Henry and Stan Le Bas with their cider press at Portelet in 1914
Man has always needed something to drink, in addition to water, and for hundreds of years the Jerseyman's first choice of beverage, before the arrival of tea and coffee, was cider, initially imported from Normandy, but eventually made from apples grown in the orchards which covered large areas of the island's countryside. Records show that in 1469 and 1531 the stores at Mont Orgueil Castle included cider supplied by merchants in Caen.
In the 17th century the States of Jersey became concerned that too much land was being used for orchards, at the expense of vital crops such as corn, and in 1673 an Act was passed which forbade the planting of any new orchards, although a survey of land use 100 years later suggests that either the island landscape was already dominated by orchards in the late 17th Century or the States decision had little effect.
An authority on Jersey agriculture in the 17th century, B J R Blench, wrote:
- "The increased profit from orchards and cider making was the main stimulus to the increase of enclosures (thought to be almost complete by 1625, and the changing emphasis from corn growing to apple cultivation."
In the early 18th century the Channel Islands protested to the Privy Council against a change in policy concerning import duties and the petition contained the following:
- "In the year 1676 there happen'd a difference touching Excise demanded upon cyder imported from Jersey and it was decided by his then Majesty in Council that the inhabitants of these Islands, (being noe foreigners) ought to be as free from paying excise for Cyder or Perry, of the growth of those islands imported into England or Wales, as the inhabitants of His Majesty's other islands are or have been for Goods and Merchandises of their Growth and Manufacture imported by them into England or Wales."
Cider on sale at Castle
There was concern that Jersey's cider industry would be upset by imports from France and a petition to Charles II by the Bailiff and Jurats in 1679 complained that the Governor, Sir John Lanier, was ignoring an import ban:
- "There had been an order passed the Three Estates, the Gov. being present, to prevent an abuse very prejudicial to this Island by the importation of Normandy Apples and Sider, a commodity too much abounding already with us, and which cannot be permitted without violating ye liberty wee enjoy by your Majesties favour, of transporting Sider of our own growth into England, and for that cause ye prohibition has been made very strict under forfeiture and fine. Notwithstanding which strictness ye then Governor, to show ye he was Solutus legibus, and could dispense thereof at pleasure - the very same evening did sign two licences of importing great quantities of Norman apples, one to Ensigne Montais, a Jersey gent, and ye other to a Merchant and did since offer to give ye like permission to any that would aske it.
- "But this is little in comparison of what was don afterwards before ye Sunne, in deffiance of your Majesty's Court. Fifty or three score hogsheads of Normandy Sider landed at a time, and unloaded at ye Gate of your Castle Montorgueil, not for provision of your garrison, but to be retailed there by ye pot and sold out by small barills and rondlets to ye neighbouring Parishes. Many of us have seen with our eyes that Castle and ye Avenues to it replenished with all sorts and sexews of prople drinking even to excesse and drunkenesse of ye said Sider, three or four hundred at once, chiefly upon SUndays and during Divine Service. And whereas in former times soldiers were not permitted to keep an Ale-House, though never soe orderly, in our times ye Governor and Deputy doe not only permitt them freely to exercise that vacation throughout ye whole Island, but moreover they prostituted your Majesty's garrisons, especially Montorgueil and ye Tower at St Aubins to that sordid occupation and made them (as far as in them lyes) common Tippling Houses, to ye noe little scandall of your Majesty's Service
In 1801 it was estimated that the island produced 2 million gallons of cider a year. Little wine or beer was produced and cider took over from mead, made from honey, as the Jerseyman's first choice of tipple. Beer and wine were imported, but in the 17th century little or none was made locally.
The apple crop dominated horticulture by the middle of that century and by 1800, 19 per cent of enclosed land and 15 per cent of all cultivated land was covered in apple orchards. It is said that every house had at least one orchard, and some several. Writer Jean Poingdestre, in his 1682 treatise on island life (see link below) describes the previous year as "ye greatest Cydar yeare that euer was seene. There were not found in all ye Island Caskes for much aboue halfe that was made".
Philippe Falle, in his History of Jersey wrote in 1692:
- "I do not think there is any country in the World that (in the same extent of ground) produces so much cider as Jersey does, not even Normandy itself. Many of our orchards are planted something in the imitation of the famous Quincunx and all of them in an order that gives them a Beauty beyond what I have observed in Gloscester or Herefordshire, where appears littel Exactness in the Position and mutual aspect of the Trees. Nor is there better, larger and more generous fruit than what grows in this Island; but we have it in such plenty (note - some single trees have been known to produce a Tun, or four Hogsheads) that it is not possible that we should be as nice in gathering it, and improving afterwards by Art that sea of liquor that is drawn from it, than ore others who have less.
Francois Le Couteur
One of the greatest authorities on cider and apple growing in Jersey was the Rev Francois Le Couteur, who published the first of several editions of his Aperçu sur Les Cidres in 1801, giving instructions on how to plan, plant and care for a cider orchard, and how to make and store the cider itself. He estimated that production in a normal year amounted to up to 35,000 barrels, of which 20,000 were consumed in the island and the remainder exported.
In a report for London's Board of Agriculture in 1815, Thomas Quayle wrote:
- "Jersey cider is in great esteem and has become a leading article among its exports. One-fourth of its arable land is computed to be occupied by apple trees, most extensively in the parishes of St Martin, Grouville, St Clement and St Saviour. Apple trees of various descriptions are cultivated, some of French origin, some English, and some of native produce. Much the greater part are grafted at home on seedling stocks but some on slips of those species of apple tree which are propagated in that manner. "
Quayle described a method of planting which involved taking out a hole five feet deep and putting a layer of furze at the bottom ot keep the ground loose and open. THis is the same method recommended by the Rev Le Couteur.
Quayle wrote about some favourite varieties:
- "The cider apple most generally favoured at present is a native species and bears the name of Romeril from a family of that name in the island, by whom it was first grafted from the wild stock.. It grows from cuttings, is a late blossomer, but an abundant and certain bearer. The fruit is round and rather large when ripe, of a yellowish colour marked with red; its juice sweet and the lees produced abundant. As a baking apple it is also esteemed and keeps till APril. The next in esteem is the Lamine, also a late blossomer. There two species are rarely blighted.
- "The Noir-toit, a sweet fruit, and the Gros-Amer, rather bitter, are all Jersey apples, valued on account of their size and being good bearers. The Pain-Sauce, Rogneux and the Frechen or Frequin, a bitter-sweet apple, are also natives of Jersey, of esteemed quality but bad bearers. The Ameret-aux-Gentilshommes also answers the same description and ripens late. Each of these is still grown, but in small quantities; their fruit is mixed with the others, in order to give quality".
Jersey was so renowned for its apple production that in 1856 La Société Centrale d'Agriculture de la Seine Inférieure did not turn to nearby Normandy for help with its own cider production, but sent two representatives to Jersey for advice. They rated Moise Gibaut, of Mainland, St Lawrence, as the best producer and said that they had never tasted cider of better quality than his.
Cider exports began to tail off after 1855 and within 20 years had fallen to virtually nothing. During this period the export of potatoes was increasingly steadily. Jersey farmers had found a more profitable crop and were cutting down their apple orchards and ploughing the fields to grow potatoes
Cider making, photographed by Percival Dunham