What could be simpler than cider? You crush apples in a mill; you press the juice out of the resulting pulp; you leave it to ferment; and hey presto! You have cider. The Campaign for Real Ale (which promotes old-fashioned farm cider as well as cask-conditioned beer) used to have a t-shirt slogan that summed it up perfectly: “Apples – nothing else needed; nothing else wanted”. Even the yeast can be supplied by nature.
Such a simple drink, devotees argue, must have been with us from time out of mind. And indeed apples are among humankind’s oldest friends. Botanists until recently believed that the modern domestic apple descended from a natural hybridisation about 10,000 years ago, just after the Ice Age, of the European crab apple, malus sylvestris, and an Asiatic cousin, malus pumila, from the Caucasus. It is now argued that the different families of apple have a common ancestor but developed separately: whichever theory is right, the first humans to abandon the nomadic life and settle down to agricultural respectability seem to have appreciated their apples. Archaeologists have found carbonised pips, often in appreciable quantities, in settlements all over the Middle East and Northern Mediterranean: the earliest such find comes from Catal Huyuk in modern Turkey and dates from around 6500BC.
But if our Neolithic and Bronze Age ancestors included apples in their diet, did they also enjoy the odd beaker of cider? Despite the often-expressed belief that cider is one of the most ancient of drinks, it seems unlikely. Certainly, apple juice ferments readily enough. But getting the juice out of the apple is a complicated job calling for a level of technological development probably beyond the resources available even to the builders of Stonehenge.
We do know, though, that our distant ancestors liked a drink, and the prehistory of alcohol is almost an academic discipline on its own. There’s even a strong, if disputed, school of belief that the urge to make alcohol more easily available was one of the driving forces behind humankind’s transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer. The argument goes that nomadic clans first discovered drunkenness either by eating rotting fruit, which contains some alcohol (although I have yet to meet anyone brave enough to test the theory in person), or by drinking naturally-fermented sap, and decided to gain permanent access to alcohol by cultivating fruit trees and vines. And cultivation, of course, demands at least semi-permanent settlement, the theory being that while the able-bodied males of the clan continued principally as hunters, the womenfolk stayed at home to tend the trees.
Whether or not access to alcohol really was a factor, the first agriculturalists had plenty of sources of fermentable material close at hand, especially in the Middle East. The sap of the date palm is up to 70% sugar. If the trees are tapped, as archaeologists believe they were, and the sap isn’t consumed immediately it will rapidly start to ferment. In fact the Hebrew word shekhar, one of nine used in the Bible to denote alcohol, is cognate with the Arabic sikhar and the Greek stem zacchar-, both meaning sugar; so if a narrower definition can be teased out of the Biblical contexts in which it occurs, it should mean a sweet alcoholic drink. Concentrated date palm sap, once the common sweetener of the Far East, is still called “jaggery” today, and shekhar also gives us, by devious etymological routes, our modern word cider.
Grapes, especially wild ones, may not have contained as much sugar as palm sap; but what sugar they did contain was just as easy to get at. Grapes can be pressed with nothing more technically advanced than a pair of feet, and the juice is just as willing to ferment as palm sap is. In fact the problem was stopping it: to remain in its unfermented state its yeasts had to be killed either by cooking it – and there is evidence of grape juice being boiled into a thick syrup to be reconstituted as required – or by chilling it in a leak-proof container in running water.
Even cereals, whose starches in their natural state are not soluble and so won’t ferment, proved not all that difficult for Neolithic man to get alcohol out of. Warm, damp grain starts to sprout, activating the enzymes that convert starch to sugar. If dried, the sprouted grain becomes malt and needs only to be coarsely ground to become the fermentable base for beer. It’s not hard to imagine how this process might have happened accidentally – in fact it’s hard to imagine how this process might not have happened accidentally. A leaky granary; an apparently spoiled crop; a desperate attempt at salvage, either by spreading the damp grains in the sun or even drying them over a fire; the first suspicious nibble; and the happy discovery that the grains have become sweet, sweetness being highly prized. If the malted grains were then ground for porridge meal, and the porridge were not all consumed at once, the leftovers would start to ferment. This is not only the distant genesis of beer, it’s a method of brewing still practised in parts of Africa.
