April and May are the best months to drink cider. No, I didn't know that either until recently. Traditionally the apples are pressed in August and September and the juice bubbles away in wooden casks through the winter – thanks to the action of wild yeast from the apple skins on the sugar in the juice.
In the spring, as the temperature rises, the malolactic (or secondary) fermentation causes a dramatic drop in acidity and a natural effervescence. New-season cider is cider at its youngest and most lively.
I learned this from Tash Bradley, who makes cider the traditional way near my grandparents' house on the river Dart in Devon.
Tash presses her apples through acacia boards and cloth, and then ferments the juice in old, oak, rum casks – no added yeast, no water, no sulphites. It's different from the method used by most big cider brands whose adverts seem to scream from every billboard as I cycle into work these days. Their cider is brewed from apple concentrate and water (the legal minimum apple juice is 35%). They add large quantities of commercial wine yeast and then ferment the lot in vast metal temperature-controlled vats. The resulting liquid is amber-clear but flavourless.
Yet despite the care she puts into her brew, Tash is not averse to mixing it. This recipe is devised by her father, Steve – who, mysteriously – calls it Peg. It's proper West Country and seasonal. It uses JR Phillips' alcoholic cordials, produced in Bristol since the 19th century, and lots of mint and borage, which are both going crazy at this time of year.
If you can't track down the cordials or the borage, you can leave them out (although it would be bit of a shame). You can buy Tash's Heron Valley Cider and JR Philips' alcoholic cordials online.
Make your own cider 'peg'
2 litres medium still cider
150ml JR Phillips shrub alcoholic cordial
150ml JR Phillips lovage alcoholic cordial
750ml sparkling lemonade
A handful of borage leaves
A handful of mint leaves
1 cucumber, sliced
1 orange, cut into quarters and sliced
1 In a large punch bowl or jug, mix together all of the liquid ingredients.
2 Add the chopped cucumber, orange and herbs along with lots of ice.
3 Serve in tall glasses with lots of ice, fruit, mint and borage as you would a summer Pimms.