Celebrate With Cider

“… the Old Testament warned against the temptations of the grape. But the Bible didn’t have a bad word to say about the apple or even the strong drink that could be made from it.”

From Michael Pollan’s book,
“The Botany of Desire”
[Random House, New York, 2001]

It’s time to get organized for your Thanksgiving feast. You’ll need to stock the pantry, find a fresh, local turkey and enlist a volunteer or two to make pies. And don’t forget the cider — not just the wonderful sweet cider you find at the orchard, but the just-as-wonderful hard cider prized by our Colonial ancestors. Hard cider is a part of New England history and perfect for your Thanksgiving toast.

Cider might not have been served at the very first Thanksgiving, but early colonists brought apple seedlings with them from England. Before long, apple orchards were flourishing throughout New England. Unlike most present day orchards, the colonists grew most of their apples not for eating but for drinking.

A truly democratic libation, cider was enjoyed by young and old, rich and poor and downed at all times of the day and night because water was often unsafe to drink. Our second president, John Adams, drank it for breakfast, rough and ready farm hands quaffed it from huge tankards throughout the day and elegant ladies sipped it over dinner.

With an alcohol content of more than six percent, cider began its fall from grace during the Temperance Movement. Prohibition took the final toll. With no market for their sparkling brews, farmers chopped down their cider orchards and replaced them with eating and baking apples.

Luckily, the rise of microbreweries in the mid-’90s brought a renewed interest in this all-American drink. Slowly but surely, hard cider, as well as apple wine, is making a comeback. Historic cookbook author and food writer Helen Brody sees cider making as “a wonderful example of a growing interest in New Hampshire to preserve and re-create agricultural products that played a genuine role in our country’s earliest history.”

Husband and wife team Stephen Wood and Louisa Spencer began experimenting with hard cider about 20 years ago at Poverty Lane Orchard on Farnum Hill in Lebanon. Their experiment was a calculated risk and a response to stiff, new competition from South America and China. Foreign producers have much lower labor costs, so competing head to head was not an option. While many farmers threw up their hands and cut down their trees for housing developments, Steve and Louisa decided to take their business in new directions. They embraced two unique, niche markets: heirloom apples and hard cider.

Making cider was not an easy task. Steve explains, “Most good cider apples are not good eating apples. We had to go to England and France to find new stock. It took many years of learning, grafting and testing until we found apples that not only make great cider but grow well on Farnum Hill.” He adds, “We also had to learn how to ferment cider. We had been making sweet cider for years but fermenting a fine cider was new to us.”

Louisa is pleased at the growing interest in cider. With the holidays approaching she suggests: “Cider is a terrific addition to your Thanksgiving table. But please, don’t confuse the sweet mass-market brands you find in the supermarket with fine, handcrafted ciders. Our cider is dry with a clean, bright finish. It is wonderful with turkey, sparkles like champagne and is perfect for a holiday toast.” The effervescent semi-dry is the most popular choice to accompany turkey, say Corrie Martin of Farnum Hill Ciders.

Or perhaps an apple wine is more to your liking. Now in their fifth season, the LaBelle Winery sells a variety of award-winning fruit wines. Like cider, fruit wines are often misunderstood. The winery’s owner, Amy LaBelle, laments, “Our biggest challenge is getting people to taste our wines. As soon as they hear apple and wine together, they think of those very sweet drinks they tried in college.”

Amy believes Thanksgiving is a great time to try one of her wines. She offers a few recommendations: “Apple and cranberry wines are a natural fit with Thanksgiving. Our off-dry Heirloom Apple is similar to a Riesling and pairs beautifully with turkey. Before dinner, try the crisp, light Dry Apple or make a delicious batch of cosmopolitans with our Cranberry Wine.”

Whether you choose the fizz and sparkle of hard cider or a crisp apple wine, enjoy a special treat from New Hampshire orchards this Thanksgiving. Cheers! NH

Farnum Hill Ciders range in price from $9 to $15 and have an alcohol content of 6.5 to 8.5 percent. For more information, visit www.farnumhillciders.com. Contact them by e-mail at info@farnumhillciders.com or by phone at (603) 448-1511.

LaBelle Wines range in price from $8 to $19 and have an alcohol content of 11.5 to 12 percent. The winery also makes a fortified port that sells for $23. For more information, visit www.labellewinerynh.com or call (603) 828-2923.

Farnum Hill Ciders and LaBelle Wines are available at New Hampshire State Liquor Stores and specialty shops throughout New Hampshire.