Monday, September 16, 2013

Cider Pressing!

I've got grease on my kilt. It's there because of the tough work of turning the apple grinder. The press we use is a combination animal, part grinder with flywheel and part press. It's from an old New York Orchard's estate sale, dated somewhere around 1865. When my friend Dave bought it from the auctioneer it was falling apart, the old wood rotten and nearly gone, the press rusty and forgotten. But Dave is the kind of man who can build anything his mind can wrap around and he restored the press, cleaned it up, painted it, and now many people call his woodland property home for an afternoon when cidering season comes around. So, you can understand the grease. If you had gears that saw the end of the Civil War you may need some additional lubrication, too.

I always get excited about this day, probably because I am a huge fan of hard cider. There are several store-brands of the hooch I enjoy very much but nothing is as good as what we gather, press, and bottle ourselves. If there is one thing I have learned in all these years of growing and cooking food it is that food with a story always tastes better. When you sit down to a meal with a hunt, a fish story, a day of work or a garden behind it that you know intimately, it always enhances the flavor. If you can manage to share the meal with friends, and have them contribute their own food of story to it, you have a feast no matter what the ingredients. You bring a warm loaf of bread from the oven you baked yourself, possibly from wheat you grew? Set it down on a table next to a crock of soft goat cheese or hand-churned butter and you are the wealthiest people in the world long as you sit and commune in such glory. Being rich has nothing to do with money. Being rich means understanding time and value and having the wisdom to train each to sit down next to you when you ask.

And that is why I brought venison stew and a truckload of apples to Dave's House. The apples were picked here at the farm, but the venison was a gift from the Hoff Family and given to me along with their two bushels traded for some hard cider when it is ready. I was expecting them to deliver the apples, but not the two pounds of ground venison. I am a huge fan of game, and this was hunted by a family member who had more than enough to share (the exact opposite of my hunting story from last fall). I decided to do right by the kindness and set to work in my kitchen with a big round skillet, some butter set to melt in it, and started chopping veggies. I crushed some garlic from Common Sense Farm under the flat side of my knife and diced it best I could. An onion from my garden and some green peppers later I was simmering the best, savory, smells a kitchen can know. While they sputtered and hummed in the pan I took the defrosted meat and added it to a bowl, offering it spices I thought would compliment it. Garlic salt, black pepper, a little turmeric and mace. When the meat was ready I added it to the pan and it browned nicely. I had a meat and veggie stir fry of some serious respect going on, but it was only a meal for two or three? That would not due, since cidering would be around ten people or so. I then did what all smart cooks do in a pinch, added all the content from the pan to a crock pot and diced up some tomatoes from the garden. A lot of tomatoes. I poured in a can of kidney beans and what was left was a loose chili, or a thick stew, depending on your view of the world. Stew sounds more like something a Hobbit would eat, so I called it stew. I packed up the crock pot in the truck, called my dog, and headed to Dave's to start pressing.

I messed up the time and was the last one to arrive, but since I showed up with a couple hundred pounds of apples I figured that was excusable. The well-known process was in full swing, and friends and faces I had no seen in a long time were smiling back at me. This was all good, all of it. Gibson jumped out of the truck and went to inspect the small pressure washing hose Dave made to blast apples clean. I went right to the pressing. My friends Tyler and Tara were there, but also another Tyler who still works at Orvis and his girl, Chrissy. It was great to see them again and some other old coworkers. Dave was there with his wife Sue, as where some new faces. There was a spread of eats in the garage and I added my crockpot next to the apple cider donuts, chunks of cheddar cheese, apple tarts and crumbles, and chips and dip. It was ten AM. Everyone was drinking already. It was going to be a Big Time.

It took a few hours, but we got it all pressed. Taking turns between the grinder, the pressing wheel, washing, hauling, and filling carboys - in four hours we had created 50 gallons of fresh cider where two truckloads of apples had once been. Not a bad trade. We did it as a group, laughing and drinking. We did it with stories and catching up with old friends. The work and day flew and I got to leave with eight gallons of my own, seven for fermenting into booze and one fresh to freeze for cooking. I also filled two of Joanna and Greg's growlers they had leant me, a repayment for their help with picking apples Saturday. Work, favor, and trade have an easy barter stream around these parts. Money is great, don't get wrong, but it is nice trading a pony cart for two months worth of hay when things get tight. Up here an alternate economy runs half our lives. It's a good thing.

I came home around three in the afternoon, evening chores ahead of me and a day of farm, friends, and good food behind me. I had just enough stew left in the crockpot for my own supper, and to make the half cup of broth and meat a little more filling I set some veggies from the garden into that trusty skillet of oil and had a fine, hardy meal. I know my bank account has a balance somewhere in the two-digit range but I wasn't worried. It's hard to worry about such things when you are clearly so ridiculously wealthy. I had a meal, a warm fire, friends, a promise of future libations and most of all - a story.

I slept well last night. Very, very well.