Antique maps and posters in the retail area at Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, MA.
Photo Credit : Carl Tremblay
Shelburne Falls, in western Massachusetts, is the sort of tiny, picturesque village that gives leaf-peepers a concentrated shot of New England charm, especially in the fall, offering up its cafes and bookstores, its Bridge of Flowers, and the Technicolor flanks of Massaemett Mountain to the east. And just when the foliage drops and the crowds should start to drift away, it lures them back as the headquarters for one of the country’s best hidden-gem harvest celebrations.
This is the one food festival that I won’t miss, no matter the weather. CiderDays goes beyond apple pie and pick-your-own to celebrate our region’s apple heritage and to highlight the fruit’s role in American history. Cider–and by this I mean “hard” cider, since before refrigeration, it was impossible to keep apple juice from fermenting within a few days–was once the preferred beverage of New Englanders. John Adams drank a tankard every morning. Children drank it. In some places, it was safer than water. Left outside to freeze overnight, hard cider could be concentrated into boozier applejack, a 40- to 80-proof drink to dull the pains of Colonial life. Cider also gave us vinegar for preserving fruits and vegetables and, by the folk traditions of the day, for curing everything from headache to hiccups.
Hard-cider consumption declined drastically from the late 1800s through the 1930s. The reasons were many: German immigrants arrived, bringing their taste for beer; a few exceptionally cold winters damaged acres of apple trees throughout New England. Then, in a final blow, the temperance movement coincided with pasteurization and refrigeration to turn our appetites away from cider and toward sweet, unfermented juice. And so cider went underground, a homesteader’s hobby and a niche beverage outside England and France. But a few new makers emerged in the 1980s and ’90s–among them, Flag Hill Farm in Vershire, Vermont; Farnum Hill in Lebanon, New Hampshire; and West County Cider in Colrain, Massachusetts–and began building an audience for real cider made with fresh, local apples.
Terry and Judith Maloney moved from Berkeley, California, to western Massachusetts in 1972, and founded West County in 1984. “Back then, there were still quite a few small-press cider makers,” Judith says. “Farmers and orchardists had small presses and were making their own beverage for their pleasure.” But the Maloneys were unusual in devoting themselves to making artisanal cider commercially.
Looking for a way to support their cider-making friends and bring more visitors to Franklin County, Terry and Judith launched CiderDay in 1994. They chose the first week of November, after most of the fruit had been harvested. Folks brought their own cider, shared tips, and purchased unpasteurized juice for fermenting. At the end of the day, the Maloneys hosted a dinner at their house with the help of their friend, a chef and cider maker named Paul Correnty.
The festival grew slowly; with no advertising, it was strictly a word-of-mouth affair. But after 10 years, CiderDay had become CiderDays (two), and the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce had taken over the planning, adding venues all over the county: cooking demonstrations and apple tastings at Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield; cider-vinegar-making classes at New Salem Preserves; an amateur cider makers’ competition; and workshops on everything from drying apples to growing them organically.
As the festival marks its 20th year, chef Paul still runs the big harvest dinner on Saturday night, only now for a crowd of nearly 400 people. And the festival hosts the world’s largest hard-cider tasting, with more than 75 different labels pouring samples under a big white tent.
On the still-green lawn in front of the Shelburne-Buckland Community Center on Main Street–the official headquarters of CiderDays–apple aficionados are buying apple-cider doughnuts and lining up to taste heirloom varieties from Zeke Goodband of Scott Farm (see “The Monk in the Orchard,” p. 16 in this issue). Two men in plaid discuss the merits of bitter apples in a cider blend. Children jump into leaf piles. This festival, which began with a small band of enthusiasts, still feels intimate, buoyed by a shared love of fruit and tradition. Judith Maloney, now running West County without Terry since his untimely death in 2010, hopes it will stay that way.
“I think there should be small things in the world,” she says. “I think you have to really be careful not to have anything so successful that it loses its experience. Since the festival is so diffused over the county, I think that you can still find places of grace in it.”
After years of struggling to find a market for her ciders, Maloney also feels the momentum of a renewed cider tradition. “Now there’s so much energy toward eating locally, and there are a lot of young cider makers,” she says. “It really can bring the first American beverage back to the table. It’s really lovely. It’s really happening!”
CiderDays 2018: November 2nd – 4th, 2018
CiderDays. 413-773-5463 (Franklin County Chamber of Commerce); ciderdays.org