Wassailing and winging it

by Melissa Stewart

30 January 2018

Melissa Stewart learns there’s much more to cider than a pint of scrumpy and a packet of pork scratchings

I’ve got to be honest, I’m not a big cider drinker. The smell of apples evoking hazy memories of being a teenager and drinking tins of Strongbow in the local park, while trying to act cool. Since then, I’ve opted for beers over cider, every time.

But, I’m always one for a challenge and never one to turn down the opportunity to learn something new. So, when those lovely folks at Exeter Cookery School invited me along to enjoy a day of cooking, alongside some cider making tuition from Cider.Space – a new website and experience provider specialising in all things cider – and some cider tasting, courtesy of those trendy chaps from The Stables in Exeter, I was keen to give it a whirl.

The one-day course coincided with the ancient tradition of wassailing - an old pagan ritual held every January to encourage a good orchard harvest. Thankfully we didn’t have to offer up any cider soaked toast to the trees or sing any songs, but we did learn a whole heap about the versatility and potential to be found in the humble apple.

Jim and Lucy Fisher, who run Exeter Cookery School, are as friendly and welcoming a pair as you could hope to meet. Jim, who takes the cookery courses, is completely down to earth. There’s no intimidating fancy chef terminology or pretence here, just honest, clear instruction and good quality ingredients.

The first course we create is braised pork cheeks with apples and cider, which we leave to slow cook for the best part of the day, while we rustle up some steamed mussels with cider and cream for lunch.

We’re then treated to a cider-making demo from Francis Pearce, founder of Cider.Space. Francis has come prepared with pre-cut apples and his apple pulper and press. It’s impressive to see just how quickly raw apple can be transformed into pure apple juice.

“Cider is as versatile an ingredient as wine,” says Francis. “There are craft cider-makers throughout Devon but Exeter is at the centre of a cluster of especially good cider-makers and orchards.”

Sadly, we didn’t hang around long enough to see the juice transformed to cider – that takes a good few days of fermentation – but luckily Tim Gibb (with possibly the best job title in the world), Head of Cider at The Stables, was on hand with a box of the good stuff for us to sample.

And here’s where all memories of Strongbow evaporated. Yup, after some 20+ years of avoiding the alcoholic apple juice, my head was turned. Light, dark, still, sparkling, still, smoky, fruity, woody, sweet… I was impressed by how much variety the humble apple had to offer. I was particularly drawn to an Apple Aperitif made by Dorset-based Liberty Fields.

We rounded off the day making a 70s classic, an apple syllabub – simple to make, delicious to eat. It was the perfect way to round off an inspiring and educational day. Bellies full and ever so slightly tipsy, I left with a new-found respect for alcoholic apple juice.

Exeter Cookery School offer a range of full-day, half-day and evening courses, suitable for a range of abilities. For more on cider making visit cider.space , and for cider tasting evenings head to The Stable in Exeter.