Mistletoe

During my research in England, I wrote some observations (reposted below) about my encounters with mistletoe, and I recently got to revisit them in a conversation with Annie Corrigan on WFIU Radio’s Earth Eats Program.  If you are interested in further information on mistletoe, please visit pages by Jonathan Briggs, whose work has brought the botany, conservation, and social history of mistletoe out of the orchard and into the 21rst century: Mistletoe Matters and Jonathan’s Mistletoe Diary.

IMG_2680December 8, 2011.  It is a windy, rainy day outside, and at 3:30pm, I definitely need the lights on inside.  I am perched on my little snug chair next to the woodstove. The darkness of winter here has definitely been one of the hardest things for me to deal with, and if left to natural devices, I would probably take a cue from the other furry mammals about and go into hibernation for the next few months.  The days are definitely shorter here than back at home, but I think part of it is the fact that my fieldwork takes me outside a lot.  Instead of being compelled to get to work in a lighted building for eight hours, I find the waxing and waning of the sun’s light has a much greater influence on my experience of the working day.

During this dark period, another product of the orchard has preoccupied me for the past several weeks, and that is mistletoe.  I only learned that mistletoe favored growing on apple trees, and particularly in the south-west midlands of Britain, in October, when my wwoof host at the Hatch pointed it out to me as we were harvesting apples and pears from the orchard.  He mentioned that he used to sell the mistletoe, but the comment escaped my notice until someone mentioned the Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Auction to me some time later.

The town of Tenbury Wells is located just on the borders of three counties – Herefordshire, Shropshire, and Worcestershire.  And allegedly, these mistletoe auctions have been going on for the past 150 years, though they were threatened with closure recently when the cattle market, where they were held, closed.  In an effort to help save the auctions and retain one of the town’s claims to fame, some folks cooked up the Mistletoe Festival, complete with a mistletoe queen, a Druid procession, and various other Christmas activities.  You can read more about it on their website here.

While the festival itself is, of course, interesting as a consciously invented tradition, I was actually more interested in the relationship of the mistletoe sales to the issues of orchard management.  It turns out that mistletoe thrives in old and traditionally managed orchards. I sent off some inquiring emails to the estate agents who run the auction, and received a reply from a local farmer who was happy to talk to me.

Armed with my photographic equipment, I set off to the first auction, which happened on Nov 29th.  Turns out I wasn’t the only one with a camera.  There were LOADS of camera-toting people there, from amateur on-lookers to highly professional rigs.  One guy, who turned out to be a floral photographer, even had his assistant/model, all dolled up in ‘authentic’ looking pristine wellies and beautifully matching fuzzy lavender hat and gloves, posing as if she was inspecting and buying the mistletoe.  The place was just dripping in nostalgia, or at least that is what all the photographers seemed to be framing in their cameras.

The actual business of the auction, though, seemed to go on without much notice of the photographers and onlookers.  And it was really business.  The auctioneer, with hs portable loudspeaker and cadre of assistants keeping track of the lot numbers, bidders, and prices, moved up and down the rows of wreaths, holly, and mistletoe, offering a starting price, sometimes with a comment to the quality (“look at the berries on that”) and taking the bids from the small crowd of what seemed to be seasoned veteran buyers. People in the middle of conducting business transactions aren’t terribly interested in being interviewed, so this situation required a lot more courage, so to speak, on my part, going up to people and asking if they would answer a few questions in between hauling their green purchases to their vans, lorries, and cars.

The guys pictured here had driven all the way from Cork, Ireland and slept in their van and were filling it to the brim for the trip home, where they would sell it through their Christmas tree yard.  They were very friendly. Many of the buyers were from florists and garden centers, along with some other small scale Christmas tree vendors.  My best tactic for talking to people seemed to be to stand near the bidding action, and turn to the person next to me to ask if they were selling or buying, and launch into an uninvited conversation.  The next week, when I returned for the next auction, I came armed with a printed survey in self-addressed, stamped, envelopes, which I could simply give to people to complete and mail back to me at their leisure.  Even so, it was hard to get it into a lot of hands.  I didn’t meet any sellers, but on my second visit, I walked up and down the rows of mistletoe and holly writing down the names and addresses of the sellers written on the tags of each lot.  Not all had addresses, but it might be a start for contacting sellers and talking to them later.

