Dorothy Hartley: Verjuice

41zXLaljcLL._SX338_BO1,204,203,200_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.



West County Cider Tasting with Peter Hoover

Host Peter Hoover

The Finger Lakes Cider House is usually full of customers tasting during the weekend. But on a dark Tuesday night in November, a group of local cider makers gathered there around a long table to taste a collection of ciders from  West County Ciders in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.  Hosted by home cider maker Peter Hoover,  the tasting consisted of 15 ciders from West County, many purchased by Peter at a recent sell-off of their older vintages. The tasting was a unique opportunity to taste some older vintages and ponder how the different varieties held up over time. It was also a wonderful experience to taste so many ciders by a single producer and to notice similar taste notes throughout.

But in addition to thinking about the ciders themselves, I’ve also been thinking on how and why sensory learning happens, and how differently the sense of taste is experienced by different individuals.

There are a variety of wonderful blogs devoted to assessing the taste of ciders . These do a great service to the industry, but it has never been my intention in this blog to review ciders (see the links page for some suggestions on blogs that do this well and consistently). I’m interested, however, in the ways that a “review” of a cider is a distillation of a social experience: trying to communicate a most ephemeral personal sensation that may be widely differentiated in quality and character between individuals. We don’t all taste in the same way. How can we talk about it? It’s one reason that social tastings like these are crucial to the education of a cider maker. Discussion of taste is key.  It’s not just that one’s taste experience can be influenced by suggestion, or that one can become proficient, honing the sense with practice (though this is true).  More than that, other people may be more sensitive to something you are less able to experience. They may highlight tastes or smells you might disregard or pass over. Sometimes, to taste is to listen.

I’ll be the first to admit that I find tasting difficult not only to explain, but even to experience consciously. Learning to taste is a process that often seems to slip through whatever neurons fire between tongue and brain, difficult to pinpoint in the transfer, because it is less on the tongue than in the mind, and usually trapped inside another memory.  It is a very delicate and fragile construction of sensory associations, one that must be rebuilt to consider each new drink, isolating the sensations, repeating them often enough to recognize distinct notes.

However, I tend think more in constellations of associations, rather than isolations of sensation. Often, a taste takes me back to moment where I experienced that sense before. Recently a friend handed me a liqueur, and I said: it tastes like the library. I can pick out the individual notes (leather, lemon, liquorice) that define that smell, but the library is a more interesting descriptor for me, personally. I think of my favourite library, the Birks Religious Studies Library at McGill University, where the bearded librarian sewed bookbindings behind his desk, everyone left their shoes at the door to preserve the delicate parquet wood floor, and the desk lamps became little islands of soft light in the early dark of Montreal winter.

Sometimes, a taste does not register for me at all.  Saffron, exquisite and expensive as it is, does not induce any sensation for me. I am dependent on the descriptions of my friend to appreciate its wonders. It makes me appreciate how much I need to cultivate other people, and other experiences, to experience taste.

I’ve sat around many barns and cellars and conferences while people taste ciders and wines and beers and let taste descriptions roll of their tongues in equal measure to the beverages rolling in. The degree to which people can disagree on taste is perhaps one of the social blessings built into the enjoyment of craft beverages, for it allows people to talk longer, enjoy each other’s company more (one hopes).  It generally extends the occasion of drinking by at least a factor of three and allows all kinds of other nuggets of information to emerge: such as the fact that Tremletts Bitter in America is not the same as the variety in England.  Ian Merwin explained this to us as we sipped the West County Tremletts, that the resident tree at the Geneva station must have been misidentified at some early stage, the error only recognized years later by a visiting scientist from Bulmers.

Tasting is never just about tasting, really. And while a descriptive analysis of cider is always useful, especially for the gastronome, the ways in which it the experience of taste are tied to memory, physiology, sociability, and other kinds of knowledge, make it far more complex than a list of tasting notes could ever describe.

Winner by consensus: A Roxbury Russet Cider

At the tasting of West County ciders, there were certainly many points of departure in describing the tastes, though almost everyone settled in some agreement on the favourite of the night: A Roxbury Russet cider with a blend of 25% Golden Russet, 25% Esopus Spitzenburg, and 50% Roxbury Russet.   In addition, several people noted an overall caramel flavour that pervaded several of the ciders, with speculation that it could be either the result of pasteurization or oxidation. Though few of the sparkling ciders had maintained much fizz, there were several of the older bottles with a surprising freshness and brightness of taste.


