Apple Hunting Season


This is the time of year when I start scouting for apple trees.  Neglected, venerable trees full of fruit that nobody wants.  Not shiny, red, and flawless, ready to be popped into a lunch box.  Nor even the big, sweet fruits bred for baking.  The apples I want can be rough-coated, gnarled, and even a little scabby.  They’re tart and tannic, puckering your mouth at the first bite.  Powerfully flavorful.  Perfect, in other words, for making hard cider.

That – hard cider making – used to be a tradition in my part of the world, southern New England.  From Virginia north, but especially in the northeastern states, hard cider was the vin de pays, the local drink with a definite regional character.  In part that was a reflection of the regional nature of apple growing.  Virginia, for example, was ‘Hewe’s Crab’ country when it came to cider making; in New Jersey, the apples of choice were ‘Winesap’ and ‘Harrison’.   New England boasted many fine cider apples; the standards included ‘Roxbury Russet,’ ‘Golden Russet’ and also ‘Baldwin’.

I had heard mentions in passing of hard cider from my father, a Connecticut native who associated it with haying time on relatives’ farms.  But my first real encounter with it came in the library of the New York Botanical Garden.  One day, while prowling the stacks, I came on a book published in 1911:  The cider makers’ hand book : a complete guide for making and keeping pure cider by J.M. Trowbridge.  This volume not only told the reader every detail of how to make hard cider, it made clear why you should want to:

“A pure article of cider, skillfully made from select fruit in perfect condition, should have perfect limpidity and brightness, even to sparkling in the glass… It should be fragrant so that when a bottle is freshly opened and poured into glasses an agreeable, fruity perfume will arise and diffuse itself though the apartment… It should have mild pungency, and feel warming and grateful to the stomach, the glow diffusing itself gradually and agreeably throughout the whole system, and communicating itself to the spirits…and it should leave in the mouth an abiding agreeable flavor of some considerable duration, as of rare fruits and flowers.”

I began collecting apples, and with an antique cider press rescued from a friend’s barn,  I pressed my first batch, fermenting it down to dryness in glass carboys.  I siphoned it into bottles and corked them.  Six months later the cider was straw golden, clear, sparkling, and smelling and tasting of the apples’ very essence.

I’ve since updated my equipment, purchasing an electric-powered, Italian fruit crusher which I share with a farmer in western Massachusetts.  The farmer, in return, allows me to use his hydraulic cider press.  With these devices, I get far more juice from a bushel of fruit, which is good because appropriate fruit is harder and harder to find as the old trees die off and are replaced by less intensely flavored modern cultivars. Every year I have to travel farther afield to find my fruit.  What better excuse, though, for exploring back roads while enjoying the fall foliage?

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Thomas Christopher

My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. Really enjoyed this Tom, although I don’t get so much opportunity to sample your brews! Hope this will be a good year for you. More people should try making their own it seems to me, along with the trend to home brewing!3WR5

  2. Loved this story! Perhaps we may be treated to a story or two on old-fashioned apples of New England. Where to find, how to grow, which are better for muffins and cider and sauce!

    • MaryJane,
      You could try the Extension Services and/or AG Departments and State universities of New York State, Mass., Vermont and New Hampshire. Apples are serious business there and I bet they have guidance & recipes galore. Ditto Washington state. I highly recommend a trip to the Lake Champlain & Islands area for anyone seeking a quiet, serene, uncrowded populated vacation. And don’t miss Snow Farm Winery on South Hero if you go to Vermont. So peaceful and the rural Vermonters need and warmly welcome, their tourists.
      Charming Montreal is only two hours or so away, but (sadly now), do not forget your Passports!
      Diane O’Donnell
      Denver CO

  3. What a wonderful, heartwarming story, thank you! I have just returned from a week in South Hero, Vermont on the shores of Lake Champlain. It’s totally Apple country and they are great, already. Farm stands everywhere, so quaint for the tourists and economically productive for the farmers. There is even literally Apple Island.
    My grandchildren, accustomed to Trader Joe’s and Stop & Shop in Boston suburbs, kept asking me why I was bothering to find and bring home, those wizened, misshapen apples — & actually eating them! “But they have wormholes, you can’t eat them!”
    But the 6 year old, an intrepid explorer, understood perfectly and joined excitedly in the hunt.
    In a few weeks, the whole family will drive out to Drumlin Farm for a day of approved Apple picking, hayrides & family activities.
    Ah, the snap & tang of Fall in our Northernmost states, sheer bliss.
    Thanks again for this lovely, positive piece.

    • You should take the grandkids on a trip to see where their food comes from (hint: it doesn’t grow on the grocery store shelves) 😉

  4. How timely! Just tried out a wonderful recipe of braised beef short ribs (acquired from my local farmer) that is cooked in a hard cider sauce and apples. Comes from a delightful cookbook, The New England Epicure by Leslie Land–and there’s lots of recipes using cider (including making cider syrup too). Perfect autumn eating. Try making crabapple jelly too! Wonderful time of year for enjoying the harvest. Thanks for the great read.

  5. I’m almost afraid to admit this but I pick up bags of fallen apples this time of year & throw them in my compost bin. If they’re only going to be shoveled up by the lawn crew, why not put them to some use? I’ve scooped up fallen pears the last few weeks too.

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