Autumn is the season of harvesting, as is evident in the fields around Wimpole where the farm staff is bringing in the last of the corn crops. The early September warmth has brought the moisture content down thereby saving on costly drying regimes during storage.
In the walled garden the vegetables are in full flow, runner beans, courgettes, main crop potatos, all providing an abundance of food to take into the winter months. This abundance extends to the fruit harvest which is now beginning. Apricots were first, then plums and greengages followed by pears and now finally apples, all reaching maturity according to their variety. Never a big ‘plum’ man, I have been surprised this year by the sweetness of the plums and gages such that even to my uneducated palate they are a joy.
In this centennial year of the 1914 war, it is fitting to remember the hard toil that harvesting was for farm workers before mechanisation made an impact. Liquids shed during the manual harvesting work in high summer needed replacing and the ones of choice were ales and ciders. Not as one might expect in our indulgent age for the intoxication factor but solely to replenish the fluids lost through sweat. The ales and ciders typically consumed were mostly of low alcohol content and chosen as safer to consume in those far off days of uncertain water qualities and the high cost of teas and coffees.
Most farms had their own breweries or fermenters for the processing of ales and cider for consumption by the workforce. Indeed a volume of ale or cider was part of their remuneration.
Early September is still early for most varieties of apples but as with most tree borne fruits, they don’t know this and decide to fall from their branches anyway. Windfalls we call them as they are usually the result of a good blow. It is the earlier maturing fruit of each tree that succumbs first and these are naturally the ripest. Evidence of this is the attack by small ‘critters’, birds, wasps and an assortment of bugs who all readily take nourishment from the ripening fruits. The appearance of the windfall is therefore not the most appealing and if nearing the end of the ripening process or been bruised in its fall, they will have developed a fungal mould on their discolouring skin.
Discarded by most, it is these fruits that are the cider maker’s staple source of supply. I’m not talking of your large volume cider producer. They use a single dedicated ‘cider’ apple. No this is the amateur producer making home consumed produce to one’s own particular taste. The sight of this unwanted crop is the cue for Simon to unwrap his 50 litre press and motor driven Scratter. Usually we set up shop in the Great Barn and it is always a great attraction to visitors. It allows us to provide a working demonstration of the process and illustrate the reasons for the provision of alcohol to the farming workforce.
There is a frugal joy to collecting the free windfalls from around the fruit trees of the estate. Jayne especially enjoys finding slightly damaged pears that are set aside for poaching later. Peeled and quartered, then poached in a sugar-liquor with a small Star Anise, pears make a great desert.
Done like this with the damage removed and the remaining portion in the ripest of conditions, it is near perfect. I digress, we both love collecting the windfalls and when we are clearing ground of wasp infested and soft mushy lumps, the tree owners are usually pleased as well. Heavy work as well, as we need about five large bins to make a single 50 litre pressing. When selecting the fruit, Simon insists on the widest possible choice, including at the sharp end; small crab apples and ‘cookers’ ranging through to the sweetest of the ‘eaters’ and even including pears where possible, assuming Jayne doesn’t get there first. He witters on about the ’ascorbic sugar’ in pears being not possible to convert to alcohol and thereby providing a sweeter cider. We just pick up the fruit combinations he indicates and haul it back to the press.
The baskets full of ripe colourful fruit quickly attract the attention and we have many a visitor inquire about the types, the process, the equipment and the taste of the final product. But they are leaping ahead just as I have because first of all the mound of fruit has to be reduced to a pulp to allow easier extraction of the juice.
Simple hand chopping will suffice for small production but we now benefit from Simon’s Scratter. Resembling a large garden shredder, the Scratter pulps the apples as fast as we can feed them in, turning a basket of apples in a juicy pulp in seconds. So to the pressing and, as with the pulping it, can be done with whatever method available to the small-scale producer. We now use a 50 litre press. This beast devours three to four bucket loads of pulp at a single sitting. Poured into a hessian bag that is supported by a circle of wooden slats, the pulp is already turning brown as the newly exposed flesh oxidises. The hessian bag is carefully folded over at the top to complete the ‘cheese’, as the pulp block is called. A heavy wooden block lid in two halves is fitted around the press leadscrew. Further blocks are placed on top of this to keep the press screw above the level of the slatted retainer wall.
Even before any force is applied, the juice begins to run out. Application of the ratchet mechanism allows force to bear down on the ‘cheese’. Now brute force is needed. Easily at first, the press screw is ratcheted down forcing the juices from the pulp cheese and through the hessian liner bag. Captured at the base, the juice is directed by the rim of the press base into the large plastic bins we used to collect the fruit not long before. The first juice is a brown cloudy affair and not very appealing if truth be told. But, the taste is out of this world. When offered a sip even the most reluctant of tasters is converted and takes a second larger gulp after the first hesitancy. As more force is applied, the remaining juice is squeezed from the cheese and strangely is usually clearer than the first. The receiving bins are regularly replaced before they fill as ‘a pint of water weighs a pound and a quarter’ and too much weight can make pouring the juice difficult if bins are allowed to fill to the brim.
The juice is poured into a fermenting vessel, a posh name for a plastic drum or demi-john. After initial exposure to oxygen in the atmosphere, the vessels are sealed off with an airlock or similar pressure relief valve. Within hours the released sugars of the fruit begin to react with the natural yeasts on the apple skins and gases build up. The initial reaction can be quite violent with a large amount of foamy bubbles blocking the airlock such is the mad rush of the carbon dioxide to escape. It soon settles down to a steady, fascinating to watch, ‘bloop bloop bloop’.
Our work is done. Simon however continues with his forays into the magic art of cider making with analysis of the ph, the type of vessel and how to store and manage the liquid hereafter. It is worth stating the obvious now that newly pressed, the juice can be a delight at the breakfast table but it is fresh produce and will decay within days. So if its juice you like, make and drink it to order or freeze it in plastic bottles, do not expect it to store forever. Simon, the mad scientist, has also invested in a pasteuriser and bag-in-box bags. Pasteurising kills the bacteria present in the juice and allows it to be stored ‘indefinitely’ if in appropriate containers. The bag-in-box bag is similar to those used for wine in boxes. Whilst still sterile, the juice in filled into the bag and the unit is sealed with a push-in tap. This allows the juice to be accessed for consumption without reducing its storage life. Again an investment but the joy of fresh apple juice well into winter will repay the investment.
What of the cider though you ask. Well each vessel is left to ferment for about a month and racked off. The sediments and other debris in the juice will have settled to the bottom by this time and racking is the process of siphoning off the clear liquid into a fresh vessel. The remaining debris is washed out and the vessel thoroughly cleaned. Now variations begin to set in according to your own drinking tastes. The earlier the fermenting is stopped, the more sugar remains and the sweeter the cider. The cider can be left to ferment out completely turning all the sugar into alcohol making for a drier and more potent tipple. Personally I prefer slightly sweet and fizzy cider and so have experimented with the addition of natural and artificial sugars to adjust to that taste. I also like it to be ice cool so store each bottle for a day or so in the fridge before drinking. Each to his own.
‘Cheers – good health to you, I’m off to do a little Wassailing’.