Apples, however, are a different proposition, especially the small, tough apples of the ancient world. Palm sap and grapes need little by way of mechanical intervention to give up their juices, and even malted grains need only to be ground and steeped in warm water; apples, though, require not one piece of machinery but two. First the fruit has to be crushed or milled to a pulp, and then the pulp has to be pressed to squeeze out the sugary liquid. Using only the hand-querns available to Neolithic and Bronze Age households, milling anything like an appreciable volume of apples would have been a hopelessly uneconomic chore. Small batches might have been crushed as a sweetish porridge, perhaps in famine years or as a baby-food; but in nothing like the quantity required to yield enough juice to be worth fermenting. And even if those early agrarians had been able to mill apples efficiently enough to produce large amounts of pomace, they simply didn’t have the technology to press it. And it’s here that the story of cider is connected with olives and the extraction of their oil.
Olives first seem to have been cultivated in modern Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan; their oil was certainly being exported to Egypt from around 2000BC. By the Homeric period, cultivated olives were pretty much ubiquitous in the Mediterranean world, but the oil was still a luxury rather than the dietary commonplace it later became: in the Iliad, for instance, Patroclus uses it to anoint himself rather than to fry with. The reason for this lies in the method of extraction used. The fruit was put in a circular stone trough with a rotating upright shaft in the centre. The shaft bore an axle on which a vertical millstone was mounted, with the outward projection of the shaft forming the handle. The whole thing was operated by a slave plodding wearily round and round pushing the millstone over the fruit, with the oil and the bitter juice, amercum, escaping through a runnel into a collecting vat to be separated. In some cases, notably the example preserved at Pompeii, the axle projected right through the shaft and carried two facing millstones and handles, in which case two slaves had to plod wearily round and round. But even the two-man machine is small and inefficient, leaving plenty of oil still in the pomace to be extracted by a second or even third crushing. The time and effort required to operate such a device puts a natural brake on the amount of oil it can produce; hence olive oil’s luxury status in Homer.
This simple machine is commonly described as an olive-press, but in fact it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a mill, the mechanical successor to the earliest hand-querns; and if you scale it up and substitute a horse for a slave you have exactly the sort of cider mill that remained in use until well into the last century. Examples still in perfect working order (theoretically, at least) survive on farms all over the West of England and North-West France. But it isn’t a press, and if you put apples in it instead of olives you will end up with perfectly good pomace but precious little juice. For an olive is a good deal softer than an apple and surrenders its oil at the lightest touch: olive oil can even be extracted, impractically perhaps, simply by squeezing the olives in your hand. The hard cell walls of the apple demand a second process before they crack; and for that we have to wait for the arrival of the mechanical press such as the lever described by Cato in the early second century BC.
In de Re Rustica, Cato catalogues the buildings, slaves, and equipment needed to run a large aristocratic estate, among them the components of an industrial-scale olive press. The olives are milled and the first runnings collected as described above, but the pomace is then transferred into a willow basket that stands on a solid press-bed measuring about 6ft x 4ft. Beside the bed is a massive upright, with a horizontal beam – the lever – up to 40ft long pivoting on it. Halfway along the lever is a platen that sits comfortably on top of the basket. At the free end of the lever is a counterweight, perhaps a net filled with stones. The motive power is, again, human: a pair of ropes at the end of the beam run through pulleys attached to the rafters of the pressing shed, and a gang of slaves cautiously lowers the platen into the basket and raises it up again simply by hauling on one rope or the other. The trick is to maintain a steady, even pressure, by which means almost all the oil can be extracted.
