AN APPLE FROM THE OLD TREE down the hill from my house was a reminder of preparations that used to be made for winter. Grandfather took us around the farm this time of year to collect apples before the deer and other wildlife ate them. He would back the old pickup truck up to a tree and we kids went up it to shake out the apples into the truck. Gramp had lived on this family farm since the 1880s and knew how all the apples on various trees tasted and which ones combined to make a tasty cider. They were definitely organically grown and occasionally wormy. If we asked about the worms, the answer was “if the worm can live in it, it’s good for you too…. Besides, they’re good protein.”
We drove to different apple trees in different hedgerows until we had enough to go to Barton’s Mill near Martindale. This was fascinating. Mr. Barton was a character and ran a real water-powered mill from the large stream that ran into the mill pond out back. Inside there seemed to be gears, levers and belts everywhere. A whole series of processes started with shoveling out the apples from the truck bed for the grinder. The chopped, unwashed apples and leaves went into an old brown burlap lined wooden box that went under the press. Eventually by creaking gears and unknown magic a vat somewhere was filled.
Mr. Barton then filled the gallon glass jugs plus the small hard cider keg. This had been prepared by filling it with water plus a handful of gravel, plugging the bunghole, and rolling it around the yard. This was all rinsed out and the primitive scouring did a good job. Enough apples were left in trade to cover the cost of the pressing, and that fresh cider was nectar!
Back home the jugs and keg went into the “back room” of the old farmhouse near the wood, kindling and the large blue Hubbard squash that had been harvested from the edges of the cornfields. Some of the cider was added to the vinegar barrel that lay in the cellar. The barrel was checked for the slimy brown “mother,” the culture which started the vinegar making process. The resulting brown vinegar was so strong it would pickle anything.
The unheated “back room” was the usual entrance to the house so was a handy place for the cider keg. A rag had been stuffed in the bung hole so fermentation gases could escape and to keep out the mice, and a siphon hose hung above the keg with some tin cups nearby. By Thanksgiving it was sampled by the men and by Christmas it was considered perfected. If it partially froze in January it really became potent. It was years later before we young ’uns got to try it. What a disappointment!
Now we support our local orchards and buy the sanitary, pasteurized cider. It is good, but whether it was the special mix of ancient varieties of apples or that brown burlap, there was wonderful flavor from that old method that can’t be duplicated!