“Cider or ‘Sidra’ is synonymous with Santo da Serra and there is normally a festival held each September to celebrate the fact”
We’d come a little bit south of the village of Santo da Serra, to Lombo das Faias in fact, to visit one of the many cider-makers in this area. Cider or ‘Sidra’ is synonymous with Santo da Serra and normally, there is a festival held each September to celebrate the harvest with farmers and producers presenting their wares to an appreciative public.
“Do you use bicycle power to produce your cider?” I asked
João was just one of the 120 cidermakers that operate in the Santo da Serra area as well as around the island. He’d lived in the Channel Islands in the UK so spoke good English.
“Do you use bicycle power to produce your cider?” I asked him eyeing the bits of mountain bike scattered around his workshop. It turns out João’s three sons are mad-keen mountain bikers and in this rugged upland area, they don’t have far to peddle to pursue their sport.
In fact, João hadn’t ‘pressed’ his sons, nor their bikes into the apple-pressing operation but had gone all ‘high-tech’ by purchasing a fancy pneumatic press that did in a day what would take about a week in old wooden presses. Traditionally, cider was made in these parts by pouring apples or pears into a small wooden press called a ‘Madeiran Mill’ which squeezed the pulp to extract the juice. In the old days, there was also a much larger contraption, a bit like a medieval battering ram consisting of a tree trunk with an iron auger running through it at one end which really put some weight into the job. These are museum pieces now!
“It used to take a week of hard labour,” João told us, “and we’d get around 100 litres of sidra. This thing does it all in a day,” he said leaning on the smart, French machine! “Then we put it in stainless steel vats, add yeast and let nature do the rest.”
Labour of Love
João sells his cider for around €2 per litre. That’s about the price of a half-pint in a UK pub. This is clearly a labour of love!
He uses a small, bitter apple called a ‘P êro’ that produces a dry, tart cider, some of which he now syphoned from an oak barrel to let us sample. It was not quite to my taste but after two glasses, I was surprised how ‘tasty’ it became.
Then he produced a bottle and poured a darker, sweeter blend that was much more palatable and, to my mind could easily compete with Madeira’s famous fortified wine. I told him ‘if you could brand, bottle and sell this stuff, you’d make a fortune!’ By this time, perhaps it was probably the ‘sidra’ talking!
I got the impression they weren’t very commerciallyminded in these parts. “We tried to form a cooperative of Santo da Serra cider-makers,” João went on. “It’s not easy to get the local producers to work together.”
The idea had been to cr eate a central pressing facility that all the cider makers in the area could use and then blend and bottle a more commercial ‘Santo da Serra Sidra’ brand. “That idea’s still in the pipeline,” João quipped.
‘Sidra’ was traditionally the drink of the people in Madeira consumed throughout the island with meals and on special occasions"
History of Sidra in Madeira
‘Sidra’ was traditionally the drink of the people in Madeira consumed throughout the island with meals and on special occasions. The island’s celebrated fortified tipple, ‘Madeira Wine’ was not consumed so much locally but targeted at the UK, US and Eur opean markets. Table wine from Madeira grapes was, until recently, not very good..
So, here in Santo and around the island, they drank cider- although we mustn’t forget the rough ‘Tasca’ wine called ‘Jaque’ as well as cheap rum & br andy. But, let me assure you, they are all ‘acquired tastes’.
It’s perhaps not a bad thing that individual pr oducers generate their own unique products. It might help preserve the craft and the traditions although I read that the condition of the apple orchards throughout the area is not so good - many getting older without the right care and replacement of older trees to maintain the quality o f the fruit. As with many things on Madeira, the influence of commercially-produced products eventually overshadow the ‘real deal’ which is a shame.
João gets his fruit from an old lady whose husband died and her lands are now mostly abandoned so he pays a relatively low price every year to pick the apples and clean the orchards.
In its purest form, apple cider is full of polyphenols which provide many health benefits
Any sort of fruit can be processed this way although pears and apples are best suited. They’ve tried to mix other fruits such as goiaba (guava), pitanga and ‘tomateingles’ (sweet tomatoes) along with tamarillo to appeal to the more ‘sweet’ oriented taste buds of tourists. That’s all well and good but I particularly liked João’s idea of forming a cooperative to streamline and commercialise the process, especially by building their own brand.
I told him he should also pr omote the health benefits of fermented drinks like his ‘raw’ unprocessed ciders. In its purest form, apple cider is full o f polyphenols which provide many health benefits such as lowering the incidence of inflammation and cancer. They reckon half a pint of cider contains as many antioxidants as a glass of red wine.
It’s a very good excuse to have another glass, I’d say!