One group of people whom I have not had the courage to talk to yet are the gypsies.  Along with the farmers who bring mistletoe from their orchards to sell, there are groups of gypsies who gather it from farmers’ orchards and sell it on at the auction.  I did walk up to two men who seemed to be lingering by the side of the auction yard among groups of people whom I took to be gypsies.  As I tried to start a conversation with them, their first question was if I was a journalist, after which, one of them ranted for a bit about how it wasn’t all christmas cheer and roses harvesting the mistletoe.  It was hard work, at which point, he pulled up his sweater to show me an enormous scar running across his side and up to his ribcage.  I attempted to banter for a bit, and they seemed to warm up to me, but I decided not to push questions.  Maybe later.

I did go visit one farm, Eastham Court Farm near Tenbury Wells. I was greeted, to my surprise, by a 22-year old guy, recently graduated from an engineering degree, who had moved home to his parents’ farm.  And while he was sorting out what to do next, he had taken their mistletoe business in hand and set up an online direct-sales business, bypassing the auction.  You can find his website here.  He emphasized the need for farmers to change and adapt to new ways of doing business.  He took me out into their orchards: organic, 60-year old orchards which he seemed to think were in definite decline.  Even though they were lovely places to be, with their widely spaced, large, old trees, he didn’t think orchards like this would last much longer, as newer orchards with more closely-spaced, smaller trees were replanted. And there was the mistletoe, hanging in lacy green orbs from the branches of the trees, sometimes almost overwhelming them.  The farmers have to cut it back every year, or it will sap the energy of the tree and decrease the apple harvest, if not kill it slowly outright.  Piles of mistletoe lay on the ground, much of it to be discarded, as there was just too much even to sell.

Posted in Events, History, Landscapes, Orchards, UK | Leave a comment

Hollenbeck’s Cider Mill – A Thanksgiving Miracle

IMG_3671On the day before Thanksgiving, I was driving from Corning, New York to Massena, New York, in order to spend the holiday with my grandmother.  Somewhere between Ithaca and Cortland, I made a wrong turn, and I ended up driving through the tiny village of Virgil, no more than a crossroads, where there was an unusual massing of motorists, all turning in at one spot.  Naturally, my folklore sense sprung into action, and in a split second, I was turning into this full parking lot to find out what could possibly be motivating everyone else to drive through a harrowing snowstorm to a barn in the middle of nowhere.  It turns out, I was at Hollenbeck’s Cider Mill.  I end up at Cider Mills even when I’m not looking for them!  I swear, it’s a gift, or a Thanksgiving Miracle!  When I walked inside, there was a line of people snaking around the rather large interior, past large crates of apples, past displays of maple syrup and cheddar cheese, past the register where several cheerful ladies were writing up orders, and beyond to a room full of cardboard boxes.  There were probably upwards of 100 people waiting courteously in line.  Are they picking up specially ordered Thanksgiving Turkeys, I wondered?  No – they were all waiting in line for apple pie.

I asked one gentleman what it was all about.  He’d been waiting in line 15-20 minutes and still had some way to go.  He said it was all about the pies.  The best pies around – the best pies in the State of New York, even.  It was an annual tradition.  Last year, he said, the line had also gone out the door and into the parking lot.  I’m guessing the snow probably kept some folks away this year.

Make no mistake folks, I will be returning to Hollenbeck’s Cider Mill to sample the pie, as well as the cider.  Dedication like this must mean something.  I didn’t have time to wait in line – I had several more hours of driving over the river and through the woods to Grandma’s house through the snow.  Happy Thanksgiving, and God Bless these pie makers and the cider pressers.

Posted in North America, Northeast | 1 Comment

Lambic, the Cider of Beers

IMG_2863Today, I want to talk about Belgian beer. I’ve been doing some travelling in Europe to attend a conference. Brussels happened to be the cheapest airport to fly into, which to me, was the universe telling me to go explore the history of my favorite beers. It might not be cider, but it is close, and I’ll explain why as we go.

I first learned to drink beer in Montreal, when I went to college. Not a bad place for beer – Quebec makes some great ones and is unapologetic about its drinking habits. The legal drinking age is still 18, and one of the dorms at the university is even named ‘Molson.’ I remember regularly quaffing Griffon and Boreal in smoky bars while discussing modernist Canadian poetry. So, beer was good, but still not something I found particularly exciting.

I really learned to love beer from a former boyfriend who was a bartender.   We didn’t work out in the end. But, I did learn a lot about beer from IMG_2818him, and on his advice I tried for the first time things like Tripel Karmeliet, Veuuve, Trappists Rochefort, and kriek. I really loved the various tastes of Belgian beers – the light, floral, slightly spicy aromas and sour tastes. Trappists Rochefort had such a rich, smooth, malty sweetness.  This was the kind of beer you could think about and talk about, the kind that turns you into a beer nerd – a delight for the senses rather than just something to thoughtlessly drain from your glass at a party.

