I spent the better part of Sunday pressing apples with our dear friends at Red Row farm in Esmont Virginia. It is south of Charlottesville about a half hour scenic drive. Worth every effort – the cider is sweet and so wonderful. This time of the year, with our weekly delivery of Mr. Henleys apples from Crozet has to be one of my favorites. We make apple butter at l’etoile, pies and anything else that we can think of with them. But the pressing of cider made me wonder about how this great tradition was started, and how it fits into our culinary heritage. It is indeed a shame that fresh pressed cider is a thing of the past.
Cider Apples may be considered as a step in development from the Wild Apple to the Dessert Apple. Formerly every farmhouse made its cider. The apples every autumn were tipped in heaps on the straw-strewn floor of the pound house, a building of cob, covered with thatch, in which stood the pounder and the press and vats and all hands were busy for days preparing the golden beverage. This was the yearly process – still carried out on many farms of the west of England, though cider-making is becoming more and more a product of the factories. One of the men turned the handle of the pounder, while a boy tipped in the apples at the top. A pounder is a machine which crushes the apples between two rollers with teeth in them. The pulp and juice are then taken to the press in large shovels which have high sides and are scored bright by the acid. The press is a huge square tray with a lip in the center of the front side and its floor slopes towards this opening. On either side are huge oaken supports on which rests a square baulk of the same wood. Through this works a large screw. Under the timber is the presser Directly the pulp is ready, the farmer starts to prepare the ‘cheese.’ First of all goes a layer of straw, then a layer of apples, and so on until the ‘cheese’ is a yard high, and sometimes more. Then the ends of straw which project are turned up to the top of the heap. Now the presser is wound down and compresses the mound until the clear juice runs freely. Under the lip in the front of the cider press is put a vat. The juice is dipped from this into casks. In four months’ time the cider will be ready to drink.
The demand for cider has increased rapidly of late years, chiefly on account of the dry varieties being so popular with sufferers from rheumatism and gout. As very good prices have been paid in recent seasons for the best cider apples, and as eight tons per acre is quite an average crop from a properly-managed orchard in full bearing, it is obvious to all progressive and up-to-date farmers and apple-growers that this branch of agriculture is well worthy of attention. In the last few years, with the object of encouraging this special Apple growing industry, silver cups have been awarded to the owners of cider-apple orchards in Devon who make the greatest improvement in the cultivation of their orchards during the year, and it is hoped this will still further stimulate the planting of new orchards and the renovation of the old ones.
The peculiar winy odour is stimulating to many. Pliny, and later, Sir John Mandeville, tell of a race of little men in ‘Farther India’ who ‘eat naught and live by the smell of apples.’ Burton wrote that apples are good against melancholy and Dr. John Caius, physician to Queen Elizabeth, in his Boke of Counseille against the Sweatynge Sicknesse advises the patient to ‘smele to an old swete apple to recover his strengthe.’ An apple stuck full of cloves was the prototype of the pomander, and pomatum (now used only in a general sense) took its name from being first made of the pulp of apples, lard and rosewater.
In Shakespeare’s time, apples when served at dessert were usually accompanied by caraway, as we may read in Henry IV, where Shallow invites Falstaff to ‘a pippin and a dish of caraway,’ In a still earlier Booke of Nurture, it is directed ‘After mete pepyns, caraway in comfyts.’ The custom of serving roast apples with a little saucerful of Carraways is still kept up at Trinity College, Cambridge, and at some of the old-fashioned London Livery dinners, just as in Shakespeare’s days.
The taste for apples is one of the earliest and most natural of inclinations; all children love apples, cooked or uncooked. Apple pies, apple puddings, apple dumplings are fare acceptable in all ages and all conditions.
Apple cookery is very early English: Piers Ploughman mentions ‘all the povere peple’ who ‘baken apples broghte in his lappes’ and the ever popular apple pie was no less esteemed in Tudor times than it is to-day, only our ancestors had some predilections in the matter of seasonings that might not now appeal to all of us, for they put cinnamon and ginger in their pies and gave them a lavish colouring of saffron.
Apple Moyse is an old English confection, no two recipes for which seem to agree. One Black Letter volume tells us to take a dozen apples, roast or boil them, pass them through a sieve with the yolks of three or four eggs, and as they are strained temper them with three or four spoonfuls of damask (rose) water; season them with sugar and half a dish of sweet butter, and boil them in a chafing dish and cast biscuits or cinnamon and ginger upon them.
Halliwell says, upon one authority, that apple moyse was made from apples after they had been pressed for cider, and seasoned with spices.
Probably the American confection, Apple Butter, is an evolution of the old English dish? Apple butter is a kind of jam made of tart apples, boiled in cider until reduced to a very thick smooth paste, to which is added a flavouring of allspice, while cooking. It is then placed in jars and covered tightly.
The once-popular custom of wassailing the orchard-trees’ on Christmas Eve, or the Eve of the Epiphany, is not quite extinct even yet in a few remote places in Devonshire. More than three centuries ago Herrick mentioned it among his ‘Ceremonies of Christmas Eve’:
‘Wassaile the trees, that they may beare
You many a Plum and many a Peare:
For more or lesse fruits they will bring,
As you do give them Wassailing.’
The ceremony consisted in the farmer, with his family and labourers, going out into the orchard after supper, bearing with them a jug of cider and hot cakes. The latter were placed in the boughs of the oldest or best bearing trees in the orchard, while the cider was flung over the trees after the farmer had drunk their health in some such fashion as the following:
‘Here’s to thee, old apple-tree!
Whence thou may’st bud, and whence thou may’st blow,
Hats full! Caps full!
Bushel – bushel-bags full!
And my pockets full too! Huzza!’
The toast was repeated thrice, the men and boys often firing off guns and pistols, and the women and children shouting loudly.
Roasted apples were usually placed in the pitcher of cider, and were thrown at the trees with the liquid. Trees that were bad bearers were not honoured with wassailing but it was thought that the more productive ones would cease to bear if the rite were omitted. It is said to have been a relic of the heathen sacrifices to Pomona. The custom also prevailed in Somersetshire and Dorsetshire.
Roast apples, or crabs, formed an indispensable part of the old-fashioned ‘wassailbowl,’ or ‘good brown bowl,” of our ancestors.
‘And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl
In very likeness of a roasted Crab’
Puck relates in Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.
The mixture of hot spiced ale, wine or cider, with apples and bits of toast floating in it was often called ‘Lamb’s wool,’ some say from its softness, but the word is really derived from the Irish ‘la mas nbhal,’ ‘the feast of the apple-gathering’ (All Hallow Eve), which being pronounced somewhat like ‘Lammas-ool,’ was corrupted into ‘lamb’s wool.’ It was usual for each person who partook of the spicy beverage to take out an apple and eat it, wishing good luck to the company.