I like pumpkin pie. I’ve carved a few jack-o-lanterns in my time, and I like the fall displays of corn stalks, hay bales and pumpkins on people’s lawns. But I had never eaten fresh pumpkin until a couple of weeks ago, and the experience was wonderful.
As my wife and I traveled the Midwest and upper Midwest region making a study of orchards, apples and apple cider, I stumbled across a wonderful new word “cidery.” Sure I knew that local orchards sometimes offered fresh “apple cider” for sale and always loved the taste, but I had never really seen any facilities where “cider” was produced.
In my study I came across the word “cidery” and, of course, thought of it as the place where that sweet fresh apple juice at small country stores was pressed. But what I came to learn was that in other parts of the country “cider” is synonymous with what we here in Kentucky call “hard cider.” As it turns out, the term hard cider came about after prohibition. Prior to that, cider meant fermented apple juice that contained a slight amount of alcohol, just enough to preserve it. The place where “cider” is made is called a “cidery.”
I ran across a number of operating “cideries” in the country and began looking into what they were doing. What I came to find out was that some of them had been in existence since the 1800s and were shut down during prohibition, only to reopen in the last 10 years or so as the market for cider started to increase.
I also discovered that in some parts of the country, cider is such a longstanding tradition that in places such as Massachusetts they devote several days a year to the celebration of cider making.
I found an old cidery in Michigan, not too far from home, and called to see if I could come up and take a tour. The person I contacted was very happy to have me and suggested that we come on Oct. 12 as he expected to have a number of other guests that day from around the nation and invited us to join them for lunch.
I turned out to be a wonderful little weekend getaway for my wife and me. The fall colors in Michigan were brilliant. The air was crisp, and the idea of visiting an old cidery that had been established in the mid 1800s really piqued my interest.
The farm was much like any other Michigan farm. The land was relatively flat and surrounded by scrub trees and other abandoned farmlands. As times changed and Michiganders moved to the cities, the farms became mostly hunting grounds, boggy, wet and well suited to producing great potatoes, carrots and onions. And among some of the farms there has survived some very old orchards.
This farm was the exception. Generations of farm folks had tended to the grounds, and now they were managing 500 acres of apple trees, a massive operation. But the little farm store from which they sold honey, apple butter, apple juice and produce was not unlike many little stores I’d seen all around our area.
The big difference was that they were now, in the back of the farm, fully engaged in making, bottling and selling “cider,” the hard type, with a low alcohol content (about 6 percent) and trying to take advantage of the changing tastes of the Millennial generation.
So on that day I not only got to see the “cidery” in operation, but we were invited to sit down to a wonderful lunch that included venison roasted in cider and cut apples, squash and my first experience with fresh pumpkin.
They had taken one of the pumpkins from their produce display outside, sliced it and cooked it in apple cider inside of a sheet of aluminum foil. Then they finished it by placing in on an open grill until the skin of the pumpkin was almost charred black. This served with hot fresh apples, roasted venison and squash turned out to be a wonderfully surprising taste treat.
We ate the pumpkin by scooping it out of the skin with our fork. With the cider baked in, the smokey goodness from the charred skin and the few spices they probably added (I think I detected nutmeg and brown sugar) this little orange globe had turned into a great addition to any fall meal.
I’ll have a lot more to say about my visit to the other cideries and about apple cider in upcoming columns, but I couldn’t wait to share the cool fall treat that cooking fresh pumpkin provided. With holiday feasts about to take place over the next several weeks, now might be the time to experiment with pumpkin recipes of your own and offer your guests something maybe they, like me, have been missing: the unexpected joy of pumpkin.
Marcus Carey is a Northern Kentucky lawyer with 32 years experience. He is also a farmer, talk radio host and public speaker who loves history and politics. He is a prolific and accomplished writer whose blog, BluegrassBulletin.com, is “dedicated to honest and respectful comment on the political and cultural issues of our time.” He writes a regular commentary for KyForward.