I’d learned to love the tastes of Belgian beer over the years, but I didn’t know very much about it, so it was the perfect opportunity while in Brussels to take the Brussels Beer Tour. You could probably accomplish all the things on the tour on your own by tracking down all the locations and doing some background reading. But I only had 1 full day in Brussels, so the tour was a great way to get it all in at once, with a great guide. At 45 euros, it was a little pricey, but considering you get to taste 5 beers (probably a total volume of 3 pints) and a guided 3-4 hour tour with a very entertaining and witty guide, it was well worth it.  We began the tour with a discussion of trappist beer in the oldest pub in Brussels, Au Bon Vieux Temps, serving beer since 1695.

For those who love traditional cider, I’d say learning about Belgian beer is a wonderful complement of knowledge, especially regarding the production methods, traditions, and tastes of open-fermented lambic.  Lambic, I learned, is not just fruity beer. It is traditionally an open-fermented beer, meaning it is made without the use of commercial yeast. Traditional cider is made in a similar way, allowing the yeasts present in the air and the environment to inoculate the juice and begin the fermentation. Lambic is made in the winter, taking advantage of cold temperatures to quickly cool the wort after boiling it, to discourage bacterial growth end encourage ideal yeast inoculation from the air.

Of course, before Pasteur isolated yeast in the mid 19th century, all fermented beverages were made this way. So, as our tour guide reminded us while tasting the sour lambic, this is probably what all beer tasted like before the use of commercial yeast strains. The similarity of taste between lambic and farmhouse cider was quite striking – and the tour guide actually explicitly remarked on traditional cider as a taste comparison. Many of the folks on the tour found the sour lambic to be a challenging taste. Of course, I loved it! The sour fruity taste of traditional lambic is characteristic of the open fermentation process, and has nothing to do with added fruit, though fruit flavoured lambics, such as the famous kriek, also made.

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Pouring Lambic in the tasting room at Cantillon

We also had the opportunity to taste Kriek, made by inducing a second fermentation of lambic in the presence of sour cherries, as well as Gueuze, a blend of 1, 2 and 3 year old lambics. The younger lambic, not entirely fermented, induces a second fermentation in the bottle, creating a slight sparkle to the beer. This is where I experienced the true champagne of beer.

IMG_2881All of this, and much more, we learned during our tour of Canitillon, a traditional brewery within the city of Brussels. I met a very enthusiastic guy from Los Angeles who seemed to be a long-time follower of the brewery, who told me that the current owner’s father saved the brewery when all the rest in Brussels went under by selling door to door. Indeed, as we toured through the facility, our guide pointed out all the production machinery had been bought second-hand in the 1930s, some of it dating from the late 19th and early 20th century. The copper boiling vats and the enormous shallow copper pan where the wort is cooled quickly and exposed to the air for yeast inoculation were particularly impressive.

I don’t want to explain too much about lambic production, as it is all still mostly new to me. But there is something about open-fermentation that remains mysterious, magical, and unique among craft beers and ciders. This, to me, is the real taste of place – where the resident natural yeasts play just as big a part in terroir as soil type, fruit varieties, or traditional recipes.

What impresses me about quality open fermented drinks is the cooperation between the brewer / cider maker with his environment. Even though it happens spontaneously, the producer has to create the ideal conditions, so that the natural yeasts grow and undesirable organisms don’t take over.

All in all, the magic of open fermentation is something I hope more brewers experiment with.  And Belgium?  It was fantastic.  I’d live in Brussels any day.

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“Magic of Cider” on WFIU Earth Eats with Annie Corrigan

Magic Of Cider, Art Of Coffee Roasting, Season Of Paw Paws | Earth Eats - Indiana Public Media_Page_1I recently had the opportunity to do an interview about cider with WFIU Earth Eats producer Annie Corrigan.  Here’s the link to the Earth Eats site, where you can listen to the podcast!  I love radio.

http://indianapublicmedia.org/eartheats/magic-cider-art-coffee-roasting-season-paw-paws/

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The Big Apple of Colborne, Ontario – Taking a Bite Out of the 401



IMG_2685Anyone who’s ever suffered through the mind-numbing stop-and-go traffic (14 whole lanes of it!) crawling through Toronto on the 401 Highway will probably also have driven by this delightful roadside apple sculpture as they head east towards Montreal.  Towering over the highway, The Big Apple beckons weary travellers to stop at this temple of of a pie factory and refresh their spirits after the several circles of traffic hell they’ve been through in Toronto.

It is located in Ontario’s apple region on the shores of the great lake.  We’ve been driving past since I was a child, but now it’s bigger than ever – there’s even put-put and an animal adventure area!  Since the 401 is one of the most boring highways ever, it draws surprisingly big crowds on a summer weekend, eager for any excuse to get out of the car.

