Boiled cider captures the essence of apples, in syrup form

If you measure seasons by produce, you know: Fall weighs heavy with apples. Varieties with tiered flavors and quirky names such as Newtown Pippin, Grimes Golden and Northern Spy carry a perfume at markets and farm stands that only this season knows. Great apples, we’re reminded, are fleeting.

A cider press gives the fruit longevity, something orchardists in apple-producing regions have understood for centuries, translating fresh-pressed cider into vinegar, jellies and hard ciders that preserve the fragrance and flavor nuances of the fruit while yielding something even more versatile.
In certain parts of apple country, most notably western New England and along the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a long-favored iteration was boiled cider. Reducing fresh cider until it coats the back of a spoon yields an elixir as thick as molasses and nearly as sweet, with a bracing tartness and undertones of burnt caramel. From the colonial period until the 1920s, wherever orchards proliferated, this syrup was a pantry staple, a general-purpose sweetener that cooks reached for in the way we might turn to honey today. It bound mincemeat and pots of baked beans, filled pie crusts in New England and moistened fruitcakes in Virginia. What it wasn’t typically used for was pouring over pancakes or biscuits (but don’t let anyone tell you it shouldn’t be).

Even today, what’s known as cider syrup for pouring has usually been tempered with cane sugar, its edges rounded. Boiled cider lacks subtlety, and that’s one reason so many of its admirers have worked to preserve it.

In 2008, Ben Watson, an editor, cidermaker and the author of “Cider, Hard and Sweet,” secured a spot for boiled cider on the Slow Food organization’s Ark of Taste, which he co-chairs. The ark is a catalogue of endangered foodstuffs deemed central to local and regional foodways but at risk of slipping out of consciousness because of biological extinction or abandoned production. Boiled cider, with its long, unbroken tradition of being made in New England, seemed to fit the bill, Watson said.

By the 1940s, boiled cider production had slowed to a trickle. Cane sugar had become inexpensive by comparison, and road improvements made it easy to get hold of. Orchards, too, were being cleared at such a clip that cider presses closed one by one; today just a couple of mills in Vermont are operating on a commercial scale.

Wood’s Cider Mill in Springfield, Vt., is one of the last remaining. Willis and Tina Wood, who once described themselves as “back-to-the-land hippies,” acquired the mill in 1974; it was a sawmill-turned-cider-mill that pressed its first batch of apples in 1882. The founders, Willis’s ancestors, turned out boiled cider from the start, using the same equipment and evaporative process they used for their maple syrup. Willis and Tina bought it from a cousin of Willis’s grandfather, who talked of producing boiled cider in the 1930s in such volume that barrels of it were shipped to a soft-drink manufacturer down South.

But by the ’60s, boiled cider had become anachronistic, even in Vermont, where it had once been so deeply ingrained in local cookery. “Our customers in the old days,” said Willis, “were little old ladies with tight blue curls.” He speculates, too, that boiled cider further lost appeal as Americans shied increasingly away from the kitchen. “Boiled cider is meant to be cooked with, and people gave up cooking,” he said.

And then sometime during the last decade, boiled cider drew a new fan base: a largely younger one, keen on small-batch food production and eager to restore the food traditions that industrialization had left behind.

“We’re beginning to recapture the apple culture of the past, and also to reinvent a new apple culture, which is so exciting for me,” says Tom Burford, an orchardist and apple historian who has been working to preserve biodiversity in the apple orchard for decades. When he operated a nursery with his brother near Monroe, Va., featuring nearly 500 varieties, a few of those were especially dear, their individual characteristics respected for very particular applications.

“My mother lived to be 99 years old,” Burford said. “And even in her 90s, she would always remind me to make sure I set aside two bushels of Virginia Beauty apples, to make boiled cider.”

Burford grew up in Amherst County, Va., an area once rife with orchards and still wealthy in apple production. In his childhood home, boiled cider always shared space with a bottle of hard cider on the back of the wood-burning stove. They were both used for cooking — or, when snow started to fall, in hot toddies that took the place of summer’s mint juleps. Equal parts boiled cider, hard cider and applejack, Appalachia’s once-illicit apple brandy, mellowed the chill and the temperament. (Burford recalls a friend of his father who suggested the toddies be boiled vigorously so that the children could drink them, too. Burford’s father, for his part, always gave his children the real thing.) “I have apple juice in my veins, really.”

Boiled cider can be difficult to find in the mid-Atlantic, but you can mail-order it from Wood’s (www.woodscidermill.com) or make it at home, which is straightforward enough: You’re just reducing fresh apple cider to about one-seventh of its original volume, trading a few hours of indolent stirring for a scent of caramelized apples that will linger twice as long as that.

Ideally you would use a varietal cider that smacks of tartness, such as one made of Winesaps or Crispins (also known as Mutsus), but that’s a trick unless you can find someone to custom-press a batch for you, because most ciders available these days are blends.

If that’s not an option, Burford suggests seeking out a cider with a little tang, which will sound the right notes when boiled into syrup: aromatic, bright, piercing. It’s autumn, on call.

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