BLACKTHORN AUTHENTIC ENGLISH DRY HARD CIDER
By Paul Quackenbush
Sunshine Imports is now importing TAUNTON'S BLACKTHORN CIDER, England's most famous brand of authentic dry hard cider. As far as I know this is the first time since 18th century colonial America, that authentic English dry hard cider is available in America. Taunton's Blackthorn is very different than the hard ciders that are now being fermented in America, and you will soon discover why. The English have been fermenting cider since before the time of the Roman occupation….and that means for more than twenty centuries.
Let me makes this analogy so you can understand the place of hard cider in English culture: Wines is to France, as beer is to Germany, as hard cider is to England…And very few Americans are even aware of the magnificent flavor of this beverage, or its significance in English history.
What follows is the true tale of this mythic beverage, loved by millions of Englishmen, which explains why, for over a decade, I have dreamed about introducing it to Americans…dreams have power.
A LITTLE TASTE FROM THE HOLY GRAIL OF ENGLISH CIDER HISTORY
My good friend and business associate Conrad Martin lives in the English town of Glastonbury, in Somerset county. In ancient Celtic times, before these lands were drained, this area was an known as the Isle of Avalon, or the Isle of Apples. Remember that the Celts were building their stone monuments, like Stonehenge, while the Egyptians were building their pyramids 3,500 years ago….long before the Greeks built their Acropolis.
Ask anyone familiar with English history and they will tell you that when King Arthur fell at the battle of Camlan he was carried to the "Island of Apples" in Glastonbury. . in the hopes of healing his wounds. . . and "there apple trees sprung up from the short grass in the woods". It is interesting to note that the first large scale cider apple orchards were planted in Somerset county in the 6th century which corresponds to the time of King Arthur's reign.
Conrad's home sits on the side of a five hundred foot high legendary hill called the Tor. Legend has it that the Tor is one of those famous mystical mounds built by the Celts around 1,000 BC, and like Stonehenge, was a place for pagan rites and celebrations. Actually it appears that the Tor is made of rock and created by nature.
As you know apples are a fruit of mythic proportions in many cultures. Everyone recalls the tree in the Garden of Eden which imparted knowledge of good and evil to those who tasted of its fruit. The Greeks had their Golden Apple of Hesperides, which "were presented by Earth to Zeus after marriage with Hera, and guarded by an immortal dragon with a hundred heads", and which were visited by men passing to the Happy Other World."
The ancient Celts believed that the apple and its cider was a connection to the Otherworld, and that sacred apples conferred the gift of immortality. A belief in their sacred character features strongly in medieval mysticism and folk-beliefs of England. In Wales, apples play an important role in divinatory rites, a power presumably conferred on the eater by their Otherworld connections. It is therefore understandable that Merlin would choose the apple trees of Glastonbury as a place to utter his magical chants.
With all of this primal mythic history, it naturally follows that Glastonbury, and the apple orchids of Somerset country, would be considered the most mystical place in England. Over time its importance increased as it became, in the sixth century, a central location in the Quest for the Holy Grail and the Arthurian legends.
For the England of Arthurian legend, drinking a glass of apple cider was not just drinking a beverage, but a potion of magical dimension. In this context it is easy to understand why such a beverage would be called a " spirit".
In the legend of The Holy Grail, the Jewish merchant, Joseph of Arimathea, brought his nephew Jesus here, and then after the Cruxification Joseph brings the cup (grail) Jesus drank from at the last supper, back to Glastonbury …and the Quest for the lost Holy Grail begins. Both Glastonbury and The Tor are mentioned in the following scholarly books: The Holy Grail, by Norma Lorre Goodrich, and The Quest for Merlin by Nikolai Tolstoy. The Tor was also the place where knights came for their initiation ceremony…and Merlin, who was a real man, might appear at any moment. It is well documented that Glastonbury Cathedral, the most famous cathedral in England for 1,000 years, is where King Arthur's wife, Queen Guinivere, was buried.
Another facet of Glastonbury's mythic dimension: When St. Joseph returned to England with the Holy Grail, he planted his staff into the soil by the Tor and it began to grow. The staff was made from the Blackthorn bush, and to this day the plant, which is a native of Syria, still grows on the Tor. The Blackthorn bush has been planted in others parts of the British Isles, but only on the Tor does it blossom forth with the white flowers at Easter and Red flowers at Christmas. Each year a sprig of its flower are taken from the Tor and presented to the Queen. These blossoms can be seen through Conrad's kitchen window.
If there is anything comparable to a "Holy Land" in England, this is it.
CONNOISSEURS' CIDER APPLES
Conrad's family has been in the hard cider business for four decades, so you might say his connoisseur's passion for hard cider rubbed off on me, and I too immersed myself in its delicious history….
By the 10th century apple orchids were growing new breeds of "dry not sweet" apples just for cider making. Monasteries were also very active in breeding new strains of cider apples, and had their own cider presses. Why such intense effort to expand the dry cider business? Cider was in great demand by all of the castles, and by a new type of business. . . the town pub. Of course there was one practical advantage that hard cider had over all other beverages. . . it had a long shelf life and in a world with no refrigeration and no ice boxes; this mattered a great deal.
Over hundreds of years, over one hundred varieties "dry" cider apples have been developed. In the same way the unique flavor of French wine is due to the unique flavor of its grapes, the unique flavor of English Hard Cider is due to the flavor of cider apples that are only grown in England.
Every harvest season all over Somerset County there are apple fairs and celebration of cider making, a tradition that is thousands of years old. I will also tell you that it is a rare thrill to see a truly ancient apple tree in bloom. There is nothing quite like it in America because there are no six hundred year old apple trees here. These ancient trees look like leviathans of fruit with their massive trunks and their huge branches laden with apples…they fill the sky with apples. When one of these famous trees is damaged by a storm the local towns folks rush to their aid because they are considered members of their family.
QUESTING FOR THE CIDER HOLY GRAIL
Fortunately for me my quest for the Cider Holy Grail was far easier than King Arthur's, because I learned from Conrad, years ago, that Taunton's Blackthorn brand, which is made in Somerset county is the finest dry hard cider fermented in England, and I knew exactly where to find it. It also helped that I had been enjoying it every time I visited England.
I didn't have to fight any fire eating dragons. I didn't have to battle with evil knights, or pull swords from stones. What I had to do was wait until America was ready for the subtle refined taste of authentic hard cider. After years of waiting, the time was right, and now there is no reason to deprive yourself of the world's finest hard cider.
Fortunately there is a treasure trove of English apple cider history that has been well documented. On this web site the door to that world is opening so you can learn more about the history of this unique English beverage. This is also helpful because when your friends announce that they are starting to enjoy hard cider, you can get them on the right track by introducing them to the flavor of authentic English cider.
Or, if you haven't yet experienced Blackthorn dry cider, now is time for you to experience its unique subtle flavor …..something Englishmen have been doing for 2000 years. And be sure to tell your friends about us.