LittleField Notes: Autumn 2019
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
It is a cool early autumn evening after a rain, and the three garden ducks, in a pleased display of pure selfhood, wander back onto the lawn from the wild edges of the pasture and pause looking at me out of one eye, the way ducks do, head cocked, slug slime and grass recklessly and irrevocably clinging to their beaks. Watching ducks forage in wet grass, one can be forgiven for thinking they must be delicious – slugs I mean. Seems revolting, you’ll reasonably say, and I agree, until I reflect, somewhat uncomfortably, that I have lately enjoyed les escargots, each snail steaming-hot in its own tiny cup of butter and garlic, I think of them as a sort of oysters terra firma. Indeed, to taste the essence of the sea, in all its wet, salty, seaweedy oceanness: eat a raw oyster on the half-shell; to taste the essence of the earth in all its musty, firm, dank earthiness: eat escargot. Exotic, I know, and some would say pretentious, but really if it’s terroir you’re after, then these two offer it at a kind of base and unmistakable level; nothing subtle here. After regarding me for a few moments, the three ducks resume their contented, burrowing, beak smacking exploration into the terroir of my lawn.
If it’s true what they say: “no hoof no horse,” then “no foot, no man” would best describe me these last few weeks. I’ve been lame on my hind left now for something like eight weeks for no apparent reason. I’ve seen the foot doctor and he tells me I have a condition, the name of which is too long and complicated for me ever to remember, but it involves two tiny bones on the outside middle part of my foot being out of alignment and everything else being sore and off as a result. He tells me that because I’ve favored it in such and such a way, and because I waited so long to see him, I have compounded the problem and developed a stress fracture. It’s not been completely debilitating. I haven’t had to resort to crutches or casts, but it has certainly slowed me down and given me pause as I think about aging and the bare-bones physical requirements of running a farm. The work necessitates healthy strong bodies. Mine is not in peak condition at the moment. Walking is simply uncomfortable and more walking only slows the healing. So, growing weary of limping and trying not to do further damage, I decided to abandon walking in favor of cycling. I rummaged around in the corner of the machine shed and dug out an old bicycle that was given to us by a friend who was cleaning out his garage.
The bicycle is the most efficient form of human transportation. One hundred calories will get you three miles down the road on a bike, while taking you only 280 feet in a car; and cycling is five times as efficient as walking. Astounding.
When I was 16 years old I cycled, and camped with my family from Brussels, Belgium to Zermatt, Switzerland by way of France, Luxembourg and Germany. It was a splendid journey. We crossed paths with countless wonderful people, and reveled in the spectacular countryside and quaint villages along the way. We experienced it all at an entirely human pace, not unlike that of a horse. At a formative age such an adventure informs the way a person thinks and feels for the rest of one’s life. I admire my parents’ for having had the audacity and thrift to undertake such a journey with two boys in tow, 12 and 16 years old in 1986.
I am lucky to have a pleasant and simple commute, from house to barn, unfortunately now made complicated by the bad foot. The barn is a good distance down a hill from the farmhouse, and on a normal day I make any number of trips up and down. This is how I have managed to maintain a bit of healthy exercise in my daily routine. They say it is important that as we age we stay active and get regular exercise. I shy away from sporty and artificial fitness regimens. I find it difficult to be inspired by rowing pretend boats or riding a stationary bicycle to nowhere. I prefer instead to exercise my body through the necessary work of the day: forking hay, mucking stalls, walking to and from the barn.
So it was a bit of a revelation to me when I had the idea to substitute riding the bike for walking on my daily rounds. Happily, I discovered that peddling a bicycle is easy on the foot and has proved an enjoyable and useful substitute for walking. It still allows me to travel under my own power rather than rely on the engine of a utility vehicle or pickup. Mornings and evenings I have even started bringing the horses in from the pasture on my two wheeled steed, my trusty wranglebike.
On the Making of Apple Cider
The Apple Tree
As the season doth advance
Your apples for to gather
I bid you catch the chance
To pick them in fine weather
When to a pummy ground
You squeeze out all the juice, sir
Then fill a cask well bound
And set it by for use sir
Oh bid the cider flow
In plowing and in sowing
The healthiest drink I know
In reaping and in mowing
O the jovial days when the apple trees to bear
We’ll drink and be merry all the gladsome year
– Folk song from Devon
Many years ago Mr. Littlefield asked if I might be able to make hard cider from apples grown on the farm. Not knowing the first thing about cider, I unwittingly said “sure,” though how one turned fresh apple juice into an ambrosial alcoholic beverage seemed like a form of alchemy, shrouded in mystery. I set out to learn what I could.
