Apple cider has been enjoyed on the North Fork since at least the Colonial days, when the beverage, prepared either hard or soft, was a favorite of Southold’s earliest families.
And for more than a century, residents and visitors to the North Fork have been drinking cider made with a press that has been used since Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House.
Tom Wickham of Wickham’s Fruit Farm in Cutchogue estimates the press used to make the popular cider sold at his family’s Main Road farm stand has not missed a season in at least 105 years. The machine is believed to have been built around 1902, according to the Wickham’s Fruit Farm website, which bills it as Long Island’s oldest cider press.
The Wickhams began using the press to make cider 60 years ago, when it was located at Irving Billard’s farm on Main Road in Cutchogue, now the King Kullen shopping center.
In 1962, the Wickhams purchased the press from Billard and it continues to operate each season from a barn behind the u-pick orchard.
“We dismantled it and reassembled it here and it has never missed a season,” Wickham said proudly. “It’s built to last forever.”
The story of the motorized press, which features no modern bells and whistles, is perhaps the most romantic tale of cider on the North Fork, but it produces just a small sample of the juice created here.
Breeze Hill Farms in Peconic has seen 20 percent growth in cider sales and production each year since it started bottling the product in 2010. The farm plans to open a ciderhouse at a second location on Main Road this year. There, guests will be able to consume the drink and watch through a large window in the production room as its made, said general manager and cidermaker Scott DuBois.
“At least a quarter of our annual business comes from the cider alone,” he said. “It’s so clean and so fresh, once people taste it they’re hooked. I call them cideraholics.”
Wickham’s Fruit Farm manager Lori McBride said repeat customers also fuel their cider sales.
“I already have people asking me all the time for it,” she said in July.
Wickham said he often has to explain they don’t start pressing apples until after Labor Day. The sales continue until the stand closes for the season in December.
At Breeze Hill Farms, DuBois also starts pressing around Labor Day and the season usually ends around March.
Both men agreed the best cider comes from a mix of early- and late-season varieties. Late apples have a sweeter, tangier flavor and a better consistency for pressing, producing more juice. Both cidermakers agree you need a mix of at least five apple varieties for the best flavor.
“Over the years we’ve had to make our cider sweeter to adjust to changing tastes,” Wickham said. “Let’s face it, all of us want sweeter drinks. Even me, I began putting sugar in my coffee, something I never used to do.”
DuBois said he and his staff will taste the cider as it’s made and add certain varieties during the process to strike a balance. Sometimes he’ll use as many as 10 apple varieties in a single batch.
He said the best cider, due to the changing seasons, is usually produced between Columbus Day and Thanksgiving, which is also the busiest time of year for the beverage. At that point in the season the farm stand sells about 300 gallons per week.
Using a state-of-the-art press similar to ones used by major juice producers like Naked, Breeze Hill Farms produces about three gallons of cider per bushel of apples.
Comparatively, Wickham said using his historic press produces less yield at about two and a half gallons per bushel.
Both farm stands use an ultraviolet cider pasteurization machine that gives their product only a two-week shelf life, but doesn’t force it to lose flavor.
“It really keeps the freshness there,” DuBois said. “And people can’t get enough of our cider.”
Now where can I find hard cider?
Farm-grown hard cider on tap
729 Main Rd., Aquebogue, (631) 722-5770, woodsideorchards.com
Hard cider made with North Fork apples is available at both Bridge Lane, 35 Cox Neck Rd., Mattituck, and Lieb Cellars, 13050 Oregon Rd., Cutchogue.
(631) 734-1100, rumormillhardcider.com
Hard cider made with New York State apples in flavors like Captain Cook’s Razz Ma Tazz and Benjamin’s Best.
2711 Sound Ave., Calverton, (631) 591-0217, riverheadcider.com
You may find cider made by Bedell winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich on tap at the winery’s sister location, Bedell Cellars Tap Room at Corey Creek. Call ahead.
45470 Main Rd., Southold, (631) 765-4168, bedellcellars.com.
Cooking with cider
The great thing about hard cider is its versatility. Typically, it’s gently carbonated and light-bodied, with an alcoholic content of about 7%, so it makes a terrific drink at brunch, with a frittata, strata or waffles and sausages. On a lazy weekend, it’s fabulous with a platter of cheeses and charcuterie, or grilled meats. In a few weeks, it will be just the thing to pour while sitting around a fire pit and watching the leaves change color. And later in the season, it will be wonderful on the Thanksgiving table or with leftover turkey sandwiches.
Hard cider is made in a range of styles, from semisweet to very dry, although it’s worth noting that “dry” means different things to different producers and different palates. In other words, we all like what we like. And not only is it fun to drink hard cider, it’s fun to cook with as well.
Use it in place of beer or white wine for steaming shellfish, for instance, or as a braising liquid for pork shoulder, kielbasa or Spanish chorizo. It also makes a good substitute for wine when improvising a quick pan sauce for pork chops. After removing the cooked chops from the skillet (cast-iron is nice, if you have it), add a generous amount of cider, about a half cup for four chops, to the skillet. Boil for two to three minutes, stirring and scraping all the brown bits (those sticky, caramelized juices are packed with flavor) with a wooden spatula to help them dissolve. If desired, finish the sauce with a little cream and a dollop of Dijon mustard, which will add brightness and body.
— Jane Lear