It isn’t often that you get to try a taste of an American myth. After all, while their legends live large, Paul Bunyan’s pancake recipe, Pecos Billy’s rattlesnake ratatouille, and most of Davey Crockett’s backwoods culinary repertoire are lost to time. And so, when Michael McManmon, the co-owner of the Bradley Farm in Lanesborough, Massachusetts offered me a cup of “Johnny Appleseed cider,” I could hardly turn it down.
On the outside, McManmon’s cider looked fairly standard: a murky, muddy liquid that was more or less identical to any other roadside cider. But, as he poured it, I quickly noticed an important difference: while most ciders are thin, anemic affairs, McManmon’s was just short of syrupy, a richer, more robust brew.
But when I tasted the juice…well, that’s when the game changed. Roadside cider tends to be sweet, with soft, rounded flavors, but McManmon’s was sharp, with a refreshing acidity that lightly evoked the flavor of Granny Smith apples. With rounded richness that cut off the tart taste before it descended into excess acidity, it balanced sweetness with refreshing clarity, and a surprisingly intense richness of flavor. It almost demanded biting rather than sipping.
It would be nice to chalk the unique flavor of McManmon’s cider up to a specific apple varietal, but that’s a bit problematic. The crisp, delicious cider he gave me – and which I later bought a big bottle of – didn’t come from honeycrisps or Romes, Fijis or Granny Smiths. In fact, the apples he crushed for me didn’t have a name.
His crop, McManmon explained, came from untended, long-overgrown trees on his property, a planting that, according to local lore, dated back to colonial times. When he first took over the farm, McManmon noticed a stand of apple trees near the edge of his land. Offshoots of each other, the trees had grown, wild and relatively untended, for years. Upon further examination, however, he discovered that these were only the tip of the iceberg on his tree collection.
Investigating a wooded area on his farm, McManmon soon found that many of his thick-trunked trees were, surprisingly, apples. But, unlike the well-trimmed, easy-to-harvest saplings that populate most orchards, these had grown, tall and thick, until it was impossible to reach their fruit. For all intents and purposes, McManmon had an apple forest.
While they were overgrown, these apples weren’t quite wild. Growing in bunches, in a few different locations, they were thoughtfully laid-out, suggesting that McManmon’s apple tangle was actually a long-forgotten orchard.
It’s not surprising that his thoughts quickly went to Johnny Appleseed; the legendary planter casts a long shadow in Western Massachusetts, where he was born and from which he embarked on his famed apple-planting exploits. The real man, whose actual name was John Chapman, came from Leominster, MA, and grew up in Longmeadow. Given that Lanesborough, where McManmon’s orchard is located, lies between John Chapman’s childhood home and Pennsylvania, where he started his famous apple-planting campaign, it isn’t a huge stretch to imagine that the cider I drank may have come from trees planted by Johnny Appleseed.
Another factor is the flavor. Unlike contemporary apples, which are often bred for sweetness, the apples of John Chapman’s day tended to be unpalatably tart. This is because, in large part, they were bred to make hard cider and applejack, and the tartness produced a beverage that was more satisfying and more effective for fermentation. This was borne out in the sharp, intense flavor of McManmon’s apples, which was more evocative of colonial cider apples than contemporary sweet ones.
So did Johnny Appleseed plant McManmon’s apples? Probably not.
A more likely explanation is that his orchard was planted by another colonial farmer. Lanesborough was settled in 1753, 20 years before Chapman’s birth, and the Bradley farm dates to 1762. For that matter, there are numerous records of early orchards, planted by settlers, throughout Western Mass. In fact, according to some stories, it’s still possible to find apple trees growing in straight lines, the leftovers of cores and seeds that were discarded by the native Americans who once roamed through the Berkshires and the Mohawk trail.
But, in the grand scheme, the question of whether McManmon’s trees were planted by John Chapman or some anonymous farmer is irrelevant. Regardless of who first laid out the orchard, the apples I drank were probably planted for much the same reason, at much the same time, and from very similar seed stock, as those cultivated by Chapman. The finished product was powerful, revelatory, and educational, an intense, wild apple flavor that challenged my tastebuds and changed my idea of what cider can be. And, at the end of the day, that’s a seed well worth planting.