Turning to the internet, I found as usual, such a wide and often contradictory set of information that the more I read, the more confused I became. In those days, before online stores put most of the local shops out of business, there was a home brew store in Arlington, and I stopped in one afternoon to talk cider.
“I am interested in making cider using natural fermentation,” I said. The heavily bearded man behind the counter stopped what he was doing and looked at me incredulously. He left nothing to doubt, “you can’t do that,” he said flatly, “you never know what you’ll get; too unpredictable.” Can’t do that? That was the word he used. I don’t normally believe in can’t, but what could I do? My ignorantly imagined “can” was certainly no countenance against an expert “can’t.” All I could do was take him at his word and buy the winemaking kit he proffered and head home. The kit, he promised, had everything I would need to get started.
Eagerly I pressed a bushel or two of apples, enjoying giant glasses of the delicious juice – the absolute defining taste of autumn. Despite the dizzying array of often conflicting information about cider making on the internet, I finally settled on a plan and went into action. Into my newly acquired plastic fermenter went five gallons of fresh apple juice along with campden tablets (sodium metabisulfite) to kill off any native yeasts and bacteria residing in the apples. This provided a blank slate for the champagne yeast to do its work. Over the course of a week or so the hungry yeasts transformed the sweet juice into a semi dry alcoholic cider. After the primary fermentation was complete, I added pectic enzyme to render the cider clear. Finally, I bottled it with a bit of sugar to create a secondary fermentation in the bottle which would render a naturally carbonated beverage.
The project went according to plan and without a hitch. The cider was ready to drink in a month or so and tasted passably delicious, though rather uninteresting and far from extraordinary. I was still troubled by the expert home brew store pronouncement that making natural cider was impossible. After all, haven’t people been making alcoholic cider for centuries?
The answer is of course, a rounding yes. And not only have people been making cider, but also wine with grapes, beer with barley, and mead with honey. Julius Caesar encountered an existent cider culture when he invaded Gaul (present day France) in 55 BC. He found native Celtic peoples making cider from crabapples and pears. The Romans soon developed grafting techniques and began widespread production of cider in addition to the large quantities of wine which they were already making. St. Jerome, while wandering through the region in the fourth century, made reference to an alcoholic beverage made of apples which he called sicera, from which we derive the modern word cider. France, and especially Normandy, continued to be the center of cider making for hundreds of years. In 1066 when William the Conqueror invaded England across the English Channel, he and his successors brought along with them cherished apple varieties and their deep knowledge of cider making, reinvigorating the cider tradition in Great Britain, which continues to this day.
Apples were one of the first crops cultivated by Europeans in the New World. It was only natural that most of the harvest, beyond what could be reasonably stored for eating, would have been made into hard cider as a means of preserving the enormous harvest that apple trees are capable of. Later, in the first half of the 19th century, John Chapman, better known as the legendary Johnny Appleseed, a nursery man and missionary, operated a nursery and traveled extensively selling seedlings and planting vast numbers of apple trees, mostly intended not for pies and apple sauce, but hard cider.
Indeed, cider was an extraordinarily popular beverage in early America, consumed in vast quantities – as much as 35 gallons per person per year by some estimates. So valued was it, that it functioned as a form of currency in some rural areas of New England. It was, according to Ben Watson in his fine book on the subject, Cider, Hard and Sweet, “considered to be a healthy and wholesome beverage and was duly consumed by men, women, and children, by hired hands and Harvard students.”
It wasn’t too long after my batch of by-the-book cider was finished that by good fortune I met Otto, an elderly man of Swiss origin living on a perfect five acre homestead on Camano Island. His orchard is a work of art, with perfectly pruned trees undulating gracefully from a little hilltop sloping gently down towards Puget Sound to the west. He maintains a warm and inviting fruit stand where he sells many different and rare varieties of apples and fresh juice in the fall. I have written before of my tree grafting lessons with Otto. In the course of that small apprenticeship we also took up the subject of cider making.
Otto made cider like his father, grandfather and countless grandfathers before, in the old way, in the old country across the sea. Otto is one of that special and dwindling number of folks who are still with us that remember a time before everything turned to plastic: industrialized, sterilized, sanitized, monetized.
I told Otto of my cider making project, how I had used the wine making kit as a starting point, how I had used the sulfites and pectic enzyme and champagne yeast, how I was drinking it in less than a month. He politely let me finish, then with a surprising intensity that set me back on my heals, in his Swiss German accent he practically shouted, finger pointing, “When you make cider, you use no chemicals,” he paused briefly, his eyes flashing, and in case I hadn’t fully understood, he repeated, only louder this time, “No gawdam chemicals!”
