When I was a child we used to buy cider from the cider farm just down the road. The press was in the barn behind the orchard and we had to dodge the scary geese when we went looking for the farmer who made the cider. The cider was drawn off from large wooden barrels. Our family liked two parts bitter to one part sweet cider mixed together in a large plastic container. I loved visiting the cider press – mysterious in the gloomy barn, it was redolent of acidic apple pulp and cider-making alchemy. The cider was strong stuff – very alcoholic, still rather than fizzy, not quite clear but not cloudy either, and almost chewy it was so full of flavour. Perfect with cheese, I think it is the only thing to drink with a ploughman’s lunch.
In fact, I was more likely to drink it with a haymaker’s lunch when I helped out with the haymaking on the local farms. The flagon of cider was placed on a hay bale in the centre of the field and we used to work our way round and round, loading hay bales on to the trailer (sadly pulled by a tractor rather than horses – I’m not that old!), until we finished up in the middle and were allowed to drink the cider as a reward. We then scrambled up the side of the bales to the top of the stack on the trailer and rode back to the farm on top of the hay, quite drunk from the cider, sleepy and sunburnt from a day hauling bales.
Cider supports wellbeing in other ways. Devon and Dorset sailors fared far better on long sea voyages in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries because they took cider with them rather than beer. The cider contained Vitamin C, which protected them against the ravages of scurvy. This is probably why ships manned by Devon men made it across the Atlantic to colonise America. Captain Cook also carried cider on his ships to treat his crew for scurvy.
As well as cider, sour apples were used to make verjuice. Before lemons were widely used in cooking, verjuice provided a subtle acidity in many recipes (it is about half as acidic as lemon juice) and it was probably the predecessor of apple cider vinegar. It differs from vinegar in that it doesn’t need fermentation or barrel ageing, so it is quick to make and ready to use straight away. However, it can’t be stored for as long as vinegar.
As far as cider vinegar is concerned, the health benefits claimed for it these days are many and various. Combined with honey it helps with arthritis, taken regularly it soothes acid reflux and the acetic acid it contains acts as an antimicrobial and a preservative.
However, regular cider drinking in the eighteenth century was not without its dangers. In addition to cider-drinker’s nose, there was the risk of Devon Colic. This painful condition was originally thought to have been caused by drinking too much new cider. However, in the nineteenth century, research demonstrated that Devon Colic was actually lead poisoning. Cider makers sometimes lined their presses with lead, the pipes used to move the cider from press to containers were often made of lead and some cider makers even put lead shot into their cider as a preservative. Once lead was removed from the cider-making equipment and processes, Devon Colic almost disappeared. However, there was a surprising return of the colic in the 1970s (as reported in the New Scientist) when cider-making became trendy again and some people made cider using the old lead-lined presses.
And the story that Dorset cider makers put a rat in the cider barrels to add ‘body’ or to speed up the fermentation? Well, that is probably a myth – but there were lots of rats in cider barns and they loved eating the apples, so perhaps a few did end up in the cider - but only by accident!
Our Mrs Beeton’s Jam-making and Preserves title includes information on making cider in the chapter on home-made wines and fruit syrups. There is also a recipe for apple wine, made by adding sugar to cider, as well as a recipe for raisin wine that is also based on cider, and 12 other recipes for apple-based preserves.
Here is my recipe for Dorset Apple Cake. This recipe gives a stodgy result – don’t expect a light and fluffy sponge. This is a filling cake to be eaten by, say, apple pickers after working hard in the orchard. It is lovely eaten warm with some cream as a dessert.
Plain flour – 8 oz. / 227 gms
Baking powder – 2 teaspoons / 10 gms
Butter (I use ordinary salted butter) – 4 oz. / 114 gms
Caster sugar – 4 oz. / 114 gms
Currants – 2 oz. / 56 gms
Medium-sharp apples (Bramley is fine but other cooking apples are good too) – 3 or ¾ lb / 340 gms (when cut up but not cored)
Milk – 5-6 tablespoons / 70-80 ml to mix.
Sieve the flour and baking powder together into a mixing bowl. Rub in the butter and stir in the sugar and the currants. Peel, quarter, core and chop the apples fairly finely and add to the mixture. Using a fork, stir in enough milk to make a stiff dough. Grease and line an 8-inch / 20 cm round and deep cake tin. Spoon the mixture into the tin and spread evenly. I sprinkle some granulated sugar on top of the mixture to create a crunchy crust. Bake in a moderately hot oven (375° F / 190° C / gas mark 5 for about 30 minutes. Then turn the oven down to 300° F / 150° C / gas mark 2 for a further hour. Remove from the oven when done and allow to cool. Have a cup of tea!