BY GARY MAY
Grant Howes can hardly wait for those cold January days. That’s when he dresses warmly against the frigid winds that whip up from Lake Ontario and gets out onto the land of his Prince Edward County farm to begin picking the apples he’s been waiting to reach just the right point for producing his delectable ice cider.
It’s on such crisp winter days that Howes and his well-bundled pickers wander through the orchards to select frozen Ida red, northern spy and russet apples from the trees.
The picked fruit is then given a chance to sit for a while and prepare for its magnificent transformation. Then it’s taken to Howes’ own wine presses, and the process begins to turn them into a warm, amber-hued ambrosia that’s tickled the palates of many a cider drinker since 1995.
The County Cider Company produces a full range of ciders, but the winter crop is something special. Chilled to 4-6 degrees Celsius, a sip of the beautiful liquid conveys hints of caramel apples and crème brulée.
Ice cider is great by itself as an apéritif, or with fois gras or aged cheese, or as an accompaniment to desserts such as tarte tatin, an upside-down apple tart, in which the apples are caramelized in butter and sugar before baking.
The making of ice cider began in Quebec, which is now known worldwide for its production. But Howes’ Prince Edward County brand is a little bit different, and therefore a little bit special.
Howes practises a unique style in the making of his ice cider. In Quebec, the fruit is picked, turned into juice and then frozen. Howes believes it’s best to leave the fruit to freeze on the tree — just as ice wine-makers leave their grapes.
Ice wine was first developed in Germany, but Canadians have refined it and earned international accolades for their efforts. Howes is helping to do the same for Ontario ice cider.
Secret is in the microclimate
Just like ice wine, ice cider’s chief enemy is warm winters. However, the apples love the freeze-thaw cycles that have become common in recent Ontario winters. While perhaps murder on road surfaces and rose bushes, the conditions are ideal for producing a quality ice cider.
“Exposure to the elements, and that combination of thawing and freezing, thawing and freezing, really concentrates the flavours and oxidizes the sugar, which imparts a distinct flavour and complexity to our final product,” Howes says.
After the picked apples have had a chance to rest, they’re hauled out to the presses to be turned into juice. The nectar is fermented for nine months. It takes an entire bushel — about 300 to 400 apples — to produce one 375-millilitre bottle that retails at Howes’ on-site shop for $30.05.
“We began to make it before we knew it was ice cider,” Howes says. “We used to call it winter apple. I made it, we sold it, and I didn’t do it again for a couple of years, until a fellow suggested I try it because ice cider was really big in Quebec.”
He took a trip to Quebec to find out what all the fuss was about and returned, convinced “we could make a better product, because the method they employed is basically freezing apple juice and concentrating the sugars that way. Because of the microclimate we have here, we can grow apple varieties that really shouldn’t be grown this far north.”
And therein lies the secret to the County Cider Company’s success with ice cider. Many of the traditional northern apples, such as the Macintosh, fall from the tree when the weather gets cold. The tree sheds its fruit to help build up carbohydrates that act as antifreeze for the winter.
But varieties such as the Ida red, russet and northern spy come from warmer climates and “don’t know enough to shed their fruit.” That’s why Howes chose them for his ice wine: the fruit stays on the tree, and freezes there, in anticipation of Howes’ pickers paying a winter visit.
Magnificent water views with your tasting
The County Cider Company remains small, producing just 150,000 litres of cider a year. Howes says he wants to keep it an artisan-sized, hands-on operation. Simple cider, served with simple food. That’s become the cider company’s signature.
Many might see Howes’ County Cider Company as the “end of the road” in Prince Edward County, still some distance beyond Picton, which is the largest community in the county. From mainland Ontario, motorists enter the county at either Belleville or Quinte West at Trenton, then continue the drive eastward toward Waupoos.
The cider apple farm is located on a hill that affords beautiful views down to the shining waters of Prince Edward Bay, on Lake Ontario. As you approach the property, you’ll encounter the beautiful old grey stone Conrad David House, where Howes lives.
Next to it, there’s a tasting room and retail store, which have given the circa-1832 barn a new lease on life. In summer, there’s a patio where visitors can enjoy those panoramic views of the bay and, on a clear day, the islands that stretch out toward the New York state shoreline. An outdoor wood oven is used to produce pizza and other light lunch items.
Prince Edward has worked hard in recent years to establish itself as a tourist destination based on its boutique wineries, charming country accommodation and restaurants, artists and artisans.
Part of that success is based on the fact that the county businesses have become a close-knit group, always ready and eager to help one another out. Howes lauds area chefs for helping to spread the word about all of his ciders, some of which are featured in their dishes.
Maple in the County festival
They’ve also been successful in extending the tourist season at both ends, and aren’t frightened off by winter’s cold. In fact one of the most successful events has become the annual Maple in the County festival, which this year will be held March 26-27. It’s the festival’s anniversary and there’ll be pancake breakfasts, tours of maple bushes, sugar shack demonstrations, music, dancing, shopping, fine dining and family-oriented activities.
The Cider Company will be open for business those days, as part of the festival. On Saturday, they’ll offer maple apple crèpe with whipped cream. All weekend, visitors will be able to sample ciders — including the award-winning ice cider —browse the gift shop and enjoy the view.
One of the restaurants that has helped to promote Howes’ ciders is the Merrill Inn, which has featured ice cider on its drinks menu in recent years. Merrill Inn co-owner Edward Shubert provided this recipe for an ice cider martini:
• 1.5 ounces Grey Goose vodka
• 0.5 ounces ice cider
• Dash of Triple Sec
• To a cocktail shaker add crushed ice and shake; serve very cold, straight up, garnished with a floating slice of apple.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — January 2011