New England Yankees have made cider jelly since the 1600s. It was the standard way to preserve the apple crop in the days before refrigeration, and provided a year-round sweetener for cooking and baking. But by the mid-twentieth century it fell out of fashion. That it still exists commercially today is primarily due to the work of Willis and Tina Wood.
Without refrigeration, cider is extremely perishable.
Unpasteurized fresh cider kept at room temperature begins to ferment in about three days. That hard cider will keep for a few months. After that, the fermentation continues and it converts into apple cider vinegar. To preserve the cider in its sweetest form before it ferments into alcohol and vinegar, one simple way is to boil it down into a jelly.
For centuries, New England cooks used cider jelly (and its slightly less concentrated form, pourable boiled cider) as an ingredient in all manner of baking and cooking. It shows up in traditional recipes for everything from boiled cider pies to venison mincemeat. Since apples are especially high in pectin, jam makers often included a spoonful of cider jelly in other fruit preserves to help them set.
A century ago in New England, even small towns had multiple cider mills. Folks brought apples from their own trees to their local mill for custom cider pressings. But over the first half of the twentieth century, things began to change. Roads were improved, allowing for easier transport of goods and foods from further away—even to the remote, forested mountains of northern New England. New methods were developed for preserving foods, like canning and freezing. Cane sugar became cheap, replacing cider jelly as the preferred year-round sweetener. As the food supply became more industrialized, and as women joined the workforce, home cooking became rarer. Traditional ingredients like cider jelly fell out of fashion.
Decade by decade, the cider mills shuttered their doors, or swapped cider jelly production for pasteurized cider for drinking. By the 1960s, there were only a couple of commercial cider jelly makers left. One of the few still working was Augustus Aldrich in Weathersfield, Vermont. In 1974, when Augustus was in his 80s, he sold the farm to his cousin’s twenty-something grandson, Willis Wood, and his new wife, Tina. Willis and Tina were part of a generation in the ‘70s that were raised in the suburbs but dreamed of getting back to nature. In many ways, their work championing local foods laid the foundation for today’s abundance of small, artisan food makers. On the farm in Vermont, Augustus taught Willis and Tina the ropes of cider and jelly making. The young couple settled in, raising their family on the farm. Today, Willis, his daughter Marina, and their crew of two still make cider jelly every fall.
From the day apple season begins in September until the crop runs out around Thanksgiving, it’s all hands on deck.
Three times a day, seven days a week, the Woods press 70 bushels of apples into cider. All of the apples come from within a thirty-mile radius. Many of them come from Wellwood Orchards, right next door. During the season, every day at 4 pm Willis heads out in his truck to collect all of the apples to press tomorrow. Willis selects a blend of apple varieties. To keep the flavor consistent from batch to batch of jelly, the blend always includes at least two-thirds McIntoshes, New England’s most popular apple. The rest of the blend gets rounded out based on what’s available across the season, which often includes heirlooms like Baldwins, Golden Russets, or Northern Spies.
Making cider at Wood’s Cider Mill today looks like it did a century ago. First, they grind the apples into a slurry. They spread the slurry into a series of wooden trays, each lined with a giant swath of canvas to hold the apples in place. Then they stack the trays ten or twelve high in a giant screw press that Willis’s family has used to press cider since 1882. Back then, the press was powered by a water mill on the stream running through the farm. Today, it’s powered by electricity, but it still runs using the same mechanical process: a series of giant iron gears twist tighter and tighter, smooshing the apple slurry and squeezing out all the juice. It’s incredible to see the gears in action—swipe through here to see a video.
To make cider jelly, you need the freshest cider possible—and nothing else.
Immediately after pressing, they filter the cider to remove any remaining solid bits of apple. Then they pump it into the next room over into a stainless steel vat called an evaporator. Evaporators are common across New England—most folks use them in late winter for boiling down maple sap to make maple syrup. Willis’s evaporator gets double duty, boiling maple syrup in the winter and cider in the fall. It’s enormous: about the size of three jacuzzis lined up side by side.
Willis powers his evaporator by wood fire. He cites three reasons for using wood. One, he doesn’t like the idea of using oil from the other side of the world when there’s a source of renewable energy all around him in the orchards and forests of Vermont. Two, it’s much more cost effective. Three, wood fires burn as hot as 1400 degrees F. That sky high temperature gives a deeper, darker, more caramel color to the jelly. That’s good for us—it makes for serious flavor.
Making a batch of cider jelly is an all day process. The fire must be regularly replenished, and adjusted to keep the temperature in the right range. The tank must be watched so it doesn’t boil over, and to track when it reaches just the right consistency. When it’s time, the jelly is jarred immediately. No one in the Wood family has any feeling left in their fingertips—they’ve all long since burned it off screwing caps onto boiling hot jelly jars.
The math of cider jelly.
Each cider pressing at Wood’s Cider Mill produces 200 gallons of cider. Over the course of the season, the Woods press over 1.5 million apples to produce about 35,000 gallons of cider.
It takes nine gallons of fresh cider to make one gallon of cider jelly. The other eight gallons boil off as steam, which billows through the cider house non-stop all day long and escapes through an open cupola in the roof. There are no other ingredients in the jelly. Each eight-ounce jar of cider jelly contains the concentrated juice of about 25 apples.
Over the course of the cider season, the Woods burn about 60 cords of wood to fuel the evaporator. That much wood takes up about the same amount of space as 213 African elephants all lined up trunk to tail.
The jelly has a sharp, puckery tart, deep apple flavor.
It’s intense, and it lasts for a long, long time. It smells like the edges of an apple pie, the spot where the juices boiled over a bit and caramelized. It jiggles on a spoon, but melts in your mouth with a silky texture. It’s a gorgeous garnet color, glossy and transparent.
You can use it like any jelly. Spread it on toast or biscuits or bagels with cream cheese. Since it’s not overly sweet, it’s great in savory applications, too. Use it like cranberry sauce alongside chicken or turkey. Cook some into a glaze with Dijon mustard and a splash of soy sauce, and ladle it over roast pork or ham. It’s phenomenal with cheeses. I’m particularly fond of it alongside Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, also from Vermont.