Britain’s Rural Heritage – Cider and Cider Making

Cast-iron cider pulper made at Mark in Somerset, called a Wensley. Breamore Countryside Museum, Hampshire

Collect the fruit when well-ripened, either as it falls without much violence in separating from the tree, keep it in heaps, either in the open or under cover, till quite mellow, or even tending to decay; strain the liquor from the press, set it in an open vessel to ferment, and when white cliffs or fissures may be discovered on the head (formed on it as on beer under similar circumstances), skim off the thick part on the surface, and remove the liquor to the cask with as little motion, and in as clear a state as possible.  Let the cask stand in a cool situation, perhaps above ground may be the best, and having filled it to within a few inches of the head, but not to the utmost, stop it close immediately; after sometime has elapsed, strew fine sand on the head, in order to prevent all access of air to the liquor, and in the spring remove the cask to an underground cellar, or bottle off its contents.  The object I have in view by requesting the attention of the society to the subject of cider is, that a premium may be given, wherever its funds will admit of it, for liquor made of any one seedling variety, as the means of obtaining a succession to the old and almost extinct choice kinds of fruit for the press.’

The above quotation is from a report by the Bath and West of England Society for the Encouragement of Agriculture, Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, December 1820.  From the late eighteenth century and continuing throughout the nineteenth century, the art of English cider making began to decline due to major agricultural, social and political changes.  Cider traditionally formed part of the farm labourer’s wage and it was not uncommon for them to consume three or four pints a day.  The emergence of the temperance movement in the nineteenth century did have an impact upon alcohol consumption amongst the lower classes.  England’s liberal alcohol laws now came under pressure to reform.  One of the changes to come into effect was an amendment to the Truck Act of 1887 which meant that it now became illegal to part-pay workers with alcoholic beverages.  The Truck laws had been set-up to legislate the common practice of part-paying workers for their services with a variety of goods which included alcohol. The Truck Acts are better known these days as the Employment Rights Act 1996.

The exact date when cider was first introduced to Britain is not known. Some historians believe that the Romans encouraged cider drinking during their occupation here.  Others disagree and believe that cider was first produced and consumed in the Iron Age and some academics are convinced that Cider may have even been introduced after the Norman Conquest. However it first came to our shores, it has had a long tradition of being part of rural community life on farms, estates and inns.

Since the Middle Ages, monasteries derived part of their income from making and selling cider to the public.  Kent was the heart of cider making during the medieval period.  Cider was at its most popular in the seventeenth century before its slow decline.  In the twentieth century cider became popular once more, with new factory techniques helping to increase production levels.  In the twenty-first century, cider making (and drinking!) is enjoying a revival, particular in the South West of England.

Wooden cask and shovel used in traditional cider making. Breamore Countryside Museum, Hampshire

The tools involved in traditional cider making include: an apple pulper; cider press; wood shovels; barrels and of course apples.  Circular stone mills were sometimes used and had been introduced into Britain in the seventeenth century.  These were horse-driven with a large crushing-wheel which turned the apples into a pulp.  Whichever method was used to pulp the apples, the next stage involved a large, heavy wooden press where the pulp was piled high in layers between mats known as ‘hairs’, because they were often made out of horsehair, pressure applied and the juice released.   These stack of hairs were known as a ‘cheese’.  The collected liquid is then transferred to casks to ferment.  It could take up to a year before that season’s crop was considered fit to drink.

Traditional twin-screw cider press with stone trough from Somerset. Breamore Countryside Museum, Hampshire

I have found a very interesting clip from the BBC’s Victorian Farm (2009), an historical observational documentary series. The clip shows the process of cider making on a traditional farm in rural Victorian England.  The farm used for the series was the Acton Scott estate in Shropshire. The clip also shows historian Ruth Goodman making preserves, pickles, boiled mutton and cooking on a Victorian range. CLICK HERE for series clip.  I have put at the bottom of this posting Mrs Beeton’s advice on boiled mutton.

Wassailing still takes place in parts of the South West and Somerset.  This Pagan tradition is carried-out on the 17th January, which is twelfth night on the Julian Calender.  Wassailing is a ritual associated with cider apple tress, to help protect them from evil spirits and encourage them to bear a plentiful crop.  The word ‘wassail’ is derived from the Anglo Saxon ‘wes hal’, simply meaning ‘good health’ or ‘be whole’.  Communities gather around the tree, sing the Wassailing Song, pour cider over the tree’s roots, make loud noises to scare away malevolent spirits and then give thanks to the tree in the form of a toast.  The action of pouring cider over the tree’s roots symbolises the carrying over of the crop cycle from one year to the next.  A piece of cider-soaked, toasted bread in the fork of the tree is supposed to encourage good spirits to come to it.  In Herefordshire Morris Men also take part in the celebrations and dance around the tree.  Incidentally, Hereford is home to the wonderful Cider Museum which is open all year round.  CLICK HERE for more information.

Below are two lovely extracts from the short story The Seven Poor Travelers by Charles Dickens.  The story was first published in 1854 in his Household Words journal and is set at Christmas time in a Rochester almshouse:

I was possessed by the desire to treat the travellers to a supper and a temperate glass of hot Wassail; that the voice of Fame had been heard in that land, declaring my ability to make hot Wassail.’ (Chapter 1)

It was high time to make the Wassail now, therefore I had up the materials and made a glorious jorum.  Not in a bowl; for a bowl anywhere but on a shelf is a low superstition, fraught with cooling and slopping; but in a brown earthenware pitcher, tenderly suffocated, when full, with a coarse cloth.’  (Chapter 2)

I also found another clip from the BBC’s Victorian Christmas (an offshoot of Victorian Farm) in which archaeologist Alex Langlands shows you how to make a traditional Victorian Wassail Punch.  CLICK HERE for clip.

Mrs Beeton’s Advice on cooking a Boiled Mutton

‘The leg, neck and breast are the parts usually selected for boiling.  When intended for this purpose, the meat should not be allowed to hang many days, for the least taint spoils the flavour of boiled mutton.  Too often the natural flavour of a boiled joint is overpowered by the flavour of the vegetables with which it is cooked.  To avoid this, only the quantity sufficient to impart a slight flavour should be cooked in the liquor, and the remainder boiled separately.  The flavour of the meat is thus preserved, and the vegetables are a better colour when cooked more quickly than is possible if their rate of cooking is adapted to the meat.  The side of the joint intended to be dished upwards should be put downwards in the boiling pot, for however gentle the ebullition of the water may be, its action somewhat spoils the upper surface of the meat.  Moreover, any scum that is not removed during the process of cooking is apt to fall on the upper surface of the meat, and impair its appearance.’ (p. 579, 1915 edition)

Mutton fell-out of favour with chefs and the general public in the twentieth century.  However, I am delighted that it is coming back into fashion again as it makes for a very tasty dish indeed.  In 2004 the Prince of Wales launched The Mutton Renaissance campaign to help support British sheep farmers.  The Mutton Renaissance has an excellent website with historical information on mutton, facts about mutton, listings of shops in Britain where you can purchase mutton, recipes and much, much more.  CLICK HERE for more information.  How about a nice glass of cider to accompany a delicious, roasted shoulder of mutton for your Sunday dinner this weekend?

Cuts of mutton illustration from Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, 1915 edition.

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