Growing up in rural England, cider plays a big part in your life. From the endless fields of apple orchards covering the countryside, to deciphering your favourite by sampling them all at the many, many bars and breweries, to the summertime cider festivals spent sipping in the sun. In many parts of England, cider and its making process is about more than the drink, it’s an entire culture, and with it come its own traditions and customs.
Although local cider-making has now become popular in the north of England, its roots are more in the Southeast and Southwest of the country. In these areas, each county has its own producers and varieties, from the smaller, cider-press-in-the-backyard makers to those that have become household names, such as Weston’s and Aspall’s. Travelling through the countryside in these areas, it is easy to spot, in amongst the orchards, the cider presses and bottling barns of the many local cider-makers, but along with the drink itself come many Old English traditions and rituals that have been observed and developed along the way.
The word waes-hal (or wassail) dates back to Anglo-Saxon times and means ‘to be in good health’. Wassailing is a celebration performed by locals to awaken the apple trees from their winter slumber, scare away evil spirits and ensure a good harvest. Around the 17th January, the original ‘Twelfth Night’ of the Julian calendar, wassailing (or ‘Howling’ as its called in the counties Sussex and Kent), is a celebration filled with hot mulled cider, singing, dancing, storytelling and old English rituals. Many wassailing rituals pay homage to fertility and ancient tree worship, and the ceremonies usually feature the following:
- Locals sing to the oldest and best apple tree in the village to ensure a good crop, before pouring cider onto the roots of the tree, whilst several gunshots are fired through the branches to ward off wicked ghosts. Toast soaked in cider is then hung in the branches to attract robins, the guardian spirits of the trees
- There is a candlelit parade through the orchards, with toasts raised to Pomona the Goddess of apples. This is accompanied by musical instruments and song, and often led by a Wassail King and Queen, crowned with wreathes of berries.
- A central Wassail song headlines many ceremonies and there are morris dancers and mummers plays (both old English folk performances)
- Thornbury wassail near Bristol even includes river nymphs, a unicorn and mud men parading through the town, whilst Jack Frost and a cider king also feature
Of course, accompanying these rituals there are plenty of local ciders for drinking and apple cake and hog roasts for eating. Wassail events are most popular in the cider-producing counties of southwest England (mainly Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire) and southeast England (such as Kent, Sussex, Essex and Suffolk).
3. Cider festivals
An important way of honouring and promoting cider is through cider festivals. From small villages and towns to large counties, cider festivals are a popular part of the Spring and Summer in England, with people travelling long distances to attend and try particular ciders for themselves. One example is the Big Apple event in Herefordshire, which occurs at Blossom time (April/May), when the apple orchards are in full bloom. The Big Apple hosts competitions where local cider-makers compete in various categories, coordinates guided walks through the blossoming orchards, and there is music and food. Guests can purchase a taster cup and wander round the festival, sampling all the many types of cider (and Perry, pear cider) on offer. Cider festivals like these are an important way of promoting, and enjoying, the delicious drink.
4. The importance of cider
The word ‘Cider’ itself likely derives from the Hebrew shekar or Greek sikera, meaning ‘strong drink’ and the process of making (and drinking) it can be traced back as far as 3000 BC, as there is evidence that Celts in Britain made cider from crab apples. Over the many years it has become an essential part of English life, particularly for the rural areas which produce it. So much so there are museums dedicated to it, for example the Museum of Cider in Hereford, in the county of Herefordshire. Here you can learn the processes of milling, pressing and fermenting apples in order to produce cider, and how the centuries-old tradition is still developing today. Cider remains an important element of English life, and I will certainly drink to that!