Autumn-my favorite time of the year.  It’s that time, at least in North America, when Mother Nature shows us her most colorful side as trees turn from verdant green to every imaginable shade of red, yellow, and orange; a time when the hills and valleys become ablaze with color.  The aroma of wood smoke fills the air for the first time in months as wood stoves and fire places are once again lit to ward off the chill that starts to pervade the night air.  Everywhere you look the sights, sounds, and smells of autumn are all around, from farmers frantically harvesting the last of their fields, before the frost takes their crops, to the roadside stands loaded with the Fall bounty; pumpkins, corn, nuts, squashes, root vegetables and, of course, apples.

I love apples and not just because they are great to eat and star in so many fantastic desserts, but because they are the basis for two of my favorite beverages, cider and hard cider.  Cider, I’m talking the sweet kind here, is the epitome of Autumn distilling all that is wonderful about the season into a sweet-tart, beautifully brown and cloudy drink.  Sure, cider may not have that jewel-like sparkle of many other juices and beverages, but it’s brief appearance in the marketplace tugs at my heart and taste buds like no other drink.
Throughout most of the world Cider refers to an alcoholic drink, similar in strength to beer, and fermented from the juice of apples, while in the U.S.  cider usually refers to the sweet, unfermented , unclarified juice of apples and the fermented beverage is known as hard cider and these are how I will use these terms for the rest of this article.

While the exact location of where the apple was first harvested, somewhere in central Asia, it is well known that apples were being grown and harvested well over 4000 years ago in both Eygpt and the Middle East.  I can’t imagine that from there it took long to figure out how to extract the juice from those apples, and, knowing human nature, don’t imagine it took long after that to figure out how to ferment that juice into a tasty, intoxicating beverage.  No matter where the apple, and thus cider, got its start it has been a staple for most of the modern history of Europe, at least from the Roman times forward.  Even today apples play a huge roll in Europe with 3 of the top 10 apple producing countries being from Europe, Poland being its top producer and 4[sup]th[/sup]in the world, while Britian leads the world in hard cider production and consumption.

Here, in the U.S. cider production started almost as soon as the first colonists arrived.  Apple trees were brought from Europe and immediately planted and while some of the cider produced was drunk sweet and unfermented, the vast majority was turned into a fermented beverage that the whole family, including the children, enjoyed.  Hard cider, like many alcoholic beverages played an important role in the health of the colonists as often water was not safe for drinking.  While wine, brandy, and beer were also important beverages at the time it has been suggested that hard cider was the drink of choice, at least in the New England colonies and it is theorized that at least 1 in every 10 farms had a working cider mill attached.  Unfortunately, by the mid 1800’s the temperance movement was building up steam and many orchards of cider apples, as opposed to culinary or dessert apples, where uprooted, chopped down and burned.  It’s hard to imagine just how many types of apples were forever lost as growing numbers of Americans began to demonize the consumption of alcohol.  While sweet cider continued to be a beverage of choice, here in the U.S. the hard cider industry was decimated and it has only been in the last 10-15 that Americans are starting to rediscover what their European counterparts have never forgotten, that hard cider is wonderfully drink and worthy of reviving.

As I alluded to above, apples can be classified either as cider apples or culinary (or dessert or sweet) apples.  In general culinary apples are sweeter, with a thinner skin and softer flesh, while cider apples tend to be more tart, more tannic, with thicker skins and oftentimes a much harder flesh.  With over 7,500 different varieties of apples in the world today a much smaller fraction of those apples are considered culinary apples, while the majority, which can include many different types of crab apples being considered cider apples.  Sweet cider is usually made strictly from culinary apples creating a sweet-tart beverage.  Oftentimes it is a blend of different apples to add more depth and complexity to the drink.  One of the great joys of purchasing sweet cider, unpasteurized from local producers is tasting how the cider changes throughout the season as different apples ripen.  I usually find early season cider to be a little thin and lacking in complexity, although still good, just as early season apples tend to be sweet and mild. As the season progresses the cider changes as different apples ripe, lending their distinct differences to each and every batch made.  You won’t find that in the pasteurized stuff you find at your grocery store, which often comes from giant producers from hundreds of miles away.

Hard cider is produced with a mixture of culinary and cider apples.  Good hard ciders will be a mix of numerous types of apples each providing their own flavor profile to the end product.  Hard ciders made with a mix heavy on culinary apples will often be vinous in nature with a mild apple flavor, while cider made from a mixture heavy on cider apples will be more robust, with a tannic backbone and a stronger apple flavor that comes through the final product.  Also because of the high tannins, cider made with a majority of cider apples takes much better to aging in casks, adding another layer of complexity to the mix.  While the U.S. has started to rediscover the joys of cider, much of the hard cider produced is still in the style made popular by the Woodchuck brand, meaning highly carbonated and pretty sweet.  Although small producers are starting to experiment with other styles, we have a long way to go to catch up to our European counterparts.

The internet is full of recipes that use cider, both sweet and hard, but the vast majority of those recipes are for drinks, cocktails and desserts.  I’d like to offer up a couple of ways to use cider in savory dishes.  The added bonus is that both of these recipes use a mix of both sweet and hard cider.  Enjoy.

Cider Steamed Mussels

While I don’t know if you could find this dish in Normandy, France it certainly would be right at home in a region known for its cream, its apple, and its seafood.  This recipe serves 1 to 2 people;  1 person as an entrée, 2 people as an appetitizer.

1 pound mussels, picked over and debearded

½ large shallot, peeled and thinly sliced

1 tsp.  butter

½ cup  hard cider, look for a drier style like Blackthorn

¼ cup  sweet cider

¼ cup  heavy cream

1 Tbs.  parsley, finely minced

Wash the mussels in cold water to remove any dirt.  Pick them over and discard and dead ones then debeard them by removing the “hairy” beard sticking out of the side.  Set aside.  In a large sauté pan melt the butter over high heat.  Add the shallot and sauté until soft but not brown.  Toss in the mussels followed by the hard cider.  Allow to cook for 2 minutes then add the sweet cider and cream and cover.  Steam until the mussels just open.  Remove the mussels to a serving bowl and reduce the sauce until just slightly thickened.  Pour over the mussels and garnish with the parsley.  Serve with lots of crusty bread for mopping up the sauce.

Pork Chops with Cider Braised Sauerkraut
This is a very popular dish at our house, especially when made with my homemade sauerkraut.

Serves 4

4 each  Pork chops, bone in

1 small onion, peeled and cut into a julienne

1 small apple, preferably granny smith or other apple that stands up well to cooking

4 cups  sauerkraut

½ cup  hard cider

1 cup  sweet cider

½ tsp.  caraway seeds (optional)

2 Tbs.  vegetable oil

Heat a large sauté pan over high heat.  While that is heating season the chops with salt and pepper.  Add the oil to the pan.  When almost to the point that the oil starts to smoke add the pork chops (in batches if necessary) to the pan and brown both sides.  Remove from the pan and reserve.  Add the onions and sauté until soft and just starting to brown.  Add the sauerkraut and apples and sauté for 2 minutes.  Deglaze the pan with the hard cider and reduce by half. Add the sweet cider, and caraway seeds, if using, and give a good stir.  Place pork chops on top of sauerkraut and cover pan with a lid.  Reduce heat to medium and cook for 8-12 minutes, or until the pork chops are cooked through.  Remove pork chops, return pan to high heat and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, stirring often to prevent burning.  Serve along with boiled potatoes tossed with butter and parsley.

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