No cider yet, but their website promises the addition of the 401 Cider Brewery.  Stay tuned Ontario drivers, you might be able to get a cider along with your pie soon.  Just don’t get back on the road if you’ve enjoyed it too much.  There are enough wrecks on the 401 already.

Posted in Canada, North America, Northeast | 1 Comment

Cider on the Prairie

IMG_2624I decided to pay a visit to a place very close to my heart: Conner Prairie Living History Museum, where I worked for about five summers during college. I had not been back in many years, and I was excited to find, in addition to familiar memories of my first experiences in orchards, some pleasing new connections to cider and wine.

Just north of Indianapolis, this museum has several recreated historic areas depicting the development of European settlement in the state of Indiana during the nineteenth century: an 1816 Lenape Trading Post, an 1836 Prairietown village and a Civil War era farm.  I spent a lot of time here wearing excessive amounts of clothing  while doing period cooking over an open fire, and it was here that I first fell in love with historic agriculture and cookery.

Though there are many historic and reconstructed buildings in the museum, the only building original to the property is the 1820s farmhouse built by William Conner – fur trader, settler, farmer, and entrepreneur – which overlooks an agriculturally advantageous horse-shoe bend of the White River.

I’ve always loved houses of this period: the high ceilings and large windows let in so much light and air.  Even on a hot day, they are flung open, allowing the outdoor and indoor worlds to co-mingle.  The kitchens, based around a hearth and a worktable, have room to move in – theatres in the round of culinary action, based around moving bodies instead of appliances.  And there is nothing so alive as an open hearth, where cooking is a matter of well-honed instinct for the smell of baking (or burning) bread, and a sense of temperature according to the skin, rather than a thermometer.

One of the things I loved about working there was the effect it had on the senses.   There are many criticisms to be levelled at living history museums – that they tidy up the past into a theme-park fantasy, focus too much on white rural settler narratives at the expense of other American experiences, and create awkward scenarios for visitor interaction.  But I still believe in their fundamental purpose of introducing history as something that can be partially experienced through the body.  The trick is in moving the experience beyond simple fantasy to sympathy, where one’s bodily, sensory grasp of the material conditions of the past inspires a more personal interior understanding of another individual’s possible experience.  To walk in another person’s shoes, to cook at another person’s hearth.  To press apples the way it was done in 1836.  Sympathy is, I believe, a profoundly democratic aspiration, and a morally and socially complex approach to history.

Spending a good portion of the day working in an un-electrified environment with no running water slows down the pace of life immensely.   Sometimes, during a few slow hours, I would just watch shadows creep across the floor.  It profoundly changed my sense of light, colour, and visual perception.

IMG_2657Occasionaly on my lunch break, I walked through the old neglected orchard on the back end of the property, in an area that was at that time off-limits to visitors.  The apples, a golden yellow variety named “Early Transparent” which ripen in July, would fall to the ground and begin to rot, making the humid air thick with the perfume of pulp fermenting in the searing Indiana sun.  Since the museum’s expansions in recent years, it has been cleaned up, the old decrepit trees removed.  Currently, only a few remain, but even these produce enough for the possibility of cider-making.

I played a number of characters in the historic village, each with varying degrees of museum-sanctioned, historically accurate biography, and a lot of material improvised during the everyday interactions of museum staff, where the lines between history, theatre, and everyday life were sometimes ephemeral and shifting.   I often mused on the possible inner lives of the fictional characters I portrayed in short poems, including this one , about a young woman living on a new farm at the edge of the wilderness, dreaming of an orchard in the more settled, cultivated life she had left back east.  Settlers on the frontier are usually portrayed as looking confidently forward, into the wilderness in the American Myth. But so much of the transformation of that frontier was created by looking backwards.  The space on the zone of transformation, between forest and orchard, must have been fraught with  excitement, regret, and trepidation.

IMG_2586I was excited to find that one of my old co-workers, who had started as a teen volunteer when I worked there, was now a full time staff member who seems to be influencing things in favour or historic beer, wine, and cider making!  Witness this project in progress at the carpentry shop, a cider press apparently constructed after a historic design.  I’ve not seen one like this before, so I am keen to find out more about it.

She had success last year with elderberry wine.  The berries on the bush outside the barn look promising, and bottles labeled “Elderberry” sit temptingly on the shelves of the tavern room in the reconstructed Golden Eagle Inn in the 1836 village.

I hope to be able to report back about the progress of cider making at Conner Prairie later in the fall, especially regarding the historical research they are drawing on to portray cider making in nineteenth century Indiana.