The following is the List of Ciders we tasted, with cursory notes that reflect a mixture of my own and other people’s comments (though I didn’t record all comments). Dates and blends were not known for all ciders.

But most importantly, the company was excellent, there was much cheese, I learned quite a bit about these apples, and I listened with abandon to the tastes everyone else was experiencing.

The West County Ciders

  • 2003 Baldwin: Beeswax aroma, fruity, light, fresh, in very good shape for its age
  • 2008 Tremletts: Caramel, with some acid (perhaps acetic), very smooth textured.  The nose was more interesting than the taste.
  • 2010 Reine de Pomme: blended with Redfield and other varieties; tannin on the nose and in the texture; taste a bit flat
  • Reine de Pomme 50%, Redfield 10% Roxburry Russet 10%, Calville Blanc 30%: More tannins that the first Reine de Pomme.  Nice finish Carmel nose
  • Heritage: Blend of Dabinett, Baldwin, Geneva Yarlington Mill; cloudy, bottle conditions, Granny smith aroma, clean, tart, champagne
  • Ashmeads Kernal (pre 2010): Slight malolactic mouthfeel; bright flowery perfume, bit of brett, flavor slightly off no some
  • 2010 Pippin: Pippin Varieties (?) Carmel aroma
  • 2011 Bramleys Seedling: 70% Bramley, 30% Redfield; Carmel aroma, not as acidic as one would have imagined for a Bramley, soft, perhaps a malo-lactic fermentation
  • 2014 Redfield: Redfield 70%, Golden Delicious 25%; A group favorite, nice a dic, cherry aroma and flavor
  • Cidre Doux: Blend of Cox, Yarlington Mill, Ellis Bitter, Baldwin.  Soft, not high acid, bubblegum, thin but bitter (not a group favorite)
  • Belle de Bosko0p: with some Esopus Spitzenburg; Tart, green apple, slight carmel, balanced and bright
  • Cidre de Garde: in a french/spanish farmhouse style: very acidic, very funky, perhaps brett
  • Roxbury Russet 50%, Golden Russet 25%, Spitzenburh 25%: A group favorite, very floral nose, almost woody or oaky, very rich, round complex flavor
  • Dorothy’s Rosebushes: Reine de Pomme, Ashmeads Kernal, Geneva Tremletts: Fresh clear, aroma, rich, round taste, balanced acid notes
  • MacIntosh: blended with Golden Delicious: A pleasant surprise! Slightly buttery nose

 – Maria Kennedy, with thanks to Peter Hoover for the invitation and some editorial additions.

Cider on the Prairie

IMG_2624I decided to pay a visit to a place very close to my heart: Conner Prairie Living History Museum, where I worked for about five summers during college. I had not been back in many years, and I was excited to find, in addition to familiar memories of my first experiences in orchards, some pleasing new connections to cider and wine.

Just north of Indianapolis, this museum has several recreated historic areas depicting the development of European settlement in the state of Indiana during the nineteenth century: an 1816 Lenape Trading Post, an 1836 Prairietown village and a Civil War era farm.  I spent a lot of time here wearing excessive amounts of clothing  while doing period cooking over an open fire, and it was here that I first fell in love with historic agriculture and cookery.

Though there are many historic and reconstructed buildings in the museum, the only building original to the property is the 1820s farmhouse built by William Conner – fur trader, settler, farmer, and entrepreneur – which overlooks an agriculturally advantageous horse-shoe bend of the White River.

I’ve always loved houses of this period: the high ceilings and large windows let in so much light and air.  Even on a hot day, they are flung open, allowing the outdoor and indoor worlds to co-mingle.  The kitchens, based around a hearth and a worktable, have room to move in – theatres in the round of culinary action, based around moving bodies instead of appliances.  And there is nothing so alive as an open hearth, where cooking is a matter of well-honed instinct for the smell of baking (or burning) bread, and a sense of temperature according to the skin, rather than a thermometer.

One of the things I loved about working there was the effect it had on the senses.   There are many criticisms to be levelled at living history museums – that they tidy up the past into a theme-park fantasy, focus too much on white rural settler narratives at the expense of other American experiences, and create awkward scenarios for visitor interaction.  But I still believe in their fundamental purpose of introducing history as something that can be partially experienced through the body.  The trick is in moving the experience beyond simple fantasy to sympathy, where one’s bodily, sensory grasp of the material conditions of the past inspires a more personal interior understanding of another individual’s possible experience.  To walk in another person’s shoes, to cook at another person’s hearth.  To press apples the way it was done in 1836.  Sympathy is, I believe, a profoundly democratic aspiration, and a morally and socially complex approach to history.

