The Forest of Dean in west England holds many tasty discoveries; artisan cheeses, rolling green hillsides of plump lamb & mutton, farm after farm of fruit orchards, and most note worthy cider making.
Cider is very basic – fermented apple juice. Simple as cider may be to make, it has an interesting and ancient history of evolution to the bottled deliciousness we consume today.
The apple is where it all starts and the apple has been around the rolling hills of England for at least 10,000 years (the last ice age). No one knows what apples the ancient Britons were munching on but today There are currently over 7500 varieties of apples known with the best cider being made of apples having a higher tannin content and lower acidity, unlike cooking and eating apples. Indigenous to early England, it was only a matter of time – and genius accidental discovery, that ancient Britons realized the tastey and relaxing benefit to all that leftover apple juice fermenting away. From tid bits of history, it was likely the Phoenicians who first brought a fermented alcoholic cider-like beverage to the shores of England when they landed around 1100BC and brought with them a strong drink called “shear”. The Romans (40AD-400AD) brought the cultivation of orchards and then not until the Normans (1066AD) were orchard planting and cider making prevalent across England. By the 14th century cider was
found everywhere, consumed by the common man most regularly and carrying a lessor tax than beer or wine. Most every small farm had a cider mill & press on hand or knew of one to borrow, as making cider in small batches for the family was just as practical as making cider for trade. From the 1700s on, books were frequently published on cultivation methods and cider manufacturing, and by the 18th century cider was regularly utilized as a form of payment for farm labour (not the most productive form of currency i’m guessing) that is up until 1887 when it was outlawed to pay or trade in cider.
Mike and Clare Tilling live on May Hill in the Forest of Dean, where his family has raised sheep, grew apples and made cider for hundreds of years. Along the family lane still stands the old stone cider house, and in it quietly sits a relic of times past when the Boughton family (Mike’s mother’s lineage) came together September through December to make up the cider.
One snowy day last week, we all walked over to take a peek inside. Jeffery, Mike’s uncle met us with a shoveled path and an old skeleton key in hand. It was like stepping back in time. The giant stone mill and wooden harness was sitting there just like it was left. There were wooden crates emblazoned with the family name, vintage plastic Bulmers Cider barrels recycled for homemade batches, and even a few old glass bottles from the Brains Cider Mill out of Cardiff still full of the Boughton Family cider all strewn about. If only these walls could talk…
A pony would have been hooked up to the wooden harness attached to the milling stone and would circle the stone basin, pulling the giant stone as
the apples were ground to a pomace, then shoveled over into horse hair and straw lined shelves in a giant press in the old days, over the last hundred years or so they’ve used a woven sack cloth textile. Then the pomace would have been pressed out two times. The juice gathering in the bottom trough, then filling barrels that were topped off and sealed, naturally fermenting for 30 days to 6 months. Occasionally being checked and topped off as to not allow any air into the barrel which would cause the bad kind of bacteria to grow. The left over apple pomace was used as feed for the pigs. Mike’s family and Clare’s family The James’, as well as most farm families in the region have also supplied apples and perry pears to commercial Cider Mills such as Weston’s and Bulmers for over a hundred years.
The story of commercial cider in itself is an interesting story too long to be told today! But I have included some pictures from our visit to Westons Cider Mill in Much Marcle, England, down below.
Here today in England, especially the western areas of Herefordshire & Gloucestershire, cider was and still is the drink of choice. I enjoyed it over ice in Ireland, in the UK we drink it at room temp., and the flavor choices are limitless now. Commercial cider makers such as Westons and Bulmers have ruled the market for over 100 years, and with a renewed interest over the past few especially in the U.S., the market has blossomed and 100’s of cider choices can now be enjoyed around the globe – but I suspect I’ll never enjoy a swig of cider as much as I did that cold snowy day in an ancient stone mill building, from a long forgotten old dusty bottle full of family tradition.