Check out this great conversation on Beer Sessions Radio with Jimmy Carbone on the Heritage Radio Network. Our topic of conversation was “Still Cider,” taped in the midst of Cider Week NYC. I was happy to get in a few words about our recent collaboration between the Corning Museum of Glass and Finger Lakes cider makers, and the insights it brought to our understanding of still and sparkling cider.
I’ve been looking forward to Cider Week Finger Lakes 2016 all year, and here’s why: I’m hoping Cider Week 2016 will be an opportunity to learn more about the history of cider making and fruit growing from you, the public. The Finger Lakes Fruit Heritage Project is making its debut to ask what you know about the roles that orchards, cider, and fruit have played in our region’s heritage. I want to know about the old trees and orchards in your back yard, and the stories, anecdotes, experiences, and skills that are woven into the fabric of your fruit landscapes.
Cider Week has grown as our local agricultural entrepreneurs have rediscovered the craft of cider making and nurtured it in new and innovative directions. But cider was made in our region before, in the homes and on the farms of many people who settled the Finger Lakes region, travelling west from New England in search of better land. They planted fruit trees to supply their own families with food and beverage. And local people have made hard and sweet cider from them for generations. Keep your eyes peeled while you are driving through the countryside, and you might spot an old orchard you never noticed before.
Some of these old farm orchards still remain on our landscape today, and local cider makers, commercial and hobbyist, care for and use them, up to 150 years after they were originally planted.
What happened to these frontier farms? And the orchards that were an essential ingredient in their domestic economies? Some are still going, but many small hill farms that were unprofitable were abandoned during hard economic times. Some areas that were once farmed are now re-wilded as parks and reserves, like the Finger Lakes National Forest or the Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area. And some of them have long been sources for cider.
Carl States, whose father owned the States Cider Mill in Odessa, remembers how local people went foraging in the abandoned farm orchards on Connecticut Hill when he was growing up in the 1960s. They brought the apples to be pressed at his father’s cider mill, which was still being operated by another family into the early 1990s, when it finally closed down when new requirements for pasteurization were passed into law.
“Most of the old timers would bring plenty of apples, more that what they needed, and then Dad would buy what was left over with, or they would just take it home with them in gallons or give it away. Apples were pretty plentiful then. A lot of people when I was a kid – all the old orchards were still in production on Connecticut hill, because all the old farms were abandoned in the depression, but the orchards were still there. So you could go up and get all the apples you wanted for free – just go up and pick them.” – Carl States
A few local cider makers who are at the heart of Cider Week today, including Ian and Jackie Merwin of Black Diamond Farm, remember taking their apples to be pressed at States Cider Mill. Places like these are now receding into memory, but it is here where the connection between our modern Cider Revival and the local heritage of cider can be made.
In addition to celebrating our amazing local cider businesses, I hope Cider Week continues to grow in exploring the history of cider deep in our region’s past, and nurtures the growing networks of DIY enthusiasts, home brewers, gardeners, and farmers who are renewing the spirit of cider making and cider drinking as a part of everyday life.
This Cider Week, I am hoping you can help me document our cider history through events hosted by the Finger Lakes Fruit Heritage Project. This project, an initiative of the Folk Arts program at The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes, will explore the fruit heritage of our region and highlight the agricultural and culinary practices that have molded our landscape, from apple orchards, to peaches, cherries, berries, and of course, grapes. I’m hoping to find more evidence about the history of local cider culture, in your stories and photographs, and in the apples growing in your back yard or on your farm.
Cider Week is a celebration of an agricultural and culinary craft brought back to life. Our cider future looks amazingly bright, and new orchards are springing up to supply it. But there’s still much to learn about the cider past, and how it’s shaped our local landscape, culture, and palate. I hope you will join the Finger Lakes Fruit Heritage Project events to share your knowledge and connect our local cider history with our cider future.
The Finger Lakes Fruit Heritage Project is hosting three Documentation Days and one Apple Identification Day during Cider Week, and you are invited to come share your fruit stories and learn about their apples.
Documentation Days at the Elmira Wisner Market (September 29, 10am-2pm) and the Montour Falls Harvest Festival (October 1, 12pm-7pm) are an opportunity to stop by the Finger Lakes Fruit Heritage listening booth and share stories, photographs or documents for our archive of fruit heritage. Tell us about your memories of making cider, apple butter, pie, wine, preserves. Describe pruning, parties, people who were the local masters of theses crafts. Your stories will help us see the larger picture of fruit and cider in the Finger Lakes.
The Apple Identification and Documentation Day at Reisinger’s Apple Country (October 8, 9am – 12noon) invites the public to bring apples to be identified by our pomologist panel, including Dr. Greg Peck of Cornell University and John Reynolds of Blackduck Cidery. If you’ve been wondering what that old tree at the back of the property is, now is your chance to find out! Bring 3-5 apples from each tree you would like to identify. You can then log your finds and deposit any stories you have at the listening booth. For more information on directions and what to expect, visit http://www.earts.org/finger-lakes-fruit-events
These events are a project of The Folk Arts Program at The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes in collaboration with partners at Reisinger’s Apple Country, Schuyler County Cornell Cooperative Extension, Cornell University Department of Horticulture, and Montour Falls Public Library. This project is funded in part by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
While researching cider in the Finger Lakes region, I stumbled into an amazing resource, the New York State Historic Newspapers website. Search for cider, and it begins to pop up all over the place. I will be sharing some gems periodically to show how cider played a part in the everyday lives of people living in the southern Finger Lakes.
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.
On 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.