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The joy of cider

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Apples from a bottle that bite

Ever last drop of moisture in the dusty, clay hills around Irún has been squeezed out of them by the time the end of August rolls around. Here the sun is no fool, it’s a professional at commanding respect: The withered grasses and almond trees that dot the hillsides look like they’re begging for mercy.

By the time we reached this small Spanish city in the heart of Basque country just a stone’s throw from the French border, we, too, were begging – for a long cool drink. But, surprise, it was Sunday morning and there was no sign of life, except for a small miserable donkey, who could barely be counted as being amongst the living, and a couple of straggly cats.

So what can a couple of Canadian tourists do? Roam the empty streets, poking our heads in darkened doorways and watching ourselves reflected in shop windows, like this one displaying a modest assortment of small green bottles with rubber plug stoppers, anonymous contents and no labels.

We were just about to turn away when a shadow inside moved across our reflections. Amazing! A shop that was open.

Ten minutes later we walked out with an assortment of thick breads and thicker sausages and without a doubt the best cider known to humankind. We devoured our impromptu picnic right in the front seat of our rental car, washing down the bread and sausage with big gulps from the small green bottles of cider the shopkeeper had plucked from his window.

I’ve been searching ever since to replicate that crisp, bittersweet, fulsome cider taste.

We, in North America at least, have drifted far from the days, say in 17 th and 18 th century Europe, when cider was more popular than, and, dare I say it just before Cornucopia, more revered than wine. In fact, the only proper vessel to drink chilled cider from back then was a beautiful stemmed crystal glass, shaped much like a contemporary champagne flute, but with a shorter bowl and wider mouth to better appreciate the aroma and effervescence. Many cider glasses were also etched with apple tree and fruit motifs, or a great sun beaming down on an orchard.

So many types of cider exist – and, no, I don’t mean because there are so many people who try making their own cider in their basement, because one cider maker in New York alone has more than 1,000 varieties of cider apples growing in his orchard – that I’m also waiting for the day when cider, good cider, commands it’s own B.C. festival; where we could sort through the best of them – dry, semisweet, sweet, sparkling and still – and celebrate them all.

For now we have to content ourselves with the offerings from the only cidery in B.C. producing commercial cider worth drinking – Merridale Ciderworks on Vancouver Island. Which is really not much of a compromise at all.

Located just north of Victoria in beautiful Cobble Hill in Cowichan Valley, Merridale uses apples from stock from England, France and Germany to produce the best cider you can find in B.C. It far outshines the traditional cider lover’s favourite available here, Strongbow, which is imported from England. (Sorry, can’t even mention the other B.C. brands in the same breath. Real cider lovers and makers alike point out that, with their sweetness, added chemicals and artificial flavours, and processing techniques, those brands don’t warrant the name "cider"; maybe "coolers" would be more accurate. And, no, there is no such thing as berry or pear or kiwi or watermelon cider. Cider is made from apples.)

Whether you try Merridale’s young and punchy Scrumpy (so-named in England since the apples were once scrumped, or stolen, by farm workers to make same), their sweet Cyser (sweetened with wildflower honey) or the dry and acidic Somerset, I guarantee you’ll discover a whole new taste world open up before you – and I don’t usually do testimonials.

Why is their cider so good?

Janet Docherty, who co-owns Merridale along with her husband, Rick Pipes, explains: "First we make it with a cider apple, which is high in tannin and high in acids, which is very similar to the wine grape. The majority of our orchard is from English varieties like Tremlett’s Bitter, Michelin, Yarlington Mill and Vadinett, which do well here since the Cowichan Valley’s growing conditions are similar to those in England where they come from."

She points out that a true cider apple is so unlike the regular sweet and juicy eating apples we’re all familiar with – the Galas, the McIntoshes, the Spartans – that if you pluck one from a tree in their orchard and take a bite you’ll instantly find out why they’re called "spitters."

In addition, Merridale doesn’t add chemicals, instead allowing the cider to age naturally – up to three years, depending on the variety. Their higher-end cider goes through two fermentations in oak barrels. And they don’t add water or artificial flavours, other juices or concentrates.

We couldn’t speak enough Spanish to find out, but I figure that was just about how they made that delicious cider we tried in Irún, Spain years ago. And look how long that taste lasted.

Merridale Cider is available at Crepe Montagne and Blackcomb Beer and Wine Store in Whistler, Howe Sound Brewing in Squamish, and Liberty Wine stores throughout West and North Vancouver and the Lower Mainland.

 

SIDEBAR 1

Getting to know your cider

Tasting cider is much like tasting wine: you can appreciate its colour, clarity, bouquet, sparkle and other notable characteristics.

Cider ranges in colour from a pale champagne cast to clear canary yellow or, in the darker tones, from light apricot to topaz or dark amber. The colour all depends on the type of apples used and the way the cider was made. Too dark a colour is a bad sign – too much oxidation. Some ciders have a natural rose tint from red-skinned crab apples.

Younger ciders are hazy from all the spent yeast particles, pectin and vegetable matter. Aged ciders should be clear. Only pour the top two-third to seven-eighths of the bottle to avoid stirring up the lees that have settled.

Whatever apples were used to make the cider should lend their aroma to it. And when it comes to tasting, look for sweetness in the front of your mouth and bitterness along the sides at the back of your tongue. Ideally, the two qualities are balanced, along with the acidity, in a way that’s pleasing and tempered by the natural taste of the apples used. Sometimes you’ll also detect floral or spicy overtones, depending on the apple.

The best cider is made from apples which are bitter (high in tannins), and sharp (high in acid). Remember the way your mouth puckers with a sip of strong tea? That’s the effects of tannin at work – it can be bitter and/or astringent.

 

SIDEBAR 2

Cider in the kitchen

Cider is the noble centrepiece of Norman cuisine, which is based on apple spirits, cream and seafood. Since many people in the Quebec countryside are descended from Normans, you could do much worse than to take a page or three from a Québécois cookbook like Madame Benoit’s Ma cuisine au cidre . A few tips to get you started: try poaching fish in a good cider, or substituting cider in any recipe calling for white wine. It’s great blended with cheese sauces and adds a nice zing to chicken, pork and veal dishes.

 

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance journalist who invents her own cider house rules.