Ask for "cider" in any country but the United States, and you might be surprised what you get.
In France, you'll be served, from a champagne bottle, a sparkling liquid as light and sweet as the scent of apple blossoms.
In Spain, your host might raise an uncorked bottle above his head and let loose into a glass held at his waist, splashing the cider to aerate it and release the complex flavors.
In England, you'll get a strong, dry cider, tapped from a keg.
But nowhere -- besides the United States, that is -- will you get anything nonalcoholic.
"Cider" automatically meant "hard cider" in this country, too, until the mid-1800s. French and English colonists brought apple seeds from their homelands and planted orchards for their beloved cider. It was cheap, it kept a long time, and it was often cleaner than the water.
Presidents drank cider. Old women drank cider. Babies drank cider. Even preachers who would never touch wine or whiskey thought nothing of guzzling cider.
"Cider was, next to water, the most abundant and the cheapest fluid to be had," noted famed 19th-century newspaperman Horace Greeley. "In many a family of six or eight persons, a barrel tapped on Saturday barely lasted a full week.
"The transition from cider to warmer and more potent stimulants was easy and natural; so that whole families died drunkards and vagabond paupers from the impetus first given by cider-swilling in their rural homes."
Then along came temperance. Prohibitionists saw cider as the "gateway drug," so they targeted it first.
Meanwhile, German and Eastern European immigrants were flooding America's shores with beer. And cities were sprawling all over New England, cutting down orchards in their path. Cider didn't stand a chance.
Now, thanks to the microbrew movement, cider is making a comeback. Big beer names are even getting in on the action: The parent corporations of Sam Adams, Guinness, Stroh's, Gallo and Miller all make or import hard ciders.
Of course, countries that never had their cider cultures interrupted still make the finest ciders. We're talking ciders as complex as good wines. Tasters study the color, the aroma, the head, the flavors (a good cider balances sweet, tart and bitter) -- and even the way the bubbles burst as they touch the lips.
You won't find those ciders in your supermarket beer aisle, though. You'll find the mass-marketed ciders from Stroh's (Woodchuck), Gallo (Hornsby's) and the like.
These supermarket ciders are, almost without exception, sweeter than "traditional" ciders from small producers. In fact, some British cideries actually add sugar to the versions they export to the United States, in deference to our national sweet tooth -- and to the fact that we still think "apple juice" when somebody says cider.
So check the nutrition label on your supermarket cider and count the sugar grams. Pay no attention to descriptive monikers: Hornsby's Draft is one of the drier ciders, at 9 grams of sugar per 12-ounce bottle -- a good choice if you're using it to poach sole or make a veal fricassee.
Some of these mass-marketed products such as Woodchuck are quite decent. And some are -- as a British connoisseur once put it -- "industrial fizz made from Chilean apple concentrate."
Drink some, cook with some, and judge for yourself.
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Pork Braised in Hard Cider
The sauce in this recipe can taste sweet and apple-saucy, or subtler, depending on the tartness of the apples and the dryness of the cider you use. Roasted root vegetables are a nice accompaniment, drizzled with some of the sauce.
1 3-pound pork shoulder picnic roast
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 pounds Granny Smith apples, cored and cut into wedges
1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3 cups hard cider
3 cups water
Pat roast dry, and season with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat and brown roast well on all sides (this will take about 10 minutes). Remove roast and set aside. Add apples and flour to pot and cook, stirring, 3 minutes. Add cinnamon, cider and water, scraping up any browned bits. Add roast. Season with salt and pepper, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, 2 hours, or until meat is very tender. Remove roast and cover with foil to keep warm.
Turn heat up to high. Boil liquid, uncovered, until it is reduced by half (about 15 minutes). Pure sauce with a stick blender (or regular blender), strain out apple skins if desired, and serve a spoonful or two over each serving of sliced roast.
(Nutrition information (1 serving): 514 calories, 199 calories from fat, 22 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 165 milligrams cholesterol, 302 milligrams sodium, 31 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber.)
Strongbow, an English hard cider on tap (dry) is available locally at Jack Quinn's (21 S. Tejon St.) and The Wayfarer Pub ( 520 S. Tejon St.).
Coaltrain Wine and Liquor (330 W. Uintah) sells Strongbow, K (from England), Hornsby's, Hard Core and Woodchuck ciders
Cheers Liquor Mart (1105 N. Circle Drive) sells Hard Core, Strongbow, Woodchuck, Woodpecker, Hornsby's, Cider Jack, Wider's and Ace ciders