Cider Week at the Finger Lakes Cider House

Some snaps from an afternoon at the Finger Lakes Cider House during Cider Week Finger Lakes back in October.  Some pressing demonstrations, games, gorgeous weather, and lazing in the lingering autumn sun.

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Two Apple Festivals, One Weekend

Cider Week Finger Lakes was a smash!  And our cup runneth over with events.  To start off this Cider Week, I went to two different apple festivals, one connected to Cider Week, and the other not.

On Friday afternoon on the first weekend of October, I left work early and headed for the Ithaca Apple Festival.  In its 33rd year, the Ithaca Apple Festival had been, until recently I am told, bereft of much connection to apples. But with the advent of Cider Week Finger Lakes, the cider makers are now a big presence at the Apple Festival, which acts as a kick-off for the region’s Cider Week.

Walking down State Street, I could see all the trappings of a street fair calling – some small scale carnival rides, the twirling teacups, a carousel, two gourmet mac and cheese food trucks, a Columbian street food vendor.  A  skinny bearded young guy pulled a cart collecting compost.  A tired carney checked his cell phone. College kids took selfies with their steaming cups of cider, and an old man in overalls stood behind an unglamorous but bountiful stall of vegetables. Two ladies sat beside a community quilt, selling tickets to raffle it off.  A corridor of handmade jewellery and brooms and aprons funneled the crowd crossways.

A steady stream of young professionals and grad students rotated in and out of the Cellar d’Or Wine and Cider Shop, queuing up to taste and take with cider makers from Black Diamond Farm, Redbyrd Cider, South Hill Cider, and Eve’s Cidery, who stood with steady arms and long patience beside their barrels and bottles.

Outside, on the commons, the ciders and the wineries, the soup seller, and the orchards and apple vendors, all made the most of the festival theme.  Fresh apples, apple soup, hot cider, hard cider, sweet cider, dry cider, turnovers from Indian Creek Orchard, and doughnuts from Little tree orchard – and a line 20 feet long to get them.  The horticulture students hawked the fruits of Cornell’s research orchards.

The next day, I headed out to the Newark Valley Historical Society Apple Festival, an event in its 36th year, with no connection to Cider Week Finger Lakes. The weather had turned grey and misty and cold, but I got in my car and drove east on 79 out of Ithaca, turning south down 38, into hills and valleys.  Route 38 is an old turnpike, and you can see the age of the road by its early farmhouses. As I approached the Newark Valley Historical Society Apple Festival, a sign warned cars to slow down, and pumpkins lined the road where policemen directed traffic into the adjacent field.

The small living history museum was filled for the day with demonstrators and vendors of historical, traditional, and rural arts.  An enormous iron kettle filled with salt potatoes was boiling in the midst of the tents, and under two tall old trees, a mobile cider mill was hissing, spitting, grinding, and pressing.

Asking about the mill, I fell into conversation with the husband and wife operating it, who then introduced me to its builder, C.O. Smith, aged 92. Mr. Smith shook my hand and told me that the engine on the mill was over 105 years old, and that he had built the machine to replicate one that his grandfather had used on their farm south of Rochester.  It was built for the festival, which he and others had started as a way to raise funds for the Historical Society.

I wandered through the festival and spoke to woodcarvers from the Catatonk Valley Woodcarver’s group, to a luthier who builds dulcimers in traditional and avant garde designs, and to a beekeeper whose honeys were made of nectars as varied as the apple blossoms of spring to the invasive Japanese knotweed that chokes the landscape and blooms profusely in late summer.

These two apple festivals, happening simultaneously and within 40 miles of each other, and yet in some ways worlds apart, show different sides of the region’s apple culture, speaking to different audiences, in different communities.  The Ithaca festival is more obviously commercial, and the Newark Valley festival skews more historical and educational.  While preserving the uniqueness of each festival and the communities they serve, it would be interesting to see what could happen if the commercial and the educational missions of each festival could enliven and enrich each other.