The lever press made the production of cider on a worthwhile scale a possibility for the first time; and thanks to Pliny the Elder’s Natural History we know that by the first century AD cider was indeed being made. He didn’t call it cider, though: the word cisera wasn’t coined until the Bible was translated into Latin, when it first appeared as a straightforward transliteration of the unfamiliar shekhar. Pliny’s surviving great work includes chapters on wine-making and fruit-growing; in the former, under the heading “66 Varieties of Artificial Wine” he says: “Wine is made, too, of the pods of the Syrian carob, of pears, and of all kinds of apples”, while he describes the colour of apple juice, rather oddly, as “foaming” – presumably because the juice starts fermenting and frothing almost as soon as it is pressed. And in a section headed “41 Varieties of Pear”, Pliny includes the Falernian, “so called from the drink which it affords, so abundant is its juice”. The inference is that its juice was commonly fermented, since Falernian is correctly a superior type of wine.
With these rather throwaway lines cider and its cousin, perry, enter history for the first time. There may well have been cider and perry long before Pliny wrote those words, but there is no evidence for them, and an understanding of the technology suggests not – or not, at least, before the invention of Cato’s lever press. Cider romantics who believe that the Ancient Britons fermented the apples to which they appear to have been devoted are looking in the wrong direction: what evidence there is tells us that cider was the invention of the landed aristocracy of Rome.
Even as Pliny was writing, the lever press which had first made the production of cider in viable quantities a technological possibility was being superceded by a new invention. The lever press survives in the Mediterranean for the small-scale production of olive oil; and the Devonshire writer Hugh Stafford records makeshift lever presses being improvised by cottagers to press apples and pears in 18th-century England – although he adds: “This machine is not much used, nor is it much to be recommended”. A hybrid variant, with the free end raised and lowered by a screw rather than by ropes, was reported by William Marshall as being in common use on larger farms in west Devon in the 1790s, and although it achieved an efficient extraction it took up an inordinate amount of space, required a lever as thick as the deck-beams of a man o’ war, and was “altogether an uncouth, unwieldy, monstrous instrument”.
Its more compact successor, the screw press, was first described by Pliny’s contemporary Hero of Alexandria in his Mechanica; and it was so simple and economical to operate that it rapidly became the standard device for all kinds of pressing. Olives, grapes, apples, cloths, paper – anything that needed to be squeezed, in fact – could be and was processed in a screw press; and if longevity is any measure it must be one of the most successful designs in human history, for it is still in everyday use all over the world today. The commonest version uses two vertical screws standing on either side of the press-bed, with a beam between them that is lowered and raised by rotating the screws. The item to be pressed is placed on the bed with a board and perhaps a flat weight on top of it, and the beam is gradually lowered. A variant with a single central screw is almost as common, especially for smaller presses; but whether twin or single screw, this is the device that truly revolutionised the world, for Gutenberg adapted it in the 15th century to become the first moveable-type printing press. It’s important to record, however, that a screw-press must have been an expensive item to build. Each screw had to be hand-cut, and the male and female threads had to correspond almost exactly. The time and skill required cannot have been negligible, and effective screw-presses must have been beyond the resources of all but the best-capitalised estates. This is a limitation that will apply from Pliny and Hero’s day right through to the late Middle Ages.