Spending a good portion of the day working in an un-electrified environment with no running water slows down the pace of life immensely.   Sometimes, during a few slow hours, I would just watch shadows creep across the floor.  It profoundly changed my sense of light, colour, and visual perception.

IMG_2657Occasionaly on my lunch break, I walked through the old neglected orchard on the back end of the property, in an area that was at that time off-limits to visitors.  The apples, a golden yellow variety named “Early Transparent” which ripen in July, would fall to the ground and begin to rot, making the humid air thick with the perfume of pulp fermenting in the searing Indiana sun.  Since the museum’s expansions in recent years, it has been cleaned up, the old decrepit trees removed.  Currently, only a few remain, but even these produce enough for the possibility of cider-making.

I played a number of characters in the historic village, each with varying degrees of museum-sanctioned, historically accurate biography, and a lot of material improvised during the everyday interactions of museum staff, where the lines between history, theatre, and everyday life were sometimes ephemeral and shifting.   I often mused on the possible inner lives of the fictional characters I portrayed in short poems, including this one , about a young woman living on a new farm at the edge of the wilderness, dreaming of an orchard in the more settled, cultivated life she had left back east.  Settlers on the frontier are usually portrayed as looking confidently forward, into the wilderness in the American Myth. But so much of the transformation of that frontier was created by looking backwards.  The space on the zone of transformation, between forest and orchard, must have been fraught with  excitement, regret, and trepidation.

IMG_2586I was excited to find that one of my old co-workers, who had started as a teen volunteer when I worked there, was now a full time staff member who seems to be influencing things in favour or historic beer, wine, and cider making!  Witness this project in progress at the carpentry shop, a cider press apparently constructed after a historic design.  I’ve not seen one like this before, so I am keen to find out more about it.

She had success last year with elderberry wine.  The berries on the bush outside the barn look promising, and bottles labeled “Elderberry” sit temptingly on the shelves of the tavern room in the reconstructed Golden Eagle Inn in the 1836 village.

I hope to be able to report back about the progress of cider making at Conner Prairie later in the fall, especially regarding the historical research they are drawing on to portray cider making in nineteenth century Indiana.

Rare Variety Cider Tasting with John Teiser

Kate, John Teiser, Maria
Kate, John Teiser, Maria

Possibly one of the most interesting, lovely, and helpful people I have met during my cider travels has been the incomparable John Teiser, producer of Springherne Cider.  John introduced me to Broome Farm and has helped in many ways to set me on the path of cider and perry.  John is one of the true scholars of cider and perry, a man who goes searching through archival records of Bulmers farm plantings while also driving and walking through the countryside in search of old orchards and rare trees.

John is also, however, an amazing producer, not only for the quality of his ciders and perrys, but also because of his meticulous experimentation with rare fruit varieties.  John invited me and Kate Garthwaite, another former Broome Farm apprentice who now produces her own Left Field Cider in British Columbia, Canada, accompanied by Mike and Phil from Broome Farm, to come over to his cider house on the side of hill overlooking the Wye Valley to taste some rare variety ciders.

Most modern cider orchards produce vast quantities of a few varieties (Dabinette, Michelin) that have proven to be good annual producers (avoiding bi-annual variation of crops common to many apples), and which have disease resistance and good growth habits, as well as good cider qualities.  However, there are many rarer varieties, which for various reasons didn’t make it into our current system of production.  Often, these are found in old orchards, and even if no one can remember them anymore, they can be identified through a combination of comparison with documented variety characteristics and – if they exist – planting records from Bulmers contracts for orchards planted in their schemes.  It’s a bit of cider detective work.

John Teiser, however, has been using apples from a very interesting old orchard – one which was an early trial bush orchard in the 1930s for Bulmers.  Here, bush tree cultivation was trialled on many varieties which never made it out into the agricultural system and some of which only survive now, in England, in this particular orchard.  The ciders we sampled with John were made from some of these trees.

