As Thyself

20 Apr

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And the second is like to it:
Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
There is no other commandment greater than these. – Jesus of Nazareth

In the summer of 2008, I spent fourteen days in Ireland as a result of a generous teaching award. To say that the experience changed me would be a tremendous understatement. Ireland was really the beginning lesson of how to navigate this journey.What I learned there is beginning now to have its first flowering. At the time, I didn’t realize how the lives of everyday people would eventually show me a way to live that was ultimately more fulfilling, but now I see it. And every chance I have to revisit, even for the briefest of moments, places which resonate with the same quality as the time I spent in Ireland, I cherish them. Sunday, I was able to go back for an entire afternoon.

After having sampled the cider at Bold Rock , a spark of curiosity was lit. So packing a small picnic for Clar and I, up the road we went to spend a beautiful Virginia Sunday afternoon at Albemarle Ciderworks in North Garden. Even though the original focus was to enjoy Irish traditional music by Patrick Olwell and friends, expanding knowledge about local fare is a new interest for me.  Clar and I curved up the gravel drive among beautiful budding trees and boxes of fall apples, mellowed now in springtime. A light bottle blue sky framed green hills quite similar to ones I walked in Ireland. Immediately, I knew it would be hard to leave once the sun began to dip behind the blossoms.

Albemarle Ciderworks tasting room is lovely and I was entirely impressed by the knowledge and presentation of their five cider offerings. Perhaps impressed isn’t the best word, astounded might be a better one. I had no idea that an apple could be turned into something so similar to champagne, with all the nuances and notes of the vine. Top picks for me were the Royal Pippin, named for the main apple variety, the Albemarle Pippin and its greatest fan Queen Victoria.  The effervescence of cider promotes the tart lemon pineapple notes of this variety, plus all that sparkle is just plain fun. Jupiter’s Legacy, named for Thomas Jefferson’s servant in charge of his cidery, was the driest of their offerings, quite mineral and bright with a tiny hint of crabapple. The acidity of this variety is definitely something to balance out a rich cheese or cream dish. The Ragged Mountain was described to me as the most basic cider, resembling the kind colonial Virginians would have made and drank daily. Having slight backnote sweetness, it did resemble ciders I had experienced the day before, but definitely wasn’t what most would call sweet.

Cider has completely changed for me from visiting the Ciderworks. That an apple can be transformed into complex deliciousness through careful crafting has opened my mind to other traditional culinary arts, especially from Jefferson’s era. The story of John Adams daily morning tankard was just one of many lessons about the benefits of apple consumption I learned during my tasting. Cultural history is served alongside cider at Albemarle Ciderworks and the Sheltons are committed to the preservation and local history behind the fruit and ciders they produce.  I was warmly greeted mid tasting session by Charlotte Shelton, who taught me about the development of the apple farm and cidery. Efforts to promote the growth of heirloom apples was the first part of their mission. They host apple growing seminars and cider making forums, as well as offering apple trees and fruit throughout the year for sale.  Her hospitality and graciousness has been the most generous of any traditional craft beverage establishment I have visited.

Finally, I settled into a spot under the marquee on the patio with a picnic lunch, shrub of Royal Pippin to accompany my small spread of cheese, turkey, pepper, olive and sweet pickle. The happiest part of the day came, though, when Patrick Olwell arrived with friends for a session, a REAL Irish session. Patrick is a master flutemaker, his wooden instruments are so well crafted he is considered the Stradivarius of Irish flutemakers. At first, the music began with fiddle, flute, uilleann pipe and concertina, but as the afternoon progressed, more fiddles arrived and another concertina.  Sitting there, cider in hand, I looked to the hills and remembered that the music I am loving most these days, bluegrass, has its roots in the Irish immigrants who settled here , the green hillocks and mountains reminding them of a far away home. When I hear reels and jigs, I can’t describe how connected I feel to a culture and a sense of pride in my own ethnicity. Even though I am an American, my soul aligns itself with a people and history beyond these mountains all the way across a mighty ocean to a tiny island nation. In chatting with a gentleman and his daughter during the session, I explained the significance of what was happening, not just an Irish session but all musical fellowship. Friends and neighbors come together to share in the spirit of song, food and drink, story, and dance. Music connects to our emotions in a way words often cannot and our sharing of it imparts our love for each other as friend, family member, and as a human.

One of the musicians sat his tiny son next to him within the circle, gently placing a miniature fiddle and bow in his arms. Patrick’s adult son also played within the group, the musicians reflecting a wide range of age and experience. The outer ring of us echoed this continuity in life. From a sleeping infant in his stroller by a iron cafe table, all the way to a host of ladies in their senior years, toes dancing the bricks in joy, the  music connects us and we need it, often. I have missed these afternoons and the pub evenings by a peat fire with story and song, laughter or tears. These moments are the essence of communion, with each other, and with the earth in the turning of its seasons. Like the apple, each person is unique, unlike any other on the tree. Yet the tree creates us, feeds us, each limb a community, each globe of fruit, a family of nurtured seeds within. In time, our families grow and our communities widen and evolve, but always the traces of the past, are passed on in our art, in our sharing, and in our love and care for each other.

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