Posted in Apple Varieties, History, Landscapes, Midwest, North America, Orchards | Leave a comment

Elderflower Detour

IMG_2498 June in Indiana is the time to gather Elderflowers, though almost no one does, except me.    Some folks here are familiar with the elderberry as an edible fruit for pies or cordials, but floral tastes are not something that seem to be part of the culinary canon here in the midwest.  I certainly had never heard of elderflower at all until my first trip to England in 2004, and then it was a revelation.

The task that still haunts my memory most vividly from Old Chapel Farm near Llanidloes, Wales, where I spent a month as a WWOOF volunteer and have returned to many times since, was gathering elderflowers and making wine.  Home wine-making, canning, or preserving were not part of my suburban childhood.  My mother valiantly tried to introduce us to gardening on our summer holidays, but it never stuck.  I came to love it much later, in my own time.  But she did always lovingly tend the flowers by the front door and kept houseplants thriving through the winter.  Green things always seemed natural companions in our home, more like silent green pets than objects of toil.

At Old Chapel, we trudged up and down the valley in search of elderflower bushes.  They always seemed to love ditches and stream beds best, and you would find yourself reaching  out precariously over some muddy bank to pick the large lacy flower heads.

IMG_2478Here in Indiana, I had no idea when elderflower would bloom in our much warmer climate, nor even if and where it might grow here.  I was lucky to get advice from a few of my local foraging friends.  It turns out the elderflower still blooms in June.  And it still loves ditches and roadsides and fence lines.  I found one bush just down an alley near my house.  A friend took me for a drive along the winding hilly roads north of Bloomington, where we spotted several enormous bushes.  The jury is still out on whether these will produce as fragrant a flavour as the elder in England.  I believe these bushes are a slightly different species.  The flower heads are enormous, and the fragrance dimmer.

The English love affair with Elderflower is something I wish I could translate here.  In the brewery room of the barn at Old Chapel, dozens of glass demi-johns filled with home-made wine lined the walls.  Plum, Elderflower, Apple, Rice Wine, Tea Wine.  The air was alive with the smell of yeast.  A honey extractor stood on the back table.  Empty jars overflowed from a bin, waiting to be filled with jams and preserves.  To me, this room was the most magical room I could imagine.  I would sneak inside just to look at the rows bottles refracting sunlight through the muted jewel tones of the fermenting liquids.

For the cider maker, as one of my friends described it, making elderflower wine is a good distraction in the early summer when next season’s cider making is still several months away.  This was certainly true for my friends in the Marches Cyder Circle, in North Herefordshire, who invited me to an Elderflower Champagne party, where everyone brought their fizzy versions of the brew.  Prizes went to both the best tasting drink and the bottle that shot the cork highest in the air.

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I don’t recall ever seeing a commercial elderflower wine.  Elderflower pressé, cordial, jam, etc, was of course available everywhere in Britain.  But the wine seemed to be something reserved for home-making.  I’ve often wondered why?  Is it too difficult to mass-produce?  Is it unpalatable for all but the staunch traditionalist?

In June 2012, while I was living in Shropshire and Herefordshire, I met Keith Pybus, a local walker, maker of jams and preserves, and an enthusiast of the elderflower’s culinary history.  He helped host an elderflower event with Grow, Cook, Share, a local gardening and cooking initiative.  Among the delights was an elderflower cheesecake or Sambocade, adapted from a medieval recipe.

IMG_2525To eat a flower always seems rather strange and indulgent – feasting on delicate aromas and textures that have not had the chance to fill out into the juicy, satisfying substantiality of fruit.  To eat a flower is almost to consume an idea of fruit, the logic of its imminent architecture in the flower’s shape, the soul of the plant hovering in its fragrance.  I always tend to see the world through hyper-poetic glasses, but isn’t eating a flower savage and elegant all at once?  And to drink a flower, to make it into wine: that borders on the magical.

Below is a photograph of the recipe I copied into my journal in June of 2004 at Old Chapel Farm, on which I based my recipe this year, 10 years later.  It’s a little off, but a good record of my personal history of elderflower and a fair starting point for a recipe.  5 lbs of sugar should really be 5 kilos (roughly 12 lbs).  This time, I used more flower heads to ensure the floral tIMG_2527aste, as well as a splosh of black tea for tannin.  And I used a commercial wine yeast suited to delicate floral flavors.  After fermenting in the brew bucket for about two weeks, I transferred it to the glass carboy with an airlock, and I can report that it is still bubbling slowly several weeks later.  Next year, in June, we’ll hopefully be drinking it!

 

Posted in Elderflower, Landscapes, North America, UK | 1 Comment