But all of this rather begs a question. Why should the Romans, whose staple was wine, go to all the trouble and effort of producing a drink which Pliny himself describes as “artificial”? A clue is provided by the very nature of the books that Cato and Pliny – as well as others such as Varro and Pliny’s contemporaries Columella and even Virgil – were writing. Cato’s and Columella’s works were manuals of estate management, while Pliny’s Natural History was far more wide-ranging but was also, essentially, a handbook for businesspeople. Like the British agricultural improvers of the 16th and 17th centuries, these writers and their audience were deeply concerned with the need to make their estates as productive and profitable as possible. In Cato’s day, Italy was recovering from the economic damage wrought by Hannibal’s 10-year incursion; in Pliny’s, Rome was emerging from a long succession of civil wars that might not have caused the material destruction of the Second Punic War but had undoubtedly had a severe impact on aristocratic fortunes. Pliny makes it clear that the aristocracy was busily engaged on maximising the revenues of their estates through experiment and innovation. Apple varieties won’t grow true from seed: natural hybrids have to be grafted or budded on to rootstock, a method of cultivation known well before the Roman period. (In fact most of the hedgerow trees that we call crabs aren’t true crabs at all but wildings, the feral descendants of domestic varieties). The Romans probably learnt it from the neighbouring Greek colonies of Magna Graecia or Southern Italy, and Pliny’s list of 21 apple varieties is headed “Fruits Most Recently Introduced”, many of which are named after the landowners who, presumably, first propagated them. In a similar vein, Columella describes his uncle’s experiments with improving his flocks of sheep through cross-breeding.
The new apple varieties and more efficient production techniques described by Cato, Pliny and Columella enabled the creation of a surplus, and one of the drivers of innovation throughout human history has been the search for a way of preserving food surpluses. To subsistence farmers ever since farming began techniques including smoking, drying, pickling, salting and fermentation have literally been matters of life and death, especially in the anxious days of January and February when the surpluses of the preceding year have to be stretched until spring. In more sophisticated economies, processing fresh produce has been equally vital as a way of facilitating trade, not only by extending the life of the product but also by improving its portability and by adding value. Cheese is milk given a longer life, portability, and value by fermentation. Salami is meat given a longer life, portability, and value by salting and dry-curing. To jump forward a few centuries, whisky is beer given a longer life, portability, and value by distillation. Tellingly, Cato advises estate managers to grow apples “for preservation”; Pliny reveals that two centuries later they have followed Cato’s advice by turning apples and pears into cider and perry, giving them a longer life, portability, and value by fermentation, and at the same time generating extra profit by sweating the capital and human assets they already possessed for the production of wine and olive oil.
A profitable trade in Classical Antiquity in cider and perry, especially in a perry good enough to be nicknamed “Falernian”, can only be assumed, although we do know thanks to the 4th-century writer Palladius that cider and perry continued to be made and enjoyed throughout late Classical Antiquity. In De Re Rustica, he casually records (according to a 15th-century translation that gained wide popularity in England) “now everie wyne of pomes is made”. He also gives a recipe for pear wine that involves crushing the fruit but, instead of pressing it, soaking the pulp and then wringing it in a cloth bag. But what is undeniable is that the technology necessary for the mass manufacture of cider and perry was both capital and labour intensive. In our own time we have come to perceive the production of cider, especially in its most traditional form, as an artisanal craft practised by small farmers on a small scale. In Pliny’s time it was an activity that belonged to large-scale enterprises with plenty of capital; and this is the characteristic that will persist throughout the medieval and early modern periods. But having burst upon the world in the first century AD, cider almost disappears from the records between the fall of Rome and the High Middle Ages. We catch only the odd glimpse of it, and in references that are often ambiguous; but enough to reassure us that it had not entirely died out.
The Barzaz Breiz or Breton Ballads were collected from oral tradition in the form of folk-songs, and published in 1839 by a French vicomte, Théodor Hersart de la Villemarqué. Controversy has raged over their authenticity ever since. One of them, Le Vin des Gaulois, purports to be a sixth-century war-song celebrating the raiding parties who made frequent incursions into neighbouring Frankish territory to steal wine, which the song says is better than Breton mead, beer, or cider (gwin aval). But how accurately the lyric had been transmitted over 13 centuries of repetition, and whether the vicomte recorded faithfully what he heard, or edited the folk-songs to make them appear more antique than they really were, or indeed made them up altogether, is still hotly debated: the latest book on the subject was published only in 1989, and comes down rather on de la Villemarqué’s side.
