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?