In certain parts of apple country, most notably western New England and along the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a long-favored iteration was boiled cider. Reducing fresh cider until it coats the back of a spoon yields an elixir as thick as molasses and nearly as sweet, with a bracing tartness and undertones of burnt caramel. From the colonial period until the 1920s, wherever orchards proliferated, this syrup was a pantry staple, a general-purpose sweetener that cooks reached for in the way we might turn to honey today. It bound mincemeat and pots of baked beans, filled pie crusts in New England and moistened fruitcakes in Virginia. What it wasn’t typically used for was pouring over pancakes or biscuits (but don’t let anyone tell you it shouldn’t be).
Even today, what’s known as cider syrup for pouring has usually been tempered with cane sugar, its edges rounded. Boiled cider lacks subtlety, and that’s one reason so many of its admirers have worked to preserve it.
In 2008, Ben Watson, an editor, cidermaker and the author of “Cider, Hard and Sweet,” secured a spot for boiled cider on the Slow Food organization’s Ark of Taste, which he co-chairs. The ark is a catalogue of endangered foodstuffs deemed central to local and regional foodways but at risk of slipping out of consciousness because of biological extinction or abandoned production. Boiled cider, with its long, unbroken tradition of being made in New England, seemed to fit the bill, Watson said.
By the 1940s, boiled cider production had slowed to a trickle. Cane sugar had become inexpensive by comparison, and road improvements made it easy to get hold of. Orchards, too, were being cleared at such a clip that cider presses closed one by one; today just a couple of mills in Vermont are operating on a commercial scale.
Wood’s Cider Mill in Springfield, Vt., is one of the last remaining. Willis and Tina Wood, who once described themselves as “back-to-the-land hippies,” acquired the mill in 1974; it was a sawmill-turned-cider-mill that pressed its first batch of apples in 1882. The founders, Willis’s ancestors, turned out boiled cider from the start, using the same equipment and evaporative process they used for their maple syrup. Willis and Tina bought it from a cousin of Willis’s grandfather, who talked of producing boiled cider in the 1930s in such volume that barrels of it were shipped to a soft-drink manufacturer down South.