The grinder whirs as it slashes apples into pomace, and the chopped apples fall into a nylon mesh bag that lines the barrel of our small cider press. I drop more fruit into the hopper and already, juice puddles on the wooden platform that holds the barrel.
A haze dawdles across the horizon, carrying a hint of wood smoke that mixes with the scent of apples. The orange and red sassafras leaves gleam against the pine trees bordering our barn.
Legend claims that the Romans found the Brits pressing crab apples into cider, and the invaders taught the Englishmen how to cultivate apple orchards. When the pilgrims immigrated to America, they brought along their cider presses, apples, and saplings to set out on their New England farms. By 1775, one in ten colonial farms ran a cider press.
On this afternoon, my husband, John and I grind up a mixture of Mackintosh and Jonathans. And because we like a sweeter juice, we toss in Red and Yellow Delicious and sometimes even a few pears. When the pomace fills the stop of the slatted barrel, John fits a round wooden follower on top. He turns a crank that rotates the screw pressing against the follower. Juice oozes down the sides of the barrel and onto the platform, and flows from small lip into a waiting jug.
Yellow jackets buzz about the press, yearning to gorge on the liquid sugar. We fill cups and analyze our mix. Should we add more Delicious to make it sweeter, or is it too sweet? Even if we were to write down the ratio, we could not repeat this year’s recipe as each growing season yields slight variations in the taste of fruit.
My family could buy cider from our friends who run a cider mill, but we reap greater satisfaction from this fall ritual that transforms apples into a beverage. And often we gather friends to help press cider and to enjoy the process.
After the last apple yields its juice, we hose down the press, wash the nylon bags, and hang them out to dry. Like squirrels burying acorns, we freeze our cider, and will drink it throughout the winter, remembering this golden fall afternoon.