Certain traditions throughout my life have made autumn feel like the crisp, color-changing season that it is. Walking in parks where the leaves are blazing like someone had set fire to them, adjusting to the first weeks of school, and donuts and apple cider. They all give fall its own satisfactory flavor.
As a child, I remember going out to Dexter Cider Mill, where we would watch the machinery of their big cider press. The process of changing whole apples into cider was as fascinating as the results were delicious.
Since then, I’ve come to know a little more about the apples themselves. Brought over by the colonial settlers, apple trees made themselves at home in the Americas. The incredible diversity of their genetics provided an endless variety of apples. The apples we see today in the grocery store – Red Delicious, Granny Smiths, Yellow Delicious, Gala, Macintosh – these are only a bare handful of the varieties that once spread across the U.S. Many of them, however, were not apples that we would want to eat. Most were tart, bitter, mushy or otherwise unpalatable. These were used for making applejack, or hard cider.
John Chapman, more commonly known as Johnny Appleseed, propagated apple trees across the Midwest when these states began to be populated. He sold trees from his nurseries to settlers, who planted their own orchards, and eventually harvested the apples. If they found a sweet apple among their trees, they could achieve a kind of fame. If not, they had plenty of apples to press at the end of the season.
My parent’s house, while probably not populated with John Chapman’s apple trees, was once a small working farm with an orchard attached. A few trees are still left, including heritage varieties of Northern Spy (good for pies) and Transparent (ripe at the end of August). A few others we have never identified with certainty but provide their own unique flavors.
This year, all of our apple trees have been loaded with large, juicy apples. The branches on our Granny Smith were nearly touching the ground from the weight of pink-cheeked green apples. Apples cascaded over the roof of our small barn, and I could smell the first apples ripening from across the yard.
It seemed a shame that so many apples be wasted. Pie, apple butter, apple mead, apple crisp, apple jelly – we made all of these, and yet there were more.
So we borrowed an old hand-made cider press from some friends and started on the process of making apple cider. It’s fairly simple: pick the apples, wash the apples, chop the apples and run them through the cider press. Simple, but labor intensive. Happily, I had friends stop by to help me.
We spent the early afternoon picking apples. Apples already on the ground, called windfalls, are perfect for homemade cider because their bruises are heavy in the sugars that make cider sweet. It was a dreamy afternoon, with high blue skies and sun that made it possible to go out in short sleeves. Once we had several baskets full of apples, we started on the rest of the process.
I can’t imagine an activity more perfect for an autumn day than spending time with friends making cider. We chatted while we chopped apples and marveled at the ingenuity of the cider press, which first mashed up the apples and then pressed the juices out of them. Yellow jackets, attracted by the sweetness of the apples, occasionally swooped in. We waved them away and kept at it until, at the end of the afternoon – we had worn ourselves out and gained several gallons of sweet, tangy, delicious apple cider.
It was fun, but we also put in a lot of hard work. To celebrate, we sat down to a glass of fresh-pressed cider and – what else? – donuts.
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