The slightly dank, funky scent wafting from my wine glass conjured the cool, dark, stillness of an apple cellar in the heat of summer. I breathed deeply, knowing that the bracing taste of strange, yeasty, cider goodness would follow.
I’m not sure why I so like this aroma, the unmistakable scent of a certain kind of dry, robust European cider, but I imagine it’s because it takes me to a place at once familiar and fresh. I’ve never been in a French apple cellar, but were I to find myself in one, I think I’d feel right at home.
Anyone who ventures to Durham’s Black Twig Cider House may find themselves feeling similarly at-home-and-away. Restaurateur Mattie Beason, who opened the popular Six Plates in 2007, has joined with former Six Plates chef John Eisensmith to reinvent the place.
Black Twig boasts that it is the only cider restaurant of its kind the Southeast, with more than 80 ciders available on draft or in bottles. The new incarnation retains the character of the former upscale favorite watering hole, but swaps the old enthusiasm for wine pairings for a wholehearted dedication to the exploration of cider and the foods that go well with it.
For the most part, that means Firsthand Foods sausage on Guglhupf buns, and it’s hard to go wrong when you put these together. But the thing that makes Black Twig worth returning to time and again is the wide variety of flavor combinations to tinker with. Pairing cider and food can be tricky, in part because we know so little about ciders in the U.S. The sticky sweet stuff you’ll find in grocery store coolers is just the most easily accessible version, ready made for the sugar-happy American palate.
Sure, we’ve been fortunate to have some artisanal ciders with integrity and complexity in these parts for a few years now, Foggy Ridge, from Virginia, and North Carolina’s own McRitchie come to mind. But there’s never been a setting that collects and presents ciders in a way that showcases their facility with food so well.
Take this from someone who knows what it means to fail at pairing food with cider. A few years ago, I pressed a group of friends into service for a cider-and-cheese tasting at my kitchen table. After several hours of washing down muenster and chevre with apple-y brews, one long-suffering taster concluded, “Maybe cider just doesn’t go with cheese.”
Perhaps we were ahead of our time. Or maybe we should have left the designing of cider pairings to the experts. After tasting Black Twig’s Handsome Norman sandwich of bratwurst, coleslaw, smoked pimento cheese, mustard and pork barbecue (yes, that’s meat on meat) with a Bold Rock Dry Cider fresh from the tap, you’ll wonder why you ever drank beer in the first place. The dry, effervescent cider goes with the juicy meat perfectly.
If you want to build your own sandwich, choose a sweeter Italian sausage and top it with the same luscious pimento cheese and the pickled collards. Order a Sidra del Diablo from Asheville’s Urban Orchard Cider Co. to go with it. The cider is smooth with a spicy bite at the end when it lets go of its smoked habanero heat, but unlike most spicy drinks, the heat dances with the food it is paired with rather than fighting it. That creamy pimento cheese didn’t know it needed Diablo’s hit of spice to bring it extra life, but it did.
And that’s just the beginning. The French farmhouse ciders, like the Le Brun Cidre from Brittany that I described above, offer a range of undiscovered flavors with funky but fruity character. The English ciders are more straightforward with classic apple-forward flavor, while some of the more imaginative American upstarts up the ante with extra fruit flavors like cherries, pineapple and orange peel.
The sheer volume of choices can be overwhelming, as our party of diners discovered. Some gave up on cider and returned to the comfort of beer after the first round. But for the adventurous, Black Twig is a little cider world worth getting lost in.
Amber Nimocks is a former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at email@example.com.
Take a cider class to learn more about the history and regional varieties of cider. Black Twig co-owner Mattie Beason will lead three classes June 11, July 23 and Aug. 27. For more information and tickets: nando.com/ciderclass
Want to go?
Black Twig Cider House is at 2812 Erwin Road, Suite 104, Durham (the former Six Plates Wine Bar location).