I’ve been reading Lost World: England 1933-1936, a collection of essays by Dorothy Hartley, originally written for the Daily Sketch Newspaper. Dorothy was an eccentric, a wanderer, and a writer, whose prose style was that of a novelist or perhaps a literary naturalist, but (thankfully) not the dry analysis of an anthropologist. Lucy Worsley, in her foreword to the book, described Dorothy as, “a slightly crazy but utterly admirable figure, who broke free of a solidly middle-class background to become a roving reporter for rural England. To research her books and articles, she travelled the country, interviewing country folk who still just about did things ‘the old way’ before mass production and industrialization and mechanization changed farming beyond recognition.”
I read Dorothy’s writing and meet the kind of writer and explorer I would like to be. But Dorothy slept rough under hedges and was not afraid to wander alone in the remoter corners of rural England. I’m not quite so intrepid. The scenes, people, and lifestyles she captured represented the last gasp of rural life before the industrialization of farming. Her observations highlight the receding quality of this world. Reading them, one begins to see the deep attachment to rural nostalgia underpinning English culture as the twentieth century marches forward. But in Dorothy’s writing, that nostalgia is not saccharine or rose-colored. It is full of the raw material of old crafts and ways of life.
Dorothy’s writing is filled with the lexicon of another era. In the passage I share below, she refers to “beetles” and “hogsheads” as she talks of the implements of cider making. The recipe for verjuice that she provides calls for, “handfuls of damask rose leaves,” an ingredient I’ve never encountered before. Reading her prose, you experience cider not only as a constellation of tastes and smells, but a world of words, of knowledge, of the material experience of a way of life now past. The passage below is not one of her more poetic ones, but it is full of information. The source of her quoted recipe is unclear, but nevertheless, it is replete with detail:
From “Let us consider our drinks” in Lost World by Dorothy Hartley
Curiously, the Hereford cider and ‘Along-the-border’ cider are made after the old recipes for making verjuice. Verjuice was the sharp crab-apple juice, used in medieval cookery as frequently as the lemon is to-day. It probably had considerable effect in mitigating the massive meat diet and salted-pork-and-beans of those days. Here is the recipe for verjuice, because it is interesting in connection with the cider recipes:-
Gather your crabs as soon as the kernels turne blacke, and having laid them awhile in a heap to sweat together take and pick from the stalkes, then in long troughs with beetles for the purpose, crush and break them all to mash, then take a bagge of coarse hairecloth, as square as the press, and fill it with the crushed crabs, and press it while any moisture will drop forth. Turn it into sweet hogsheads and to every hogshead put half a dozen handfuls of damask rose leaves, and tun it up and spend it as you should have occasion.
Now in parts of the West the best cider makers look out for crabs, and crab trees figure among the hundred odd sorts of apple trees that various makers of cider import, and plant, and transplant, and acclimatize to improve their brews. Hundreds of letters and MS [manuscripts] are about cider apple trees.
Down South they made the cider through straw and the variety of the brews show the antiquity of the procedure. Cornish miners used to put hot sheep’s blood into it! Devon folks cream or milk! Kent writers mention the gum of cherry trees. Perry was never so popular, probably because the juicy eating pear, the Wardon, was prized for serving with cream and reverence, and the other pears were woody. Some recipes make a stew of them in cider.
Cider belongs to the apple-blossom South as surely as whisky belongs to the heather-land North.