There are two basic approaches to cider making. One uses apples as a starting point, a canvass that can be enhanced by the addition of any number of other flavor components. In the other approach, the apple is the whole point. Ciders who’s raison d’être is the expression of the apple require fruit with a special nuance and character, and sadly, such apples are in short supply. The modern marketplace is as much responsible for this state of affairs as Prohibition as many cider-worthy apples available in the 18th and 19th centuries have fallen out of favor with growers. Of the 7500 known apple varieties a mere 100 are grown commercially, and just 15 account for 90% of the fruit grown in the U.S. Lucky, or prescient, cider makers such as Steve Wood (Farnum Hill), Craig and Sharon Campbell (Tieton Ciderworks), Diane Flynt (Foggy Ridge) and Chuck and Charlotte Shelton (Albemarle Ciderworks) started with orchards and put in long neglected varieties well before cider became the hottest trend in the U.S. beverage market. Everyone else is scrambling, starting new orchards and meanwhile sourcing fruit any way they can. There is one resource that may have gone overlooked, the many orchards planted by 19th homesteaders and then, for a variety of reasons, abandoned. This is what Trudy and Jim Davis at Eaglemount Wines and Ciders have done, but there are still many old homestead orchards that remain untapped.
Travel down any one of the dirt roads found in Nevada County, California, for example, and you will almost certainly come across a piece of living history. Carved into the Sierra Nevada in the 19th century these roads lead to hundreds of gold mines and mining camps, remnants of an industry that took California from a sleepy backwater to an economic powerhouse within a few short years. Little remains of the saloons and blacksmith shops, the boarding houses and general stores. But what you will find are trees, trees laden with fruit, a living legacy of a time long past.
California wasn’t even an official US territory when those first nuggets were found at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. The population of San Francisco was about 200, and there were fewer than 10,000 non-native people in the entire state. That changed in a hurry, and by the time California became a state two years later the population had grown more than 10-fold. Not everyone who came was destined for mining, though. Some decided a more certain way to make their fortune was by supplying the miners with the essentials of living. As permanent mining camps sprang up, enterprising famers, planted orchards and vineyards to help feed the hungry hordes and provide the raw materials for the intoxicating drinks that helped while away the evening hours.
The early miners found gold deposits in the existing river beds, but this easy gold was soon exhausted and new methods of extraction brought into play. The most successful was hydraulic mining where pressurized water from upstream dams was used to blast off huge amounts of soil, freeing up the gold deposits beneath. The water runoff was directed into ditches that farmers tapped into to water their newly planted trees. Everybody thrived, and some got really rich. The trouble was that hydraulic mining was then, as now, an environmental disaster, both for the hillsides stripped to the bones as well as the communities flooded out by silted up rivers downstream. By the mid-1880s hydraulic mining in the Sierra Nevada had been effectively outlawed. The new hard rock mines that became the only way to get at the gold required capital that was beyond the reach of most miners, so one by one they moved on, leaving the once bustling mining camps and homesteads abandoned and the trees left to the bears.
A remarkable number of these orchards have survived into the 21st century, and remain surprisingly productive. Organic farming pioneer “Amigo” Bob Cantisano first encountered a handful of old Nevada County, CA orchards in the 1970s, and was so taken with their striking longevity under challenging conditions that he and his fiancée Jennifer Bliss have since made it their mission to locate, identify, and propagate these historic fruits through the non-profit organization The Felix Gillet Institute, named in honor of the visionary 19th century horticulturist who’s nursery was located in nearby Nevada City and who might well have supplied many of the area’s farmers with nursery stock. Founded in 2003 with just a handful of known locations having heritage trees, the FGI’s list has expanded to more that 700 sites over four counties – Nevada, Placer, Yuba, and Sierra.
The list of species they are considering is impressive – apples, pears, quince, cherries, plums, figs, grapes, almonds, filberts, walnuts, chestnuts, and pecans, just to name a few – and the number of varieties staggering. Each tree, shrub, or vine receives an initial assessment for location and environment, overall health, physical damage (usually from bears), productivity, and whether there is suitable growth available for propagation. If they are lucky they can assign a variety name as well, although this is often impossible in the field. Variety identification has been one of the major challenges as so many of the fruits and nuts that were available in the 1800s are quite rare today. Still, they and their colleague Adam Nubar have made quite a bit of progress, especially in the identification of heritage apples. It is exciting to note that any number of varieties that they’ve identified are not currently represented in any of the major collections in the U.S. Recently ten of the rare fruit and nut varieties discovered by the project have been included in the Slow Food Ark of Taste, further validation that these varieties are both unique and rare.
History comes alive in these orchards. There are Pitmaston Pineapples (1785) with their subtle pineapple undertones, Royal Russets (19th century) with sweet crisp pear-like flesh, and Wyken Pippins (late 18th century) who’s bright lemony flavor and tannic finish could make for a very interesting cider. Here is the White Pippin described in the 1860 Proceedings of the American Pomological Society as “worthy of notice.” Nearby is a Yellow Bellflower, an American variety who’s origins went undocumented, though William Coxe, author of The Cultivation of Fruit Trees, described what he believed to be the original tree in New Jersey as already large and old in 1817. Even older is the Bergamotte de Bugi pear, a winter pear who’s disputed origins are shrouded in mystery (French say some, Italian say others) but shows up in catalogs of pear trees as early as 1695, or the Caville Rouge d’Automne apple first described in France in 1670. The Reinette Verte (France, 1850) was reported to keep from December to May in an era before climate controlled warehouses. And in front of an old farmhouse one of America’s first super-star apples, the Newtown Pippin. Originating as a chance seedling on Long Island, NY in the early 18th century, the Newtown Pippin was championed by Thomas Jefferson and became a significant colonial export.
The ultimate goal of the FGI is the creation of a mother orchard that preserves as many examples as possible of these remarkable survivors so that scion-wood can be made readily available for future generations. The team has been grafting and selling a sampling from the FGI website for a couple of years, and in 2014 completed a crowd funding project through Barnraiser (a sort of agricultural Kickstarter) to start a multi-acre mother orchard at Heaven and Earth Farm.
But the original orchards continue to bear fruit that goes unused, except for local wildlife. Could they present some enterprising cider maker with the raw materials for a cider that celebrates apples and their remarkable diversity? Perhaps, but in the meanwhile the work being done by Amigo, Jennifer, and Adam will assure that an important resource will continue to survive well into the 21st century. We can only look forward to what forgotten “gold” their efforts will uncover next.