How much more rooted can commerce be if it can draw on a region’s historical identity? How much more present and emergent can history be if it is a living resource for the new commercial enterprises that Cider Week Finger Lakes seeks to promote? There are more apple festivals to visit, and an exciting possible future for the relationship of Cider Week Finger Lakes to long-running community celebrations.

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Cheese Meditation Minute

11329750_10105723696852489_1755273131859855966_nI was drinking a cider and admiring a cheese.   And then I had some cheese thoughts that my friends seemed to enjoy.  Following this, I decided that the cider blog should definitely have a Cheese Meditation Minute every so often.  Because really, what is  cider without a good cheese?  The men of Compost Heap know this well.

As I was waiting for a train in Grand Central Station, I wandered into the Grand Central Market, where the Murray’s Cheese booth beckoned to me with its tempting artful piles of sculpted dairy.  My train ticket was to Beacon, a little town on the Hudson, and thus the name on a small round of cheese caught my eye: The Hudson Flower, a sheep’s milk cheese made by the Old Chatham Sheepherding Co.  Its rind was covered in hop flowers and rosemary, and I decided it would be coming home with me.  It seemed appropriate to pair a flower-covered cheese with my spring blossom pilgrimage.  Also, it was my birthday.  Some people have night cheese.  I have birthday cheese.

A train ride, a long drive, and a few days later, I finally unwrapped this beauty in the company of a bottle of Good Life Cazenovia Hard Cider and a pot of New York wildflower honey.  A perfect trifecta of New York made delicacies.

But the tastes of this cheese initiated a cascade of cheese memories.  Did you think cheese could have this effect on a person?  Now I am thinking of other herb encrusted, flower pressed cheeses that have crossed my path. One is the Hereford Hop, made by Charles Martell, who has preserved and reintroduced many heritage agriculture products of his Gloucestershire region on the west side of the Severn River, including heritage breeds of cattle, cheese, apples, and pears.  The Hereford Hop became one of my favorite cheeses when I lived in Herefordshire.  Hops were a traditional crop for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries in Herefordshire.  Toasted and pressed into the rind, they added a strangely robust nutty floral taste to the hearty cheddar-like cheese.  I purchased it for my farewell party when I left the UK – I think I wanted the memories of farewell to mingle with the taste of Hereford Hop, washed down with bottle-conditioned Dabinette from Mike’s cellar.  I still think about it in moments of gastronomic anglophile reverie.

The other cheese that rose to my mind was the Juliana by Capriole, a goat’s milk cheese made with rosemary and herbs in the rind.  This is very similar to the Hudson Flower itself, but the Capriole was a little more sharp, with a goaty kick.  The Capriole is made in Southern Indiana, and I used to buy it at the Bloomington Farmer’s Market as a special treat.  Once, I visited the farm and creamery down in the rolling countryside north of the Ohio River.  I was always proud to know the Hoosier state I called home could produce such a cheese. Three cheeses, covered in herbs and flowers, made near three beautiful rivers, in three places close to my heart.  Now that feels worthy of a satisfied sigh of creamery nostalgia for a breezy May day. This has been your Cheese Meditation Minute with Maria.  Good Evening, and Bon Fromage!

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Blossom Time in New York

IMG_0835The blossoms have come and are now almost gone here in upstate New York.  Since I last posted, nigh eons ago, I’ve relocated from Indiana to the Finger Lakes region of New York to start a new job.  It’s been a big change, but an exciting one, with so much more cider now close at hand!

I said a dewy-eyed farewell to Oliver Winery and the Creekbend Vineyard in Indiana, where I had the privilege to work alongside some fantastic people, learn a IMG_0103little bit about viticulture, and become familiar with the dips and crests of the rolling landscape of the vineyard, and the personalities of each field.  There were wet spots filled with mosquitos, the acres of Chambourcin and Chardonel vines devastated by the polar vortex, the finicky short rows of pampered vinifera, the acres and acres of hardy Catawba, and the bowl of land left over to wildflowers that drained into a stream leading into the woods.

