For many, the Thanksgiving meal is the culinary apex of the year. Rolling pins find their way out of dusty corners, choice ingredients are stockpiled over the preceding week, the insides of freshly picked pie pumpkins are scooped out with tiny, bare hands. Heck, many ovens see more action on the fourth Thursday of November than they do all year. Two, three or even four generations preparing a meal together is a celebration indeed.
Thankfully, someone usually remembers to bring a nice bottle of wine or Champagne to kick off the festivities. But these days, a growing number of conscientious eaters are committed to sourcing the makings of their holiday meals locally.
Before Prohibition, hard ciders — the best of which were blended from a variety of local apples — were the most popular beverage in America. So, why not celebrate the most American of holidays with the original local American beverage? Hard cider is a special gift of fall, when apple harvests are at their peak.
Cider-makers are bobbing up all over this country once again, dedicating themselves to that pre-Prohibition pursuit of balanced acidity and sweetness. Unlike with the grapes in wine, you can usually still taste apples when you sip hard cider. And not just any apple?–?if you’re lucky, you’ll enjoy the specific combination of heirloom apple varieties whose flavor performance has been carefully choreographed. This is where you really get to enjoy regional variation.
For example, Steve Wood of Farnum Hill Ciders in New Hampshire simply cannot grow the heat-loving ‘Virginia Hewe’s’ crab apples that Diane Flynt enjoys down in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia at Foggy Ridge Cider. But Wood grows numerous apple varieties well suited to the New England climate that refuse to grow in the South. One such apple is the bittersharp ‘Kingston Black,’ which makes such a remarkable still cider that it does not require blending with any other varieties. Wood shares his well-adjusted apples of French, English and American descent with other cider-makers in the region, too.
Last night, I got to try a wonderful dessert cider fortified with apple brandy (Pippin Gold), and a spectacular semi-dry cider from Slyboro Ciderhouse, which at the foothills of the Adirondacks, is in my neck of the woods. Slyboro Hidden Star is made from a blend of ‘Northern Spy’ and ‘Liberty’ apples grown on the fertile soil of New York state’s oldest U-pick orchard, and it definitely deserves the Double Gold Medal it won at last year’s International Eastern Wine Competition. (The raw sheep’s milk cheese I relished it with — Hidden Springs Ocooch Mountain — deserves the awards it has won, too!)
You might also like a nonalcoholic sweet cider — you can find those, too! They don’t keep as well, though, so you’ll want to find one nearby. Try a few. Experiment to see what you like. But most importantly, find a good cider-maker near you and befriend that artisan.
Photos by Tim Nauman Photography