In a pre-grocery store era, many Colonial Americans owned their own apple trees. And from those apples, they made a range of fermented apple products — sweet cider, cider molasses, cider syrup, hard cider and cider vinegar — used to infuse their food with sweet, tart and tangy flavors.
These days, while not everyone has an apple tree, wife and husband farmers Nicole Blum, 49, and Jonathan Carr, 45, of Carr’s Ciderhouse in North Hadley believe that apples should still be a staple in our kitchens.
“The things that make a good dish are often a balance of flavors. Acid is really important in cooking, and apples, like lemons, supply a fruity acidity,” Blum said. “It just fits into the way we naturally cook in America. We don’t grow lemons around here. But we grow apples.”
Carr’s Ciderhouse produces artisanal hard cider as well as cider syrup, cider vinegar and cider switchel — a combination of syrup and vinegar infused with ginger often used in cocktails — and sells its products wholesale and at area farmers’ markets.
The hard cider, which takes between four to six months to ferment, is earthy and sweet — a satisfying beverage on its own or a versatile cooking ingredient, similar to white wine.
“We’ve come to the point where we’re exclusively using a one-ingredient type of approach,” Carr said, noting they allow the apples to ferment using wild yeast, without preservatives, and don’t spray their apple trees. From there, the cider, much of which is sold as-is, can either be boiled down into a syrup, or further fermented into a vinegar.
Beef short ribs slow-cooked with hard cider provides a subtle and complimentary brightness to savory meat; cider syrup — drizzled over roasted butternut squash with fresh sage — creates a sweet and tangy glaze; and cider vinegar makes a tart dressing for roasted asparagus.
It’s an easy way to add local flavor to a dish, and Blum said it’s her dream that one day, every New Englander will again stock his or her pantry with cider products.
To make that day come around sooner, Blum and Carr, along with Blum’s sister, Andrea Blum, recently published “Ciderhouse Cookbook,” a comprehensive collection of 127 cider-themed recipes. Among those are ricotta pancakes with lemon, apples and cider syrup; Irish beef stew with hard cider; chicken apple sausage; vanilla cider caramel swirl ice cream; and roasted carrots with hard cider syrup. Their cookbook is intended for people like them who enjoy cooking at home, but might not be accustomed to reaching for cider-based products.
Cider syrup “is as sweet as maple, but it has acidity, so it’s sweet and tangy, which lends itself to this whole continuum from savory to sweet applications,” Carr said. “We have this recipe that we adapted from the Blue Heron (Restaurant) that is pan fried scallops, and in the end you splash in a little bit of cider syrup, and it clings to and caramelizes the scallops.”
As they talked, Blum and Carr sat at a picnic table beneath the porch roof of their 100-year-old apple pressing barn overlooking Lake Warner next to River Drive, not far from the Connecticut River.
It was a hot day, and their Labradoodle, Ollie, raced to-and-fro through long grass surrounding the barn. In the shade, a soft breeze carried with it the sweet aroma of budding fruit from hundreds of apple trees that could just be seen cresting a nearby hilltop.
“The cider industry today is at the point where the popularity is exceeding the amount of high quality fruit that’s out there,” Carr said. “A lot of people are trying to make cider, but they’re making cider with apples that are OK — it’s not bad cider — but it doesn’t have the full range of amazing flavor and depth that all of these traditional cider apples will bring to a blend.”
Carr and Blum grow five main varieties of apples for their cider — including Yarlington Mill, Golden Russet, Goldrush and Dabinett — and about 30 additional experimental varieties. The farm is built onto the northwestern slope of Mount Warner, and covers 38 acres with about 2,500 trees. Blum said they’re trying to find the best varieties to grow on their specific plot of land.
Cider making has deep roots in western Massachusetts, stretching back to Colonial America. Blum noted that Slow Food, a global organization that promotes local and traditional cooking, traced the first documented use of boiled cider syrup to the settlers of Hadley and Northampton in 1677.
But over the years, in part because of prohibition and as the industrial revolution shifted agricultural production away from small farms, cider products fell out of use, Carr said.
“The definitive history has yet to be written. The temperance movement had something to do with it. A lot of the old cider orchards were managed by protestant Yankee farmers,” he said.
For their part, Carr and Blum discovered cider by accident shortly after they began dating.
