Tuesday, 26 October 2010
Inside the Cider House
In the past the way cider was drunk reflected the way it was made. Fashionable London folk of the 1660s may have drunk their Redstreak like wine, from elegant, engraved glasses, but villagers across the West Country gathered around the barrel to share the cider they had helped to make.
The barn or shed in which the cider was stored and shared was known as the cider house, a casual, non-commercial institution that was an integral part of village life – and unknown to anyone outside the village. As industrial cidermaking took off in the last decades of Victoria’s reign, draught and bottled cider was sold alongside beer in pubs around the country, and gradually the village pub replaced the cider house, even in Somerset.
For a glimpse of the old country cider house, the top destination has to be Rog Wilkins’ Lounge Bar, which is a bare, draughty room adjoining the main cider barn at his farm overlooking the Somerset Levels. The place is a bit fancier these days than it used to be, with a mural of Rog decorated one wall, but the window still has no glass in it and the chairs are a mismatched assortment of office and kitchen rejects. If this is a bit disconcerting to the uninitiated, the strangest thing is the manner in which business is conducted.
When you walk in. Rog or one of his staff asks if you want Dry, Sweet or Medium, and pours you a half pint from one of three hogsheads that stand side by side in a corner of the barn.
If it’s pressing time, the man himself will probably stop building a cheese, come over to pour you a drink, then go back to work, leaving you to enjoy your cider. You might be wondering how much it is, how you pay for it, how strong it is, and what happens next. By drinking your half are you signing up to some wholesale deal? This is a different world from the uniform, regulated world of the pub. Outside, across the road, you can see the trees on which the apples grew to make this cider. The barn is filled with the smell of apple juice and the racket of the mill. And the cider is being made right there, in front of you; you can see the physical effort that goes into the making.
November is the month to visit Wilkins, when the pressing is in full swing. In the summer the experience is more of a tourist trip, with hen parties out from Bristol and families doing the Somerset tour. Go when the old boys are sat round, gossiping about village life, on a nasty afternoon in autumn or winter.
MAKE YOUR OWN CIDER HOUSE
Cider has rarely been as commercially important as beer or wine, but that’s mostly because it’s a drink people tend to make themselves for their own pleasure. Who knows how many groups of friends and neighbours are gathered right now in sheds and garages around the country, enjoying a cup of their own cider?
Anyone can make cider, and anyone can create a cider house – it’s just the place where your cider lives. But if you really want to get into the spirit of the thing and design something a bit more stylish (imagine one of those home improvement programmes where they have to turn a 30s semi into a mock-tudor mansion while the owner’s out buying some fags) here are some tips:
Start with a shed, garage or other form of shelter, where you store the cider while it ferments and matures
Display your cider with pride – up on a shelf, not hidden on the floor behind an old bike
Get in some chairs, not a patio set but a motley collection of discarded office chairs and hospital rejects
Arrange dusty old bottles, ancient garden tools, pilfered pub ashtrays, old brooms, beer crates, out-of-date trade calendars, dead bikes and suchlike to create atmosphere
Provide a good pile of old newspapers and magazines, the more dog-eared and mildewed the better (Wilkins has this down to a T)
Fill your quart mug, switch off your phone, settle down and enjoy…
This is an extract from The Naked Guide to Cider.