Here in New York, I have much to learn about the local climate and its effect on apple and grape cultivation.  The cider industry is young and exciting, with the Finger Lakes Cider House opening just last week.  It seems like I learn about a new cidery every time I turn my head.

I look forward to turning this blog in the direction of more sustained writing about fruit, fermentation, and landscape in my new home.  And I’m not alone!  I’ve been delighted to be warmly welcomed by Meredith, author of the blog Along Came A Cider.  And I have recently discovered the the Finger Lakes Apple Tree Project by Steve Selin, maker of South Hill Cider.  Cider people are so friendly and welcoming! I’m also really excited about Cider Week Finger Lakes, and I hope to nurture some partnerships in the cider, arts, and heritage communities through my work.  There are so many people to meet, ciders to drink, and projects to plan.  I am totally the wide eyed new girl on the block, gazing in awe at all the bounty of cider projects around me.

Though New York City is still a good 5 hour drive from these westerly regions of the Great State of New York, I recently managed a trip down thataway and made the pilgrimage to Wassail, the new swanky cider bar in the Lower East Side. That deserves a post all its own, so I’ll return to it later.

But along the way, I ran ( maybe ambled is better) the Hard Cider Run at Warwick Valley Winery, home of Docs Draft Cider, and went for a drive up and down the Hudson Valley, where the orchards were blossoming their hearts out.  It’s that ephemeral moment of spring, that you only get to see briefly before the petals fall and the fruit starts to swell in the long balmy stretch of summer ahead.  Cideries take note – HUNDREDS of people signed up to run this 5k through the blossom, many of whom may have never thought about cider much before and were clearly just out for a nice day in the country.  It was a little chaotic, but everyone seemed to have a great time.


The Blossom Time is the also the time for tree hunters, and I’ve been keeping my eye out as I travel around the highways and byways of my new home territory.  I spotted these two ancient orchards during the winter by roadsides in Schuyler County, near the village of Burdette, and Chemung County, near the town of Horseheads.  I happened to be driving by them again this weekend, and stopped to see if they had any blossom.  They did!  But barely.  It is easy to see fruit trees young and old blooming near houses, cared for by homeowners.  But sprawling old orchards like these are a rare find, as far as I can see, in this part of New York.  I still don’t know who owns them, or why they have survived, or what fruit lies in wait there.

There are plenty of old barns slowly rotting away in the countryside here too, as these photos below attest.  And plenty of old farmhouses, that look back towards a different farm economy, one that supported relative wealth and vibrant communities in places that are now the back of beyond.  Who lived in these enormous old vacant houses?  And why do they lie abandoned now?  Who planted these old orchards, and what kind of farms are they remnants of?

The new cider industry here is clearly booming.  I can’t wait to learn more about the landscapes that supported apples of old, and the new orchards, like these ones at the Good Life Farm, home of the Finger Lakes Cider House, that are rising slowly from the earth to meet a new market, and reshape the land with it.

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During my research in England, I wrote some observations (reposted below) about my encounters with mistletoe, and I recently got to revisit them in a conversation with Annie Corrigan on WFIU Radio’s Earth Eats Program.  If you are interested in further information on mistletoe, please visit pages by Jonathan Briggs, whose work has brought the botany, conservation, and social history of mistletoe out of the orchard and into the 21rst century: Mistletoe Matters and Jonathan’s Mistletoe Diary.

IMG_2680December 8, 2011.  It is a windy, rainy day outside, and at 3:30pm, I definitely need the lights on inside.  I am perched on my little snug chair next to the woodstove. The darkness of winter here has definitely been one of the hardest things for me to deal with, and if left to natural devices, I would probably take a cue from the other furry mammals about and go into hibernation for the next few months.  The days are definitely shorter here than back at home, but I think part of it is the fact that my fieldwork takes me outside a lot.  Instead of being compelled to get to work in a lighted building for eight hours, I find the waxing and waning of the sun’s light has a much greater influence on my experience of the working day.

