Book Review: The American Cider Book

October 15, 2010

The front cover of The American Cider Book by Vrest Orton has lots of descriptive words, such as:

  • Full details on old-time and modern methods
  • The story of America’s natural beverage
  • History of Cider
  • Old-Time and modern principles of making cider
  • 120 recipes for cider in beverages and in cooking
  • How to make cider in your own home

Admittedly, the words “American” and “cider” together make me suspicious as to what the book is really about. Is it talking about sweet cider or hard cider? The book description didn’t clue me in, and when I saw that it was published in 1973, I thought for sure it was about sweet cider. However, flipping though it, I came to realize he was talking about hard cider.

I should pause here and mention that Vrest Orton founded the Vermont Country Store,  published seventeen books by 1973, and founded Vermont Life magazine. Also, this book was republished in 1995 even though Orton died in 1986.

 

Cover of the 1995 edition

 

The author opens the book talking about how Ernest Hemingway’s favorite drink was Bulmer’s Dry Cider, and that Orton looked around on how to make cider, but only found “US Department of Agriculture bureaucratic-language brochures on making cider on the farm, and while there are in libraries several books on cider, most are about English or French cider making, none is recent, and all are out of print.” Thus, his motivation for writing this book.

I have to say that I’ve never seen a cidermaking book devote so many pages to the history of cidermaking. The book starts out with a chapter titled, “A Short History of Cider”, which actually covers 12 pages. The Chapter 2, General Methods of Cider Making, opens with the line, “If there had been over the years one simple, agreed-upon method of making cider, there would be no need for this chapter.” Ironically, the first several pages still talk about the history of cider making, focusing this time on the methods before asking the question, “What Is Cider?” There, he still addresses the history of cider, focusing this time on the morphing of “cider” to mean unfiltered apple juice. Then he talks about the historical practices used in selecting apples, grinding the apples with stone, the cider press in the early days, and fermentation in various vessels, followed by more historical stores of cider makers in New England.

On page 41, Orton gets down to how cider is made using modern principles, though it is still peppered with interviews from cidermakers and historical documents. Because of this, I am not sure if he was just looking to change up from lecturing to story telling, or if cider making was new to him, too, and he had to rely on others to tell him how it is done.

One thing I find interesting is that Orton divides apples into sweet, mildly acid to slightly tart, aromatic, or crab apple categories instead of using the sweet, bittersweet, sharp, bittersharp categories developed in 1903 at the Long Ashton Research Station in the United Kingdom, a classification that is still used today.

Orton briefly talks about how to keep sweet cider by refrigeration, freezing, pasteurization, ultraviolet irradiation, or chemical agents, but then moves on to fermentation, but doesn’t dwell on it too much, saying that most cider “probably won’t get any better” after six months and then moves on to talking about bottling. In this section, he talks about, disgustedly, things that are sometimes added to cider such as “wine spirit, maple sugar, molasses, pure alcohol, cognac, bourbon whiskey, and God knows what else, to perk up the beverage… it is not the natural cider of American tradition.” The last part of the chapter, he talks about modern commercial cider making, including factories and the tanks they use.

Chapter 3 – “How to Make Cider in the Home” talks about just that, using common every day kitchen items such as a grater or chopping apples into pomace. This is a very short chapter at five pages.

The next chapter is “Recipes for Cider in Beverages and in Cooking.” It is kind of cute, as there is a full page warning that opens with, “I beg of you, gentle reader, before you try these recipes, please be warned that I am not responsible for your results.” Apparently, his other books containing recipes got a lot of letters and phone calls, and he wished to avoid that with this one. The “Cider in Beverages” section contains nine pages with the recipes organized by year. He “Cider in Cooking” divided up into General Uses, where he just explains how to use it, such soaking beans in cider before making baked beans, but does not include a recipe. He also provides New England Family recipes, some with recipes, some without. Next is the “Recipes from Martinelli’s”, which he acknowledges as a sweet apple juice manufacturer, and includes beverage recipes, main course recipes, desserts, and sauces and condiments. He goes back to hard cider with “Recipes from Bulmer’s”, and then shifts gears to talk about boiled cider, he believes to be a unique New England concoction of taking cider and boiling it to create a syrup, to which he provides dessert recipes, most of which are pies that are pretty much just boiled cider, sugar, and eggs in a pie crust, though there are some recipes calling for boiled cider as a flavoring, and even a boiled cider candy. A quick search online shows that boiled cider can be purchased today, though I have never tried it.

The last short chapter is “Some Final Observations,” including cider vinegar and cooking with cider. He concludes, “It is the only beverage that a person so inclined can make from the ground to the bottle,” and then cook with it.

Overall, this book totally lacks anything technical and I don’t think it could actually teach anyone how to make cider, but none the less, I got a kick out of reading it with its historical lectures, quirky stories, and interesting cider cooking recipes.

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