After David drove home that night I stayed in Montreal for several more days and hung out with some other jazz buddies from Vermont. We attempted a Sunday lunch at a Syrian place called Le Petit Alep, which had come highly recommended and featured a dessert I was jonesing to try: a sweet semolina & ricotta ball rolled in pistachio and cinnamon. Unfortunately the restaurant was closed, but it was close to the Jean Talon Market, one of Montreal’s several large European-style markets. At the market I noshed on several kinds of sausage and a really tasty but very expensive buffalo rib ($3 for one smallish rib). The pistachio gelato from Le Havre aux Glaces was very good, but I’m still dying to try that dessert at the Syrian place.