During this dark period, another product of the orchard has preoccupied me for the past several weeks, and that is mistletoe.  I only learned that mistletoe favored growing on apple trees, and particularly in the south-west midlands of Britain, in October, when my wwoof host at the Hatch pointed it out to me as we were harvesting apples and pears from the orchard.  He mentioned that he used to sell the mistletoe, but the comment escaped my notice until someone mentioned the Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Auction to me some time later.

The town of Tenbury Wells is located just on the borders of three counties – Herefordshire, Shropshire, and Worcestershire.  And allegedly, these mistletoe auctions have been going on for the past 150 years, though they were threatened with closure recently when the cattle market, where they were held, closed.  In an effort to help save the auctions and retain one of the town’s claims to fame, some folks cooked up the Mistletoe Festival, complete with a mistletoe queen, a Druid procession, and various other Christmas activities.  You can read more about it on their website here.

While the festival itself is, of course, interesting as a consciously invented tradition, I was actually more interested in the relationship of the mistletoe sales to the issues of orchard management.  It turns out that mistletoe thrives in old and traditionally managed orchards. I sent off some inquiring emails to the estate agents who run the auction, and received a reply from a local farmer who was happy to talk to me.

Armed with my photographic equipment, I set off to the first auction, which happened on Nov 29th.  Turns out I wasn’t the only one with a camera.  There were LOADS of camera-toting people there, from amateur on-lookers to highly professional rigs.  One guy, who turned out to be a floral photographer, even had his assistant/model, all dolled up in ‘authentic’ looking pristine wellies and beautifully matching fuzzy lavender hat and gloves, posing as if she was inspecting and buying the mistletoe.  The place was just dripping in nostalgia, or at least that is what all the photographers seemed to be framing in their cameras.

The actual business of the auction, though, seemed to go on without much notice of the photographers and onlookers.  And it was really business.  The auctioneer, with hs portable loudspeaker and cadre of assistants keeping track of the lot numbers, bidders, and prices, moved up and down the rows of wreaths, holly, and mistletoe, offering a starting price, sometimes with a comment to the quality (“look at the berries on that”) and taking the bids from the small crowd of what seemed to be seasoned veteran buyers. People in the middle of conducting business transactions aren’t terribly interested in being interviewed, so this situation required a lot more courage, so to speak, on my part, going up to people and asking if they would answer a few questions in between hauling their green purchases to their vans, lorries, and cars.

The guys pictured here had driven all the way from Cork, Ireland and slept in their van and were filling it to the brim for the trip home, where they would sell it through their Christmas tree yard.  They were very friendly. Many of the buyers were from florists and garden centers, along with some other small scale Christmas tree vendors.  My best tactic for talking to people seemed to be to stand near the bidding action, and turn to the person next to me to ask if they were selling or buying, and launch into an uninvited conversation.  The next week, when I returned for the next auction, I came armed with a printed survey in self-addressed, stamped, envelopes, which I could simply give to people to complete and mail back to me at their leisure.  Even so, it was hard to get it into a lot of hands.  I didn’t meet any sellers, but on my second visit, I walked up and down the rows of mistletoe and holly writing down the names and addresses of the sellers written on the tags of each lot.  Not all had addresses, but it might be a start for contacting sellers and talking to them later.

One group of people whom I have not had the courage to talk to yet are the gypsies.  Along with the farmers who bring mistletoe from their orchards to sell, there are groups of gypsies who gather it from farmers’ orchards and sell it on at the auction.  I did walk up to two men who seemed to be lingering by the side of the auction yard among groups of people whom I took to be gypsies.  As I tried to start a conversation with them, their first question was if I was a journalist, after which, one of them ranted for a bit about how it wasn’t all christmas cheer and roses harvesting the mistletoe.  It was hard work, at which point, he pulled up his sweater to show me an enormous scar running across his side and up to his ribcage.  I attempted to banter for a bit, and they seemed to warm up to me, but I decided not to push questions.  Maybe later.