However Gregory of Tours, in his History of the Franks of about the same vintage, does make one passing reference to cider alongside many mentions of wine and none of beer. There is also an apparent reference to perry in Venantius Fortunatus’s Life of St Radegund, from about the year 600, although it is not entirely unambiguous. So virtuous was the reluctant bride of the Frankish King Clothar that she would touch no “undiluted wine or decoction of mead or fermented beer” but only “sweetened water or perry”. The earlier Life of the Cornish/Breton saint, Guénolé, also has him drinking only perry, as do a handful of other early hagiographies. However the word commonly used for perry, pyratium, has also been interpreted as unfermented pear juice, a view perhaps supported by the context: early pears were inedibly sour, and drinking their juice must have been quite a penance. On the other hand, pear-juice spontaneously ferments as rapidly as apple-juice, so perhaps the saints’ abstemious intentions were frustrated by biochemistry.
Two centuries pass before our next glimpses of Frankish cider. The Plan of St Gall was commissioned by Adelhard, Abbot of the great monastery of Corbie, in about 820 and is a detailed blueprint for a model monastery which was never built and was perhaps never intended to be: some scholars think that it was more of a paradigm than an actual plan. As well as architect’s drawings it includes instructions on the management of the proposed abbey’s grounds right down to what fruit trees, and even which strains of each fruit, should be planted. And among the dozens of different trees the putative monks were to cultivate were five kinds of apple: eaters, keepers, early croppers, sweets... and bitters. The significance of this last is that bitter apples are cider apples.
Finally, not in date order but in ascending order of unambiguity, we have Charlemagne’s capitulary De Villis of some time between 790 and 812. In many ways it’s rather like the Plan of St Gall, except that it deals not with the regulation and management not of an idealised monastery but of a very real set of royal estates. In it, the imperial chancery lays down minutely detailed instructions for stewards to follow regarding the equipping, manning, and management of their charges. As at St Gall, apple and pear trees are to be planted; and among the estate’s labourers the steward is to ensure that there are “siceratores, id est qui cerevisiam vel pomatium sive pyratium vel aliud quodcumque liquamen ad bibendum aptum fuerit facere sciant.” That is, “makers of strong drink who know how to make beer, cider, perry, or other liquors.” The inference that pyratium and pomatium are alcoholic cider and perry is supplied by their listing alongside beer and by the use of the word siceratores: the sicera- root is used here in its loose Biblical sense of strong drink.
Disparate, ambiguous and vague as these references may be, they share a common factor. The Breton war-band that preferred the stolen wine of the Nantais to its own gwin aval, if it was anything like other Celtic war-bands, was composed of young aristocrats. Gregory of Tours’ one mention of cider came in the context of royal and noble feasting. Radegund, the drinker of perry, was a great queen and moved in the most elevated sections of society. And both the Plan of St Gall and the Capitulary De Villis dealt with planning, equipping, and managing large estates. So from its dawn in Classical Antiquity down to the early Middle Ages the character of cider did not change: it remained a minority or even a marginal drink, seldom referred to in writing. But those few references always occur in an aristocratic or landowning context, for the heavy capital investment needed to mill and press apples and pears in worthwhile quantities made cider a rarity, even perhaps a luxury, and certainly not the common beverage of the peasantry.
So marginal was cider that it even lacked a name. To Pliny the Elder it was merely wine made from apples (or pears). To the Breton warriors it was apple wine. Charlemagne’s scribes did give cider and perry names of their own, true, pomatium and pyratium, but they seem never to have gained currency. Only later in the Middle Ages was the Biblical word that appears to describe palm wine, shekhar, rendered in Latin as sicera (and in Basque as sagadoa – another indicator that cider is not an ancient drink, for it has no word of its own even in the most ancient of European languages), adapted to give us the Old French chistre, the Norman French cidre,and the English “cider”.