John Teiser in his Orchard
John Teiser in his Orchard

The ciders were, for the most part, all bittersweets, and many were French varieties.  Some of the highlights included the Collington Big Bitters, which Mike recalled as also being called the Mincemeat apple.   The Damelot had a very light and floral fragrant taste.   My personal favorite was the St. Laurent, which John tells us looks almost as dark as Guinness when it is pressed.  Not only did this cider have the tannic qualities of a bittersweet, it also had a rich body, with a hint of nuttiness and butteriness.  John also poured for us what he believes is the actual Hagloe Crab (a rare tree of disputed identity and provenance). Another fascinating taste experience was a Medaille D’Or, which was the most astringent tannic cider I have ever tasted.  I couldn’t imagine drinking more than a sip.  John handed it to us and said – this is one of the ones you wonder  – why did anyone ever plant this?  But John theorized that these very tannic French varieties might have been desirable to maintain tannin in the drink through the keeving process, which often precipitates much of the tannin along with the yeast, leaving a much sweeter drink.  It was certainly an educational tasting moment, if not the most enjoyable one.  (Stay tuned for a more accurate list of variety names – I forgot my notebook and was overcome by flavors and sunshine).

Many thanks to John Teiser for a really amazing afternoon of tasting, blessed by the sun, and overlooking his young plantation of rare cider trees.  May these rare varieties continue to be propagated, pressed, and poured into glasses for many years to come.  Thanks also to Mike for being our driver and Phil for….being Phil – always the best of company.

Back at the Broome

I have returned to Broome Farm for a visit about six months after my departure, and it’s almost like I never left.  So lovely to slip right back into drinking some amazing cider outside the cellar with the regulars at the end of the workday.  Folks report that, though the apple crop is not a bumper one as media reports have suggested, it is better than last year, and it is nice to see many of the apple and pear trees laden with fruit.

me in front of the Holmer Perry Tree at Broome Farm
me in front of the Holmer Perry Tree at Broome Farm

One tree in particular, the old Holmer, is looking particularly laden with its tiny fruits.  Standing under it the other day, I asked how old it was, as it is the oldest and largest fruit tree on the farm.  Our friend John Teiser, cider maker (Springherne Cider), tree enthusiast, and orchard researcher, said it would probably date to about 1828.  I was taken aback by such accuracy of date, and John explained that it was in the decade between 1820 and 1830 that Thomas Andrew Knight, a local Herefordshire gentleman farmer who pioneered fruit breeding in the 19th century, popularized the variety of perry pear he had discovered in the vicinity of the village of Holmer, north of the city of Hereford.  According to John, many large old Holmers date back to this decade, as Knight convinced many people all over the county to plant them during that time.  Mike said he remembers several other large specimens of perry pears standing nearby when he was a boy, but they have died out long ago.  As we were admiring the majestic and craggy old tree, which has skeletal dead branches interspersed with the green boughs full of fruit, my friend Liz grimaced slightly and said it was the worst pear to pick up of all the pears in the orchard, due to its tiny size.  But one can’t help but respect such an old tree.

holmer pear
holmer pear

Meanwhile, I spent the afternoon over at Much Marcle at Westons Cider.  Somehow I had managed never to take their facility tour when I was here previously, so I decided now was the time.  The tour guide was very lovely, and she took us all round the busy facility, stopping frequently to let the Westons lorries pass by.  By far the most interesting part of the tour was the Vat room, where over 90 oak vats of huge proportions, some over 200 years old, stand holding vast quantities of cider during its aging process after fermentation.  Each of them have names, a tradition started by the founder of the company.  The vat room inspires feelings of awe and wonder, even more so than the equally massive holding tanks that loom outside over the distant Malvern Hills.

Oak Vats at Westons
Oak Vats at Westons

No, the vat room is dark, dank, and full of mysteriously huge and ancient vessels whose girth and age, not to mention their very names, seem to bestow upon them a sense of mythical and yet earthy personality.  Titans of cider – the kind of creatures that preceded gods.  You feel you have entered a temple inhabited by mischievious and montrous beings through which billions of litres of cider have flowed.

Well, after that, I needed a bit of a stroll, you know, to relax the mind.  So I drove down the lane to the Helens to visit the avenue of perry pears, trees even more ancient and craggy than the Holmer at Broome.  The avenue was planted to commemorate the coronation of Queen Anne in 1702, and some of the trees still hang on to life.  I’ve admired these trees in the past, and last fall at the Big Apple festival, which is held on the grounds of Hellens Manor, I got to taste the perry made from these pears, the Hellens Early and the Hellens Green, and it was lovely.  Somewhat sweet, with a honeysuckle nectar quality as I recall.  One vintage had a hint of woodiness as well.

More to come on further adventures in perry, cider, Broome Farm this trip.

Avenue of Perry trees at the Hellens, Much Marcle
Avenue of Perry trees at the Hellens, Much Marcle