I did go visit one farm, Eastham Court Farm near Tenbury Wells. I was greeted, to my surprise, by a 22-year old guy, recently graduated from an engineering degree, who had moved home to his parents’ farm.  And while he was sorting out what to do next, he had taken their mistletoe business in hand and set up an online direct-sales business, bypassing the auction.  You can find his website here.  He emphasized the need for farmers to change and adapt to new ways of doing business.  He took me out into their orchards: organic, 60-year old orchards which he seemed to think were in definite decline.  Even though they were lovely places to be, with their widely spaced, large, old trees, he didn’t think orchards like this would last much longer, as newer orchards with more closely-spaced, smaller trees were replanted. And there was the mistletoe, hanging in lacy green orbs from the branches of the trees, sometimes almost overwhelming them.  The farmers have to cut it back every year, or it will sap the energy of the tree and decrease the apple harvest, if not kill it slowly outright.  Piles of mistletoe lay on the ground, much of it to be discarded, as there was just too much even to sell.

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Hollenbeck’s Cider Mill – A Thanksgiving Miracle

IMG_3671On the day before Thanksgiving, I was driving from Corning, New York to Massena, New York, in order to spend the holiday with my grandmother.  Somewhere between Ithaca and Cortland, I made a wrong turn, and I ended up driving through the tiny village of Virgil, no more than a crossroads, where there was an unusual massing of motorists, all turning in at one spot.  Naturally, my folklore sense sprung into action, and in a split second, I was turning into this full parking lot to find out what could possibly be motivating everyone else to drive through a harrowing snowstorm to a barn in the middle of nowhere.  It turns out, I was at Hollenbeck’s Cider Mill.  I end up at Cider Mills even when I’m not looking for them!  I swear, it’s a gift, or a Thanksgiving Miracle!  When I walked inside, there was a line of people snaking around the rather large interior, past large crates of apples, past displays of maple syrup and cheddar cheese, past the register where several cheerful ladies were writing up orders, and beyond to a room full of cardboard boxes.  There were probably upwards of 100 people waiting courteously in line.  Are they picking up specially ordered Thanksgiving Turkeys, I wondered?  No – they were all waiting in line for apple pie.

I asked one gentleman what it was all about.  He’d been waiting in line 15-20 minutes and still had some way to go.  He said it was all about the pies.  The best pies around – the best pies in the State of New York, even.  It was an annual tradition.  Last year, he said, the line had also gone out the door and into the parking lot.  I’m guessing the snow probably kept some folks away this year.

Make no mistake folks, I will be returning to Hollenbeck’s Cider Mill to sample the pie, as well as the cider.  Dedication like this must mean something.  I didn’t have time to wait in line – I had several more hours of driving over the river and through the woods to Grandma’s house through the snow.  Happy Thanksgiving, and God Bless these pie makers and the cider pressers.

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Lambic, the Cider of Beers

IMG_2863Today, I want to talk about Belgian beer. I’ve been doing some travelling in Europe to attend a conference. Brussels happened to be the cheapest airport to fly into, which to me, was the universe telling me to go explore the history of my favorite beers. It might not be cider, but it is close, and I’ll explain why as we go.

I first learned to drink beer in Montreal, when I went to college. Not a bad place for beer – Quebec makes some great ones and is unapologetic about its drinking habits. The legal drinking age is still 18, and one of the dorms at the university is even named ‘Molson.’ I remember regularly quaffing Griffon and Boreal in smoky bars while discussing modernist Canadian poetry. So, beer was good, but still not something I found particularly exciting.