He paused for effect, then in a quieter voice proceeded to instruct me, to educate me on the proper, indeed the only way to make real cider. To underscore the point, he disappeared into his modest cabin and soon returned clutching a brown bottle in one hand and two glasses in the other. With a pop and soft puff, he carefully filled the glasses. For a few moments we stood silent, occasionally stealing a sip as the rare northwest November sun dipped over the Olympic mountains to the west, over across the water. Despite the deepening chill, I felt warm inside: this moment, this place, this man, this drink: delicious gently rising bubbles of light, sweetly tart.
“You let the fruit do the work,” he said, “The cider will make itself if you give it a chance, if you stay out of the way.” And so it was that he bestowed upon me the principles of good and honest cider making.
It starts with the apples, picked from late summer on through the fall depending on the variety. They must be free of chemical sprays. Because a cider made with only one type of apple would have a fairly one dimensional flavor, it is best to use several different varieties in one batch. It is fine to use apples with a bit of scab or some blemishes or even a few worm holes, though I avoid using rotted, or severely bruised fruit. I press the apples as soon as all of the trees have been harvested, and before the poor keepers start to soften.
A cider press is a very clever machine with two principal components. The first is a mechanism by which the apples (or pears) are ground into pomace. The second is the press itself, which squeezes the juice out of the shredded fruit into a waiting bucket. I have a very nice cider press which features an electric motor for the grinding portion and a hand crank press for extracting the juice. The fresh apple juice is poured straightaway into a large glass jug called a carboy, after which an airlock is affixed. At this point the vessel full of juice is tucked away in a cool place, traditionally a farm outbuilding. There are hosts of wild yeasts living naturally on the skins of apples and pears. As the juice of the fruit ages, these yeasts awaken and begin to consume the sugars in the fruit. Thus begins fermentation, whereby sugar is transformed into carbon dioxide and alcohol. The CO2 is allowed to escape through the airlock while prohibiting the entrance of air from the outside. During active fermentation the juice is alive, with wild bubbling and foaming. Notice that I have done nothing so far except harvest the fruit, grind it, extract the juice and pour it into a fermentation vessel. I have added nothing; I’ve taken away nothing. The juice will rest in this state until fermentation is complete. After six months or so I will rack, (transfer) the cider into another carboy, leaving a cake of sediment (the lees) in the bottom of the first carboy. Now begins further aging and clarification. Again, I’m adding nothing. Now I wait another six months or so, and when the harvest of the following year begins, it is time to bottle the previous year’s vintage. This is the moment when at last I take a more active role and add a bit of sugar to awaken and feed the yeasts who yet remain in suspension after primary fermentation. So begins secondary fermentation. Again carbon dioxide is released. This time however, it will remain trapped inside the bottle, creating a natural carbonation and developing yet more complex and interesting flavors. After a couple of months or so, depending on the temperature, the cider will at last be ready to drink.
It is interesting that over the years, in discussing this cider making process with others, the most common response is, “Oh, that sounds amazing, but I could never wait that long.” It seems that people of my generation are simply unwilling to wait for anything. And yet, if you decide to make cider the way I do, the truth is you only have to wait once, that is, the first year. After that, batches will overlap and it will never again feel like waiting a full year. It is like saying you can’t raise your own beef because you don’t want to wait two years for a steer to mature to butcher weight. Of course if you are calving every year, you’ll have newborns, yearlings and two year olds all at the same time.
The best things in life take time. Take a deep breath and let that be: let time flow, allow it, embrace it, and in the end — taste it.
I scribbled a draft of the preceding paragraphs last night. Strange then, that this afternoon when I stopped into the last remaining home brew store in my area, I overhead this snippet of conversation:
Two customers: “We would like to try making some hard cider. Can you help us get started?” The proprietor, Trevor, fountain of knowledge that he is, proceeded to talk yeasts and enzymes and sulfites. One of the two fellows was saying that he had heard that cider made from tree ripened fruit can taste a bit flat, and should he add some acid? “Well,” says Trevor, “you can, but…” The discussion assumed the air of a college chemistry class and I quietly took my leave. I slipped out into the darkening rainswept afternoon carrying a new oak barrel under my arm. I was happy to leave behind the chatter of speculative scientific cider prescriptions and ponder instead my exciting new old-world plan – to ferment in oak, like the Romans – and without any gawdam chemicals.