And so we have had another 1st February, bringing yet another increase in wine duty, accompanied by another heartfelt sigh from the impecunious drinker.
As a teenager, I managed to escape duty by brewing my own beer and wine; these days, life seems too short to fiddle about with airlocks, Campden tablets and demijohns.
Those in the countryside, especially those with a few apple trees, have no such problems. I visited my friend Dominic at his cottage in Dorset a few autumns ago, and he showed me the easiest way to make cider. First, make friends with someone who owns a cider press (and, preferably, a Volvo estate): it’s like a big, loose-slatted basket with either an inflatable rubber ball or a spindle-and-plate mechanism inside it. Then, pick your apples – windfalls are fine, too, unless especially maggot-munched – and tempt your friend with an offer of lunch.
Before the celebratory repast, get to work. Pulp the apples – stalks, pips and all – through a wood chipper, then pile them into a coarse straining bag and put them in the basket. Crank the handle (or pump up the bag), collect the pressed juice in a big bucket, then simply cover it loosely and leave it in the shed until the following April. The wild yeasts will do their work, and you should end up with gallons of simple but delicious cider.
Perfectionists would refine this process, to avoid ending up with gallons of cider vinegar, but it always worked for Dominic. And my recent visit to the Trabanco cider house, in the glorious hills of Asturias, northern Spain, demonstrated that the method is much the same even when industrial quantities of cider are being produced: its cellars were full of versions of Dominic’s friend’s contraption, just writ large, as well as vast, ancient chestnut barrels in which the cider ferments and matures.
These ciders are flat, cloudy and a far cry from the stuff made from cheap apple concentrate and filled with gas, dubiously promoted on TV by raven-haired colleens cavorting around orchards. In Asturias, to liven it up, the cider is poured from a great height into the glass: Trabanco’s splendid restaurant, Casa Trabanco, is the perfect place to witness the ritual, especially while feasting on fabada asturiana, the local bean stew, stickily rich in various porky morsels.
I strongly recommend a trip to Asturias: compared with Galicia and the Basque Country, it feels thoroughly undiscovered, but it offers the visitor glorious countryside, with the stunning Picos de Europa mountains as a backdrop, hundreds of quiet coves and sandy beaches, excellent food and friendly locals: cider seems to promote bonhomie like no other drink.
Back home, should you be lucky enough to live in a cider-producing area, pay your local producer a visit, taste a few and stock up: if you don’t, EeBria.com has a good selection, including Burrow Hill at £6 for two litres. And I am a convert to the Asturian method of pouring, so do try… the idea is to hold the bottle above your head while keeping the glass near your hip, tipping it slightly, so cider falls on the inside of the glass, about two-thirds of the way up. Remembering my rather cack-handed attempts, I suggest practising with water first – and don’t wear your best pair of shoes.