But if it was a minority product, nameless and rarely recorded, its production still seems to have become widespread. It is always dangerous to try to extrapolate backwards from the modern situation, especially over such a long period, but cidermaking is common throughout what were once Frankish lands and even beyond. All of us who have been on holiday in Normandy, or have even just passed through, will be aware of its cider: Normandy was a fully-integrated part of the Frankish empire until 911, when Charles the Simple ceded the region to an especially persistent army of Norse raiders led by Rolf the Ganger. Brittany, although never as fully-integrated into the Empire as Normandy had been, was also under Frankish influence and is another noted cider-producing region.
Less well-known, in this country at least, is the cider tradition of Central Germany, also known as Franken or Franconia, with Frankfurt-am-Main as its principal city. Cider is also made in quantity both on a craft scale and by large commercial concerns along the Moselle, in Hesse, and in the Saarland. It has not one but three names in German: Apfelwein, Most, and Viez; and there is a Viez tourist route stretching from Saarburg to the border with Luxembourg, which also produces cider under the name Viez. The words Most and Viez are both Latin-derived: mustum is simply the Latin for fruit-juice, while Viez comes from vice meaning substitute (as in the English vicar and vice-captain), which takes us right back to Pliny and his “artificial wines”. Although it’s hard to pin down in the absence of written records, these Latin derivations seem to point us back to the Franks and the two great manuals of estate management, the Plan of St Gall and De Villis. If the Emperor himself and the leading churchman of his day were advocates of fruit husbandry and cidermaking, it seems safe to assume that nobles throughout the huge and sprawling Frankish Empire ordered their own estates along similar lines; and this brings us back again to Cato, Pliny, and the question of technology.
It’s often said that where the grape stops, the apple begins. This may be true today, if to an ever lessening extent; it certainly wasn’t true in the temperate period of the early Middle Ages before the advent of the Little Ice Age in the early 14th century. In the 13th century, towards the end of the Little Climatic Optimum, there were vineyards as far north as Lincoln, Leeds, and even the Scottish Borders. And as the Christian church spread northwards following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the late 5th century, first converting Rome’s barbarian successor states and then expanding beyond the empire’s former boundaries, it brought viticulture and winemaking with it. For wine was, and is, essential to climax of the Mass, the Consecration; and as every priest said, and says, Mass every day, then wherever there are priests there must be wine. To the monks who followed in the wake of the first missionaries, planting vineyards was a statement of intent as well as a doctrinal necessity: Christianity was here to stay, and the Church was putting down roots both physical and metaphorical. Thus we learn from the chronicler Aimoin (c960-1010) that vines grew in abundance at the great monastery of Jumièges in Normandy, where a charter of 1472 records a large vineyard as still being in use; more monastic vineyards are attested at Caen and Lisieux, and indeed winemaking persisted in Normandy until the late 18th century when the vineyard at Argance near Caen finally gave up the struggle. As for Germany, it can scarcely be coincidence that the Viez regions and the winemaking regions are virtually coterminous.
The connection with cider is a technological one. If Cato’s lever press made the extraction of juice from apples possible, Hero of Alexandria’s screw press made it cost-effective. We have already noted the dimensions of Cato’s lever-press: the cost of the beams alone, not to mention the size of the building needed to accommodate it, made it a major item of capital expenditure. The screw-press, however, is far more compact and less wasteful of materials, the cost of cutting the screws notwithstanding. It can also, unlike the lever press, be worked by a single operative. Grapes can be crushed by treading, extracting “free-run” juice without the need of a mechanical press. But a mechanical press can extract far more juice, either by pressing the lees after treading or even by dispensing with treading altogether. Such a large capital investment needs to be justified, though, by being worked as hard as possible; and the grape-harvest can last for as little as a month or less. By planting early and late cropping varieties of apple and pear, the press can be put to work for two months either side of the grape-harvest. Thus winemaking makes cidermaking technically possible, while cidermaking makes winemaking economically viable. So it is not, as is often claimed, to the dim, weird, distant Celts that we owe our cider but to the drive for the efficient management of large seigneurial estates transmitted from the Romans to the Franks and then to the various Medieval kingdoms that carved up Charlemagne’s legacy.