Courtesy of Eveline V. Ferretti

Ancient manuscript in Mann Library about apples still provide useful knowledge for researchers today.

October 29, 2018

Mann Library Exhibit Celebrates History of Cider-Making and Heirloom Apples

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Strolling through Mann Library on most days, you might not suspect the extent of Cornell’s ties to apples, save for the apple vending machine. But this week, displays in the Mann lobby and vivid wall prints decorating the first floor computer lab puts the history of the apple in the pommes of students’ hands.

The exhibit, “Apples to Cider: An Old Industry Takes New Root,” speaks to the rich history of apples in cider-making, and the resurgence of an industry with close ties to Cornell research.

Informational posters and prints of apples gleaned from old manuscripts will be posted in several locations around Mann Library until December. The main lobby includes a display about the history of cider-making, and the first floor is decorated with large prints and posters about Cornell research on cider. QR codes on posters and quarter cards link interested patrons to further resources online.

During Cider Week earlier this month, students had the chance to sample some of the apples currently under cultivation by Cornell researchers.

Apple cider has deep roots in the American history and in the New York area. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans drank an average of over 10.5 ounces of apple ciders a day. Even President John Adams started off every day with a tankard, according to the exhibit’s website.

Despite its glory in the past centuries, the cider industry dipped in the 20th century, pinched by both Prohibition and the surging popularity of beer. But the apple didn’t fall far from the tree — apple cider-making has seen a significant resurgence of late, according to the exhibit.

Cornell might be a full four hour ride from the Big Apple, but research efforts to study the fruit go back as far as Prof. Liberty Hyde Bailey’s 1892 survey of apple varieties in over 40 states. Nowadays, much of the University’s work on cider is driven by the Cornell Hard Cider Project Work Team, headed by Prof. Greg Peck, horticulture.

According to Adam Karl, M.S. ’15, a PhD. student studying orchard management with Peck,  apple varieties first cultivated hundreds of years ago — like the Siberian Harvey or the Gipsy King — are well suited for cider-making. Karl said that these types of apples contain higher content of tannins — the same compounds that give wine its red color — which, while bitter, make them more amenable to cider than common culinary varieties like Honeycrisp.

To this day, apple researchers and horticulturists refer back to the knowledge of old varieties contained in Mann’s ancient manuscripts, like the 207 year-old text Pomona Herefordiensis, according to Eveline Ferretti, public programming and communication administrator for Mann Library.

“The Gipsy King was one of those apple varieties that was thought to have been lost, until it was “rediscovered” in an old orchard along the England/Wales border in 2004; the horticulturalists who identified the apple relied in part on the description & illustration provided in the Herefordshire Pomona,” Ferretti said in an interview with The Sun. 

“Those old books are really good at helping people like Greg Peck. When they’re not quite sure [about a variety], they actually come look at these books,” Ferretti said. “Every Cornell student should take the time to see these books because it’s actually pretty awesome to see these books that were written a couple hundred years ago.” 

A plaque posted for the exhibit about the Pomona Herefordiensis said that “a browse through this sumptuous classic of english pomology will transport you back hundreds of years, to a time when English orchards abounded in a dazzling diversity of fruit.”

Published by English horticulturalist Thomas Andrew Knight in 1811, the manuscript described and illustrated in vivid detail 30 varieties of apple and pear. A complete scan is available online through the Biodiversity Heritage Library

“These are some of these old cider varieties, a lot of them have been ‘lost,’” Ferretti said. “They seem to have disappeared from orchards in England, sometimes though you find them again … and they actually bring them back.”

Large prints of the heirloom varieties illustrated in Pomona Herefordiensis were hung on the first floor of Mann library in the area overlooking Beebe Lake, and will remain up along with the rest of the exhibit until December.