I really learned to love beer from a former boyfriend who was a bartender.   We didn’t work out in the end. But, I did learn a lot about beer from IMG_2818him, and on his advice I tried for the first time things like Tripel Karmeliet, Veuuve, Trappists Rochefort, and kriek. I really loved the various tastes of Belgian beers – the light, floral, slightly spicy aromas and sour tastes. Trappists Rochefort had such a rich, smooth, malty sweetness.  This was the kind of beer you could think about and talk about, the kind that turns you into a beer nerd – a delight for the senses rather than just something to thoughtlessly drain from your glass at a party.

I’d learned to love the tastes of Belgian beer over the years, but I didn’t know very much about it, so it was the perfect opportunity while in Brussels to take the Brussels Beer Tour. You could probably accomplish all the things on the tour on your own by tracking down all the locations and doing some background reading. But I only had 1 full day in Brussels, so the tour was a great way to get it all in at once, with a great guide. At 45 euros, it was a little pricey, but considering you get to taste 5 beers (probably a total volume of 3 pints) and a guided 3-4 hour tour with a very entertaining and witty guide, it was well worth it.  We began the tour with a discussion of trappist beer in the oldest pub in Brussels, Au Bon Vieux Temps, serving beer since 1695.

For those who love traditional cider, I’d say learning about Belgian beer is a wonderful complement of knowledge, especially regarding the production methods, traditions, and tastes of open-fermented lambic.  Lambic, I learned, is not just fruity beer. It is traditionally an open-fermented beer, meaning it is made without the use of commercial yeast. Traditional cider is made in a similar way, allowing the yeasts present in the air and the environment to inoculate the juice and begin the fermentation. Lambic is made in the winter, taking advantage of cold temperatures to quickly cool the wort after boiling it, to discourage bacterial growth end encourage ideal yeast inoculation from the air.

Of course, before Pasteur isolated yeast in the mid 19th century, all fermented beverages were made this way. So, as our tour guide reminded us while tasting the sour lambic, this is probably what all beer tasted like before the use of commercial yeast strains. The similarity of taste between lambic and farmhouse cider was quite striking – and the tour guide actually explicitly remarked on traditional cider as a taste comparison. Many of the folks on the tour found the sour lambic to be a challenging taste. Of course, I loved it! The sour fruity taste of traditional lambic is characteristic of the open fermentation process, and has nothing to do with added fruit, though fruit flavoured lambics, such as the famous kriek, also made.


Pouring Lambic in the tasting room at Cantillon

We also had the opportunity to taste Kriek, made by inducing a second fermentation of lambic in the presence of sour cherries, as well as Gueuze, a blend of 1, 2 and 3 year old lambics. The younger lambic, not entirely fermented, induces a second fermentation in the bottle, creating a slight sparkle to the beer. This is where I experienced the true champagne of beer.

IMG_2881All of this, and much more, we learned during our tour of Canitillon, a traditional brewery within the city of Brussels. I met a very enthusiastic guy from Los Angeles who seemed to be a long-time follower of the brewery, who told me that the current owner’s father saved the brewery when all the rest in Brussels went under by selling door to door. Indeed, as we toured through the facility, our guide pointed out all the production machinery had been bought second-hand in the 1930s, some of it dating from the late 19th and early 20th century. The copper boiling vats and the enormous shallow copper pan where the wort is cooled quickly and exposed to the air for yeast inoculation were particularly impressive.

I don’t want to explain too much about lambic production, as it is all still mostly new to me. But there is something about open-fermentation that remains mysterious, magical, and unique among craft beers and ciders. This, to me, is the real taste of place – where the resident natural yeasts play just as big a part in terroir as soil type, fruit varieties, or traditional recipes.

What impresses me about quality open fermented drinks is the cooperation between the brewer / cider maker with his environment. Even though it happens spontaneously, the producer has to create the ideal conditions, so that the natural yeasts grow and undesirable organisms don’t take over.

All in all, the magic of open fermentation is something I hope more brewers experiment with.  And Belgium?  It was fantastic.  I’d live in Brussels any day.

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