Every New England farmer in the 1800’s had a cider and apple orchard. The apple orchard produced the apples the family would eat—from baked goods, to meals such as pork apple pie, to apple sauce, and even dried apples. Dried apples could be re-hydrated and used in baking throughout the winter. Cider molasses, apple sauce and vinegar were made in the fall to be used throughout the year. Vinegar, which was the by product of incorrectly fermented cider—or the intentional addition of oxygen—was known to have healing properties. Vinegar was also a great preservative. What remained of the apples after all this was then stored in barrels in the root cellar to be eaten throughout the winter.
However, despite their many culinary uses, most apples were grown to be drunk, not eaten. In 1800s New England, the farmer’s primary beverage wasn’t wine, beer, ale, water or even milk, but cider. Cider was relatively cheap and easy to make, and with New England’s climate so suited to apple cultivation, it was the ideal choice. To make a good cider the farmer needed three things: sweetness, acidity, and juiciness. This dictated what types of apples he needed to grow. Whereas apple orchards grew specific apples best for eating, baking and storing, cider orchards needed a wide variety of trees. Certain apples were known for their sweetness, just as others were for their acidity. It was important that the farmer had a balanced mix of apple varieties to achieve a good cider.
To start an orchard, the farmer would take some pomace (the mashed apple pulp, including the seeds) from the nut mill. He’d plow several rows in a field and shovel the pomace into these rows. By the following spring, seedlings would begin to appear. The farmer cultivated the seedlings for two to three years after which he would choose the healthiest of the plants and transplant them into his orchard. Properly tending to the mature trees was just as important. For a healthy apple tree, the farmer wanted low, wide-spread branches as opposed to tall, close branches. The low open center would allow sun, air and ventilation through his trees, which resulted in a much healthier and more productive tree. If a farmer tended his orchard carefully, he could expect anywhere from thirty five to fifty-five years of production from each tree.
Apples were also an important export crop. In the early 1800s, ship was still the only means of travel between America and Europe. While peace was present in America, the British and French were at war and had a vast number of warships that needed to be stocked with food. The Baldwin apple, one of the heartiest varieties grown in New England, was extremely popular not only because of its good taste, but more importantly because it preserved well in the hull of a ship. Apples were also exported to the Caribbean, South America and even into Europe. It was a good source of income for many farmers who had the land to cultivate and sell their excess of apples.
New England was known for its apples, and this hasn’t changed throughout the centuries. Farmers used apples in many different ways and depended on them to get them through a year. The failure of an apple or cider orchard could spell disaster for a farmer and it definitely meant a tough year was to come. When it came down to it apples were just as important as any other crop.
The Baldwin apple is no longer as popular as it was in the 19th century, because in 1933, during New England’s worst winter on record, 90% of the hearty Baldwins died. Since then, the Macintosh has replaced the Baldwin in popularity.
While people didn’t know or understand what bacteria was yet, they did know that vinegar seemed to help. So while vinegar was made for cooking, some was also put aside for medicinal use in the 1800’s household.