Tuesday 26 October 2010

Inside the Cider House

In the past the way cider was drunk reflected the way it was made. Fashionable London folk of the 1660s may have drunk their Redstreak like wine, from elegant, engraved glasses, but villagers across the West Country gathered around the barrel to share the cider they had helped to make.

The barn or shed in which the cider was stored and shared was known as the cider house, a casual, non-commercial institution that was an integral part of village life – and unknown to anyone outside the village. As industrial cidermaking took off in the last decades of Victoria’s reign, draught and bottled cider was sold alongside beer in pubs around the country, and gradually the village pub replaced the cider house, even in Somerset.

For a glimpse of the old country cider house, the top destination has to be Rog Wilkins’ Lounge Bar, which is a bare, draughty room adjoining the main cider barn at his farm overlooking the Somerset Levels. The place is a bit fancier these days than it used to be, with a mural of Rog decorated one wall, but the window still has no glass in it and the chairs are a mismatched assortment of office and kitchen rejects. If this is a bit disconcerting to the uninitiated, the strangest thing is the manner in which business is conducted.

When you walk in. Rog or one of his staff asks if you want Dry, Sweet or Medium, and pours you a half pint from one of three hogsheads that stand side by side in a corner of the barn.

If it’s pressing time, the man himself will probably stop building a cheese, come over to pour you a drink, then go back to work, leaving you to enjoy your cider. You might be wondering how much it is, how you pay for it, how strong it is, and what happens next. By drinking your half are you signing up to some wholesale deal? This is a different world from the uniform, regulated world of the pub. Outside, across the road, you can see the trees on which the apples grew to make this cider. The barn is filled with the smell of apple juice and the racket of the mill. And the cider is being made right there, in front of you; you can see the physical effort that goes into the making.

November is the month to visit Wilkins, when the pressing is in full swing. In the summer the experience is more of a tourist trip, with hen parties out from Bristol and families doing the Somerset tour. Go when the old boys are sat round, gossiping about village life, on a nasty afternoon in autumn or winter.

Cider has rarely been as commercially important as beer or wine, but that’s mostly because it’s a drink people tend to make themselves for their own pleasure. Who knows how many groups of friends and neighbours are gathered right now in sheds and garages around the country, enjoying a cup of their own cider?

Anyone can make cider, and anyone can create a cider house – it’s just the place where your cider lives. But if you really want to get into the spirit of the thing and design something a bit more stylish (imagine one of those home improvement programmes where they have to turn a 30s semi into a mock-tudor mansion while the owner’s out buying some fags) here are some tips:

Start with a shed, garage or other form of shelter, where you store the cider while it ferments and matures

Display your cider with pride – up on a shelf, not hidden on the floor behind an old bike

Get in some chairs, not a patio set but a motley collection of discarded office chairs and hospital rejects

Arrange dusty old bottles, ancient garden tools, pilfered pub ashtrays, old brooms, beer crates, out-of-date trade calendars, dead bikes and suchlike to create atmosphere

Provide a good pile of old newspapers and magazines, the more dog-eared and mildewed the better (Wilkins has this down to a T)

Fill your quart mug, switch off your phone, settle down and enjoy…

This is an extract from The Naked Guide to Cider.


Anonymous said...

Hi James,

Great description of Wilkins cider barn, that reminds me, I must get down there again soon.

My Cider Barn, Oldland Common.

My cider sits in my garage fermenting away (or not, as it stands, worryingly, at the moment). I'm now also having a go at making apple juice and I seem to spend more and more time in there, washing pasteurizing and bottling and as most of it ends up on the floor the space is taking on a very pleasant aroma. Sitting on the shelves is my dusty 1980s ghetto blaster with a selection of equally dusty tapes and if all the planets are alined I can sometimes tune into radio 2 or womens hour on radio 4 if I'm feeling adventurous. On the shelves sit various slightly sticky, cider making utensils plus my favourite drinking glass where I can draw off a half pint of 2009 (for pleasure and to check that it hasn't finally turned to vinegar) Forgotten fruit cider from the last remaining barrel. The camping chairs and picnic rug make a cosy retreat and if I open the garage doors at the correct time of day I can watch the sun setting over number 11's washing line.

This is sometimes all I needto make me happy and if anyone wants to pop in and share a glass with me they are perfectly welcome

PS, I'm working on the cobwebs but my wife keeps popping in and insisting that I hoover the garage !!!??

Unknown said...

my cider house is the kids abandoned 6' by 6' playhouse at the bottom of the garden. started off as a bit of a joke, really just used it to store the cider making stuff and then the bottles.Now got about 24 gallons on the go, lots of spiders and some mice underneath but no room for visitors so I've been eyeing up the garden shed (that is presently full of unused kids bicycles)as a sort of drinking/hiding out shed!

James Russell said...

Great to hear your cider house tales! The Totterdown Press is housed in the lavish surroundings of Richard's garage. He claimed recently to have cleared it out, but there still seem to be numerous old bikes, empty bottles, stacks of magazines, Bristol Rovers-related bits and bobs, etc...

Ed (Checkley Brook Cyder) said...

My cider house was built by my late father in 1979 to store the product of his passion for cider. He built it with reclaimed old timber, bricks and tiles so it looks much older than it is. As well as a ancient press he had a hammock in which he was often to be found sipping cider from one of his many cider horns. These days the hammock has gone but hte cider hasn't. I store roughly 3000 litres in there now, along with many experimental bottles of champagne style cider. Being half undeground it is cool in summer and slightly less frosty in winter. I hope it contains cider for many years yet! Love the Naked Guide by the way. I was trying to read a bit every night to make it last longer but I read it in one go. My father's book has been reprinted - R.K French 'The History and Virtues of Cyder' have a look.

James Russell said...

Hi Ed,

I love your dad's book - have read it many times and quoted from it in my first orchard/cider-related book 'Man-made Eden'. How wonderful to think of him in his hammock, sipping cider... thanks