What is cider?

The answer to the question really depends on where you live as cider can be different things in different places. Here in East Devon it is generally made from traditional varieties of apples, rejoicing in names like Slack-me-girdle and Sweet Alford. These are not like eating apples, they are generally sour but are perfect for cider making.

The natural sugars in the apples ferment at lower temperatures than those needed for wine making. The farmers collect the apples, store them for a while, then mince them up and make them into ‘cakes’ of apple pulp. These are then put into cloths and stacked into what is known as a cheese. The cheese is then pressed to extract the apple juice.

Once all the juice has been pressed out of the apple pulp it’s put into oak barrels and left to ferment. The barrels are stored in a stone building, where the juice ferments slowly over the winter. In the spring it’s racked off into different barrels to remove all the impurities and dead yeast. It continues fermenting in the new barrels until all the sugars are used up. It's now ready to drink but it’s quite often kept for another two or three years to improve the flavours.

For many years Whiteways' factory at Whimple produced much of the UK's cider. Sadly the factory was closed a few years ago and the land where it stood is now a large housing estate. On the outskirts of the village you can still see some of the orchards where the apples were grown. If you go at the end of summer or beginning of autumn there's a wonderful smell of apples when the sun shines on them.

In Whimple the centuries old practice of Wassailing is still an important part of village life. Every year in January the Wassilers process around the orchards dressed in traditional clothes and making a lot of noise. Apparently the noise is reputed to awaken the trees and frighten off any evil spirits lurking in the branches. There has been speculation that when this practice was stopped for a few years it affected Whiteways causing them to eventually close down their operations in Whimple. You may form your own judgment on this, I remain firmly unconvinced.

Here's a video showing how you can make your own at home. As you will see, it's not a process that can be rushed and it's a bit labour intensive to do but the end result is a tasty and refreshing drink. You can buy all kinds of equipment, but this family uses things that they already have at home.

You don't need to stick to just apples either. Commercial firms add in all kinds of natural flavourings, such as elderflowers. Traditional skills are combined with modern brewing techniques to make products that will suit all tastes. You can enjoy them on their own or with a meal.

In other parts of the world it is simply concentrated apple juice. In Normandy it is distilled into something much stronger - Calvados

There are still farms in East Devon where they make their own farmhouse scrumpy, but most production is done in factory conditions. The Lyme Bay Winery is a superb example of a small factory producing traditional ciders and wines. They produce three types: Jack Ratt Scrumpy, Jack Ratt Vintage and Lyme Bay. Jack Ratt is named after a well known smuggler of the 19th Century. Jack Rattenbury became famous not because he was a criminal but because he kept a diary!

Cider can also be used in cooking. Look at the recipes page for some ideas on how to use it. It makes an ordinary dish extraordinary. It's a versatile ingredient, limited only by your imagination and creativity.

Cider vinegar has many health benefits too. The old saying is that an apple a day keeps the doctor away. This would appear to have more than an element of truth in it if my uncle is to be believed; he has some every day. And it's true that if you have a really sore throat a teaspoon in a glass of warm water with some honey is very soothing. For more information click here


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