They met through friends in San Francisco, Calif., where Blum is originally from, while she was working as an elementary school teacher. Carr, who grew up in County Meath, Ireland, was finishing a six-month farm and garden program at the University of Central California, after completing an agricultural degree at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
“We lived in San Francisco together while we were preparing to move to Ireland,” where Carr’s family owned a small farm and cottage not far from Dublin, Blum recalled. “No one had lived (in the cottage) for 15 years.”
Carr and Blum grew organic vegetables on the farm from 1997 to 2001, and fell into cider making along the way.
Out front were nine apple trees that produced bitter apples.
“You couldn’t do anything with them. You couldn’t make pie out of them, you couldn’t make apple sauce,” Carr said. They decided to press the apples to make vinegar. But to make vinegar, they had to ferment the apples first.
The apples never became vinegar.
“We made like five gallons of juice and fermented it,” Blum said. “It was delicious.”
Those bitter apples — which Blum said contain high amounts of tannins and are called “spitters” — produced a wonderfully crisp, dry cider.
Inspired by their newfound skills, they decided to move back to the United States and buy an orchard, and selected New England, where they found land more affordable than in California. In 2003, they purchased their North Hadley orchard, which produces 25,000 to 35,000 pounds of fruit annually. That, in turn, makes about 5,000 to 10,000 bottles of hard apple cider each year.
These days, cooking with cider-based products has become a lifestyle for Carr and Blum. And the recipes included in their cookbook, most of which are fairly simple, reflect that lifestyle. They evolved from the foods that they were eating daily at home, Blum said.
“We have cider around all the time. We have fresh cider when it’s pressing season. We have fermented cider all year round. And there are so many things you can make with hard ciders, vinegars and syrups,” Blum said.
How to connect
To find out more about Carr’s Ciderhouse, to purchase any of its products or to find a list of local retailers, visit carrsciderhouse.com.
Apple and Yellow Beet Jam
This jam pairs well with pork chops, or as an accompaniment to cheese, among other dishes.
1 lb. beets
1 apple, peeled, cored and grated
½ cup sugar
1 cup water
½ cup cider vinegar
½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
Fill a pot with water and set it over high heat. Bring to a simmer, and then add the beets and enough extra water to cover them, if necessary. Cover the pot and simmer until the beets are fork-tender (30 to 40 minutes). Remove from the heat and let the beets cool until you can comfortably handle them. Peel and grate.
Combine the beets, apple, sugar, water, vinegar and lemon juice in a medium saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil.
Lower the heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, until the juice is nearly all cooked off and the apples and beets become thick (about 45 minutes).
Spoon the jam into a clean glass jar and store in the refrigerator. It will last for several weeks.
Salt and Vinegar Kale Chips
These kale chips satisfy any cravings you may have for salt and vinegar potato chips.
1 bunch kale (any kind)
2 T cider vinegar
1 T extra-virgin olive oil
½ tsp. sea salt
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Remove the ribs of the kale and tear into bite-size pieces. Place in a large bowl, then sprinkle the vinegar, olive oil and salt over the kale. Massage the leaves for about 30 seconds.
Spread the kale in a single layer on one or two baking pans, being careful to avoid overlapping the leaves. Roast for 10 minutes, then rotate the pan and roast for 10 minutes longer, or until the leaves are starting to fleck with brown and they feel crispy to the touch. Check after 14 minutes to make sure the leaves are crisping but not burning.
Let the chips cool for a few minutes to finish crisping. If you don’t inhale the entire batch in one sitting, store them in an airtight container to preserve their crunch.
Cider Syrup-Glazed Scallops
The combination of cider syrup and scallops might seem like gilding the lily to seafood purists, but this dish, adapted from one served at the Blue Heron Restaurant in Sunderland, is peerless.
2 T extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
16 large scallops (approximately 1 lb.)
1 small shallot, minced
¼ cup dry hard cider
2 T cider syrup
¼ tsp. salt
2 T chopped scallions, for garnish
Coat a large skillet with the oil and heat over medium heat. Place the scallops in the hot pot and brown on one side (about two minutes). Flip and brown on the other side (about two minutes). Remove the scallops from the pan to a plate.
Add a bit more olive oil to the pan if it is dry. Add the shallots and cook over medium heat until they become translucent (about two minutes).
Add the cider to the saucepan and cook it for about one minute. Add the syrup and salt, whisking to combine, then put the scallops back in the pan, flipping them to coat both sides evenly. Cook until the glaze begins to darken (about one minute). The glaze will caramelize quickly, so don’t walk away from the pan.
Plate the scallops and pour any extra glaze from the pan over the top. Garnish with the scallions.