In 1981, Cook and his new bride, Karen, purchased a poultry farm across from his father’s recently acquired dairy farm in Amesbury. After cleaning up the grounds, they opened Cider Hill Farm, a 145-acre plot that devotes 24 acres to apple orchards and grows 75 varieties of the fruit.
‘My favorites change, not only as the season rolls on, but year to year, as well. I do really love apples; I will eat between five and 10 a day during the season.’
Q. The warm winter wreaked havoc on many farms. How did Cider Hill fare?
A. Michigan lost their complete crop of apples this year. New York, a lot of orchards lost their complete crop. East of the Mississippi, the apple crop really took a hammering with the warm winter and then some super cold weather that came along afterward. We’re in this little pocket of the North Shore that seemed to do better than other areas. I’m just hearing from a number of orchards north of us and west of us that aren’t even open for the season.
Q. What’s your favorite apple right now?
A. My favorites change, not only as the season rolls on, but year to year, as well. I do really love apples; I will eat between five and 10 a day during the season. We have apples that start Aug. 15, there are six varieties. And of those six, there are a couple that are particularly good, even for an early apple, like Ginger Gold or Zestar. And then, you get to this time of year, and the big name is Honeycrisp. We can hardly keep them in the store, and they’re very, very scarce this year. That apple is very sought after.
Q. Which apple do you recommend for pies?
A. Typically in this season, it’s Cortland. Cortland doesn’t really brown, it doesn’t oxidize as much as other varieties. People like that. Whenever we bake, we always try to use a blend of apples, because they do have different characteristics the way they cook. Cortland stays kind of firm, and if you make a pie with just Cortland, it can tend to be a little too firm at times. So for example, our premier pie mix would be one-third Cortland, one-third Mutsu, and one-third Northern Spy. They have a little different qualities, and together they make a real nice filling for a pie or an applesauce.
Q. Cider Hill has a reputation for unpasteurized apple cider and cider doughnuts. Are they flying off the shelf as usual this year?
A. We make our own cider here and we make it unpasteurized, which is a difficult to find. We keep control of it; we don’t wholesale it, so you can find it only here. It’s awesome cider. We’re getting a lot of brewers coming in who will buy our cider in quantities to take home and make hard cider or something like that. That’s about 1,400 gallons a week this time of the year. And cider doughnuts are just a phenomenon in New England. Every orchard has to make and sell cider doughnuts. We’ve got an old machine we’ve had since day one basically, and it just keeps going and going. They’re extremely popular.
Q. You say that your wife always recounts the farm’s love story. Can you give it a try?
A. One of the big reasons we wanted to try this farm concept is we could work together, and what we found is it had the opposite effect in the beginning. We were working basically nonstop and we went through our friends like water, because when they came, there was never sitting down and socializing. The stress that we were under for the first 15 years of developing the farm would split just about any couple and we had every opportunity to make that decision. But we just fought and fought and fought for each other. And having been through that, with a lot of tragedies and difficulties — I guess we all have these stories — but people who knew us just couldn’t believe what was going on through those years. They were almost afraid to come by. They didn’t know what condition we’d be in. Having made it through that, [Karen] just loves to talk about how the farm is a place of love, how it’s rooted in love.