Cider's sweet, hard history


October 08, 2003|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Before she became a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Annie Proulx co-authored a book that's especially useful this time of year.

Cider: Making, Using and Enjoying Sweet and Hard Cider by Proulx and professional cider-maker Lew Nichols first appeared in 1980 and sold more than 57,000 copies in its first two editions.

The book's success reflected a renewed interest in making wine, beer and cider at home. It probably has also helped spur more interest by providing a handbook thorough enough to guide even a novice through the process of cider-making.

Reissued this past summer by Storey Books, the third edition retails in paperback for $14.95 and includes updates on the laws governing cider production as well as an evaluation of a number of hard ciders available commercially. If you're a cider fan - hard or sweet - or just like to experiment with beverage-making, this is a guide you'll want to have.

It's common in this country to distinguish between hard, or alcoholic, cider and sweet cider, as in this book's title. Traditionally, however, all cider was alcoholic; everything else was simply a version of apple juice.

And although it virtually fell off the American beverage menu once Prohibition set in, cider has a long and distinguished history in this country. It was, after all, a common drink for farming families in England and other Northern European countries where most of the early American colonists came from.

One of the first things many Colonial farmers did was to plant apple trees so they could ferment their own cider. John Adams, the country's second president, drank it every morning before breakfast.

Later on, cider even played a starring role in a presidential campaign - a story that has a local angle. According to Andrew Barr in his book Drink: A Social History of America (Carroll and Graf Publishers Inc., 1999), a Democratic journalist in Baltimore opined that if William Henry Harrison, the Whig candidate, were offered a pension of $2,000 and a barrel of hard cider, he would choose to retire to a log cabin with the cider rather than be president.

But the attempt to smear Harrison as a rough-hewn backwoodsman who preferred the drink of farmers and frontiersmen to the more sophisticated dinner drink of wine backfired badly. The Whigs seized on the image and portrayed him as a man of the people. It worked, and Harrison won a landslide victory over the Democrat, Martin Van Buren.

For much of the country's early history, cider-making was a craft handed down through the generations. Now, of course, cider makers need a little tutoring.

The Proulx-Nichols book is a good place to start, offering sections on the nuts and bolts of cider-making; instructions on various kinds of ciders, from still cider to the sparkling stuff; a rundown of apple varieties and their suitability for cider; a section on making vinegar and brandy or using cider in cooking; advice for serious aficionados who want to plant their own orchards; and even help for those who want to make their own apple presses.

It's good to see a resurgence of interest in this traditional drink. Nothing makes a better toast to the fall harvest than a good sip of all-American cider.

New England Butter-Rum Cider

Makes two 8-ounce servings

3 to 4 teaspoons raw or brown sugar, or honey

2 wide strips lemon, orange or lime peel

4 ounces dark or medium-dark rum, warmed

2 teaspoons butter

4 whole cloves

pinch allspice

1 pint strong, dry cider

1 stick cinnamon, halved

Into each cup or mug put 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons sugar, a strip of orange peel and an ounce of rum. Be sure the peel is wet with alcohol, then fire it with a match to release the citric oils.

After the flame dies out, recharge each cup with a second ounce of rum, a teaspoon of butter, the cloves and allspice. Heat the cider until piping hot, pour into the mugs and stir with the cinnamon sticks.

- "Cider: Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet and Hard Cider" by Annie Proulx and Lew Nichols (Storey Books, third edition, 2003, $14.95)

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