Fruits of abstinence

Much as it pains me to say it, apple cider is better without the alcohol

The early colonists found little or nothing that they liked among the native fruits of North America, and their attempts to ferment the wild grapes that grew in the forests led to a foul-tasting concoction that had only medicinal uses. But apples and pears transplanted from the old continent produced firm, sweet fruit in abundance. Nowhere did apples flourish better than in Virginia, whose warm, humid climate and well-drained soil produces the sweetest apples I have tasted.

The rich, spicy jam known as apple butter has become, for those who were born in the Old Dominion, a poignant symbol of home - a treacly distillation of those warm autumn days, when Virginians forget about Washington, sit on the porch watching the dead leaves dropping in the courtyard, and sing of the "old rugged cross".

Prohibition all but destroyed the apple orchards of Virginia, as it banned their most popular product. Henceforth cider could be sold only as unfermented apple juice; all over the country, orchards were uprooted and the apple stores put to other uses, or else left to rot in the fields.

But there was a good aspect to this oppressive law, which is the drink known today as "apple cider": the sweet, murky brown liquid made from crushed apples, which you can buy by the gallon. Our apple cider is neither pasteurised nor filtered - which means that it will begin to ferment if kept at room temperature, turning into the drink Americans know as "hard cider", and which we know as cider tout court.

Apple cider could be legally sold during the days of Prohibition and buyers could then ferment it at home. Hence it found a niche market, and survived to take its place beside apple butter in the autumn larder.

Painful though it is for a disciple of Bacchus to say so, sweet, natural, untreated Virginian cider is incomparably superior to its alcoholic cousin, and better by far than the pasteurised, clarified "apple juice" that you can find on the supermarket shelf. As fresh and lively as the juice of citrus fruits, but with a sweetness all of its own, it is the perfect refreshment during manual labour. Heated and spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, it makes a passable stirrup cup, and is served as such at our local fox hunts.

Indeed, a true hippophile will serve both mulled cider for the rider and untreated cider for the horse, so that the two can drink to their companionship before risking their lives on the hill. And when the hunt is over, there is no better breakfast than a "ham biscuit", made with ham cooked in apple cider.

Writing this way about a sweet soft drink is depressing work: but mercifully I can raise my spirits with a glass of something better: Chardonnay from Sharp Rock at the foot of Old Rag Mountain, where the orchard was also uprooted, to be replanted, thank heavens, with vines.