The art of making cider from wild and cultivated apples was practiced long before the Romans brought apple orchards to France and England in the first 500 years AD. During this period Roman army veterans were given settlements on which to grow fruits (as an inducement to stay), and thus apple orchards were introduced into Britain 1. The arrival of the Normans in 1066 increased the quality of the cider apples in the orchards in Southern Britain and improved the craft of cidermaking overall.
As a way to ensure a good crop of cider apples the next year, a customary Wassail (Anglo-Saxon ‘wes hal’ for “be whole”) was performed to protect the apple trees in the orchards. Mulled apple cider was drunk at annual Wassail gatherings, where locals would gather around the best and the oldest of the apple trees 3, sing the Wassailing song, and pour cider over the tree’s roots. Some would then make loud noises to drive away evil spirits and others would place a cider-soaked piece of bread in the tree to attract good spirits 4. Wassail is still performed in some old families and round the hearths of substantial farmers at Christmas. It is also called Lamb's Wool 5.
In the 14th Century children were baptised in cider, as it was cleaner than the water! 2 Cider was also part of worker’s wages in the monasteries 1, and many farm worker's wages included four pints of cider a day 2. Labourers were rated by the amount they drank; one comment was that a 2 gallon-a-day man was worth the extra he drank! 6
Cidermaking on Vancouver Island
Since Captain Cook arrived in the Pacific Northwest in 1778, cider has had a unique place in our local history. It was his common practices to issue cider on all his voyages to prevent scurvy (lack of Vitamin C) from ravaging his crews 2.
When the fur trade expended itself under the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), a colonial government was established (1849 to 1859) and settlement of the Colony of Vancouver Island became a priority. Victoria merchants were also pressing for the establishment of a farming community that would support their businesses, especially as demand for products soared during the Queen Charlotte Islands, Thompson and Fraser River gold rushes in the 1850s.
Several rural districts were established, including Cowichan and Nanaimo districts, and Douglas saw to it that apple orchards were planted in the Cowichan Valley and on Salt Spring Island 7.
Several of the apple orchards on Saltspring Island were owned and operated by freed African slaves who came with a group of approximately 600 members of the San Francisco Zion Church in response to Governor James Douglas’ offer for free land in the island colony. Other orchards were operated by “Kanakas,” who were freed slaves from the South Pacific and Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands 7.
Gulf Island orchards soon became major producers of fruit, and in the early 1900s, a fruit train ran daily from Victoria to Winnipeg. Unfortunately, during the 1920s and 30s, the local fruit industry could not compete with the large-scale Okanagan and American orchards 7. The remains of a once-thriving orchard business can be seen in interpretive signage at Ruckle Provincial Park on Saltspring Island.
Many of the early Islands orchards sold their apples to the packing houses on Keating Cross Roads, which then supplied the first Growers Cider Company. This company was established in Victoria in 1927 and was intended to showcase unique British Columbia ciders and wines.
When Growers Cider closed their Quadra Street location in favour of their Okanagan site in the 1950s, a Metchosin cidermaker named Al Piggott bought the hammer mill (grinder) and primary fermenters from the South African winemaker who had built them for Growers. This unique equipment became the basis of the cidermaking business that evolved into Merridale Ciderworks. The primary fermenters are still in use up at Merridale Cidery today and the hammer mill was used until a few years ago.
The Making of Merridale
Frustrated by his quest across Canada to source traditional cider apples for his cidermaking, Al Piggott had set out to develop a traditional cider orchard for himself. He ordered root stock from English, French and German varieties but soon found the windy Metchosin district not suitable for apples. He set out to identify the perfect growing conditions for his cider apples, and relocated Merridale Cider to its current site in Cobble Hill in 1990.
The Cobble Hill location has the perfect balance of climate, aspect, elevation, soil conditions and water required to produce world-class cider apples. The Maritime Mediterranean climate, rich soils and “terroir” (complete growing conditions) of the Cowichan Valley district mirror the renowned cider regions of Somerset in England and Normandie and Brittany in France.
The Cowichan Valley offers one of Canada's finest climates; Cowichan means “land warmed by the sun” in native Coast Salish dialect. On average the valley receives over 1,800 hours of sunshine per year and the highest average annual temperature anywhere in Canada. It has a low average annual rainfall (for the west coast) of only 17 inches, which are concentrated in a few winter months. Over 200 frost-free days per year makes the growing season long and assures plenty of good weather for cider apples 8.
In the UK and France, cider apples tended to be grown towards the western extremities because the climatic and soil conditions were most suitable. Under the influence of the Gulf Stream, the weather was relatively mild and the areas concerned had a fairly heavy annual rainfall 2. These areas are very much like Vancouver Island in soil, weather, and terroir (overall growing environment) characteristics.
The launching of Merridale Cider as the first licensed Estate Cidery in British Columbia was due to a change in liquor licensing regulations in the early 1990s. These new regulations were intended to allow farm wineries to produce and sell their wines from the “farm gate,” or in private liquor stores, restaurants and pubs. Under Rick and Janet’s guidance, the Estate Cider licence was grandfathered in by Cabinet Order in the late 1980s 10.
Today, Merridale Ciderworks helps to preserve rural lifestyles and landscapes in Cobble Hill (and across the Island region) by meeting the growing desire for sustainable, local food and drink. Local production and processing of food and drink can stimulate economic development for rural areas such as Cobble Hill. The creation of a heritage or cultural identity for a region is central to stimulating the tourism industry, and this can be achieved by transforming agricultural landscapes into cultural tourism landscapes 11. The opportunity to experience authentic, traditional rural practices in contemporary settings can draw visitors, particularly with a diversity of agri-tourism, food and gastronomy tourism in the region.