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Cider Insight

At one time, the craft of cidermaking was widespread in the southern part of Britain, but only in the western counties did it form an integral part of the farming year. The apple harvest in late Autumn and the pressing of the juice was one of the fixed points in the farming calendar. The slow fermentation of the cider in wooden casks in barns and cellars made it ready for drinking at the thirsty times of haymaking and harvest the following year. The source was not just any sort of apple, but varieties rich in tannins and sugar called bittersweets, or ones strong in acid called bittersharps. A related drink was perry, made from tiny rock-hard cider pears which grew on huge mistletoe-shrouded trees; this drink didn’t keep so well and was consumed in the household, not by the farm labourers.

Like any rural craft, cidermaking had its own vocabulary, strongly influenced by local dialect and extremely persistent. Even though farm cidermaking largely died out after the Second World War, the techniques and language were still commonly understood when I was researching the subject in Herefordshire in the late seventies. What follows is a quick canter through some of the terms used in that county; those in Somerset were rather different.

Ripe fruit was knocked from the trees by long wooden staves called panking poles; sometimes these had metal hooks to shake the branches, termed hook poles or luggs. Harvested fruit was stored in tumps in the orchard to soften a little before being taken to the mill. The fruit was too hard to be pressed in a wine press and a circular stone mill was used, comprising a mill stone of about a ton in weight which stood upright in a trough and was pulled round by a pony. Fruit was placed in the trough or chase and mixed with a little water from the stream to stop it sticking (labourers referred to this sarcastically as brook apples if too much was used). About fifty turns of the mill, with the fruit continually being scraped off the sides and stirred with a stick called a rowing down stick ground the fruit to a pulp, the must.

This was transferred to the press in a series of layers separated by cloths called hairs (because they were originally made of woven horsehair) to form a stack, a cheese. A heavy wooden board called a chuter was placed on top and the press screwed down. The juice flowed out into a wooden or stone trough, from where it was transferred to casks by wooden buckets. To get the juice through the bunghole, a device like a small half cask with a tube on the bottom termed a tundish or tunpail was employed as a funnel. The word “tundish” has had this sense since the fourteenth century at least; the first element in both words is tun, meaning “cask”, one of the oldest recorded words in the language. Once all the juice had been pressed out, the dry remains of the fruit, called pomace (a word derived from the medieval Latin for “apple”), was tipped out of the hairs and dumped. The juice began to ferment by itself in the cask using wild yeasts picked up from the earth of the orchard or which floated through the air to land in the juice, just as Belgian fruit beer is still made today. The juice bubbled and frothed through the open bung hole, and was said to be working or fretting. This second term is presumably connected with the old word meaning “to eat, consume” (cognate with modern German “fressen”), from which we also get our figurative sense of “to worry, to vex oneself”.

Great care was taken to use only wooden utensils, as apple juice was extremely acidic and would dissolve metals. In the mid eighteenth century a severe illness called the Devonshire colic was traced to lead poisoning from the metal used to seal holes in mills and presses. Badly-made cider — and much of it must have been simply awful — was the traditional acidic low-alcohol scrumpy. Several farmers told me that they called it squeal pig cider because that was the noise you made when you drank it unawares. Nobody seems to know where the word scrumpy comes from (the OED has no citation before this century) but it must surely be connected with that similar term to scrump — to steal fruit from an orchard. The good things that can be said for it are that it kept well and it was free from harmful bugs, something that could not often be said of the local water supply.

Going back to that word tun: the vocabulary of wooden vessels is complicated. Brewers and cidermakers generally refer to them as casks; the term barrel to them is a technical term for a specific size of cask holding 36 Imperial gallons. Other sizes were the firkin (9 gallons; from medieval Dutch meaning “a (little) fourth”, that is, a quarter of a barrel), kilderkin (18 gallons; half a barrel) and hogshead (54 gallons). The pipe (104 gallons) and butt (108 gallons) were often confused, though in Herefordshire casks called pipes were always taller and slimmer than butts — more pipe-shaped, in fact. The tun itself came to mean a specific size equal to four hogsheads or about 208 gallons. Vats were even larger, static vessels for fermentation or storage, often holding five hundred gallons or more.

Farmers used any wooden casks they could get hold of, though West Indian puncheons that had previously held rum were especially prized because of the flavour they gave the cider. The labourers used to take their cider out to the fields in small casks holding about half a gallon. These were sometimes called costrels, a name possibly deriving from a word meaning a basket, but intriguingly perhaps from the Latin word meaning “by the side” (which has also given us “collateral”) because they were carried at the side of one’s belt. In Herefordshire a common term was wooden bottle; in Somerset they were called firkins, though they were no larger than the Herefordshire ones.

Some cidermakers practiced a much more careful regime. Crushed fruit was left to macerate in open casks for a day to break down the cell walls and release more of the flavour. After pressing, the juice was again left in open vessels to let the pectins be thrown off in a thick crust before siphoning it into a cask. Periodically, the juice was racked into another cask, that is, the juice would be carefully taken off the deposit of yeasts at the bottom, the lees. The whole process was called keeving and produced a much superior product.

Which reminds me, I’m getting thirsty. Cheers!

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Page created 21 Sep 1996