Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"Or By a Cyder-Press..."

"...with a patient look
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours."

Earlier this year, when we purchased our Wisconsin land with its sixty-plus apple trees, many of which we had seen laden with fruit last fall, we had visions of heaping bushels of glorious fruit, rivers of cider (or "cyder," in Keats's world), an abundance of pommes beyond imagining. What would we do with all those apples?, we wondered. What a pleasant condundrum to face!

What a lot to learn we had! What a lot we have learned.

Lesson 1: Many apple trees, particularly older varieties, have a biennial habit--they bear a full crop of apples every other year, and bear sparsely or not at all in the other year. Several of the most heavily fruited trees that we saw last fall turned out to have this tendency. There went half the harvest.

Lesson 2: Apple picking is flippin' hard work. Modern apples orchards use dwarfing rootstock to keep the trees from growing very tall, and then those trees are severely pruned to keep them healthy, vigorous, and easy to harvest. Many of our trees, on the other hand, are anything but dwarfish, growing to twenty feet and more, and in their long-neglected state their crowns are a crowded tangle of branches and dead wood, impenetrable without a pruning saw in hand. Even with a good ladder, and one of those apple-picking gadgets with the basket at the end of a long pole, filling a couple of sacks of apples was hard, hot work. For several weeks this summer I brought apples to sell at our farmers' market , but when I look back and consider the time and gas it took to drive out and back, the time spent picking and hauling, and the paltry sum they brought at market, where they had to go up against apples from real orchards...well, financially at least, I'd have been better off staying home and baking a couple of batches of dog biscuits. (But honestly, I can't say I regret having spent those mornings here--

--rather than in a hot kitchen breathing in dog biscuit fumes!)

Lesson 3: There's a very good reason why organic apples cost so much in the grocery store. I stopped at our co-op mid-summer, before any of our own apples were ripe, to buy an apple, one single apple for a recipe I wanted to make. The cashier rang it up at a buck-fifty. That's because organic apples were priced at $3.89 a pound. I began to imagine that we were sitting on a gold mine, with our dozens of pesticide-free trees.

Then came the hail. Then the scab. Then the bugs, I'm not sure which ones, but I'm guessing, all of them. A couple of trees, well laden and ripening with gorgeous fruit, suddenly and inexplicably dropped all their apples in late August. It was heart-rending to see all that beautiful fruit moldering on the ground, useless for anything but feeding the wildlife.

In brief, if we had tried to fill just one bushel basket with perfect, unblemished, unbruised, bug-free fruit, well, I don't think we could have done it. Really. With trees this long neglected that's just the way it goes. There's a lot that we can do, in terms of pruning, of orchard hygiene, etc., to bring the trees back and have better harvests in the future. In the meantime, we've started planting more trees. Three weeks ago we put six heirloom cider apple trees in the ground just up the hill from "Bide-A-Wee." It felt pretty momentous, I have to say.

We did harvest a decent amount of apples this year, and while most of them were the furthest thing from perfect, they all looked good coming out of the cider press that our friends Emily and Dan Hoisington were nice enough to let us use.

We found that it takes nearly fifteen pounds of apples and rather a lot of work--washing the apples and picking them over, grinding them in the food processor and running them through the press--to produce just a gallon of cider. But what satisfaction in drinking your own home-grown, fresh-pressed sweet cider, and setting a carboy or two aside to ferment into hard cider. I'll report back on that topic in a few weeks.

Meantime, I mentioned a while back how easy it is to make small amounts of fresh apple cider at home, as here comes the proof. We will need:


A food processor (or even just a good grater)

The set-up:

For this demonstration I used just about a pound of apples--looks like six smallish apples there. Chop them up into chunks. Do not peel, do not core. A few bruises are no problem. Put the apple pieces in the FP and start pulsing to chop them up, then let it run. Most likely the apple bits will pile up on the sides. Now's the time to add a little bit of water or cider, to help get the puree going. Scrape down the sides and add a tablespoon of water or cider and let the FP run. Add a tad more liquid if needed. To process this pound of apples I had to add about 1/4 cup of water. Process until you have an applesauce-like consistency:

Put it into the cheesecloth:
And sque-e-e-e-e-e-z-z-z-z-z-e:

That pound of apples produced 1 1/2 cups of juice:

It's a delicious, local beverage--fresh cider has replaced our morning orange juice for some time now--and it's a great ingredient in the kitchen. Next time: Cider-Braised Pork, a wonderful autumn dish.

"To Autumn," stanza two

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes, whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner though dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with a patient look
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

John Keats, 1819

Text (except the Keats) and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

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