Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Making Cider - Apples, Apples Everywhere!

There was a triple convergence this year, enabling us to produce our first cider ever (over 30 gallons!): we had lots of apples; we had people who picked apples for us; and our daughter's boyfriend installed a new motor on our old cider press, even knowing enough to reverse the direction of the spin so the chopper would work properly. I think the enthusiasm of our neighbors, Karen and Allen, also helped.

Okay, it wasn't exactly our first attempt at making cider, since last year we set up and ran through about ten apples before the motor froze solid. Greg had bought the press off a message board at the local college where he works. "Cider press in good condition. No time to use anymore." I think these things get passed around when interest (or energy) wanes, and community colleges are great places for both (e.g. curious faculty in their fifties). We would be considered teenagers in the realm of cider making: excited to see any liquid at all come out, while wondering what it takes to make hard cider!

There were several other parts that added to the success of our first year:

Besides their enthusiasm, Karen and Allen brought serious physical labor to the process, helping with all steps of the washing, chopping, and pressing. They are younger than we are.

Although Karen and I thought we could handle the cider making ourselves, since we are both proficient at jams and apple sauce, the boys had a more realistic view of the process. It takes at least three, if not four people. It also helps if at least two of these people have good upper-body strength!

We discovered if you make cider in the freezing cold you don't have to worry about getting stung by yellow jackets. But, you do need to wear ski socks and a ski hat because standing on cold cement and getting splashed with sticky apple juice can chill you to the bone!

It helps to have small apples because then there is no quartering involved. You just roll the little puppies down the slide and they get mushed by the chopping wheel, worms and all. Apparently, this is how they do it in the large cider houses that provide apple juice for your local super market. Think about it!

Washing the apples in a large livestock bucket, using water from the garden hose that originates out of a mountain spring, makes the hands bright red so they sting. Heating water on the stove to dump into the livestock bucket only helps a little bit, but is better than nothing.

Allen had an eye for finding apples trees, often the last remaining trees of an orchard planted years ago that had ceased to exist in any formal way. The extra apples led to a second go at pressing cider for three of us. Karen put her foot down after this, not only because our freezers were full, but because standing in a cold, damp carport for hours in November is an ugly thing.

Why did we wait until November to make cider? It was partly a priority issue with farm projects always getting in the way; at least farm projects that needed to be completed before the rains started. Soon enough, the perishability of the apples became a factor and we scheduled a press time. I thought I had covered most of the details, from tables to knives, but like all new projects there were plenty of go-fer runs to the kitchen and the shop before we ever pressed our first gallon. First it was a wooden spoon, then a strainer, then a funnel, then a bucket, then more buckets, finally a sledge hammer!

Okay, the spoon was to push the apples down over the spinning chopper, keeping fingers and hands out of danger. The 5-gallon bucket, and replacement buckets, were necessary to catch the stream of liquid flowing from the bottom of the press as Greg and Allen took turns screwing the wood plate down tighter and tighter over the crushed apples. The strainer was necessary when we poured the cider from the 5-gallon bucket into the gallon milk containers because there seemed to be a fair amount of pulp in our first batches of juice.

The funnel was needed to capture the juice from the 5-gallon bucket, held high off the ground by one of the guys, in the narrow neck of the plastic container, watched carefully by Karen or myself, ready in an instant to yell, "Okay, stop, stop now!!" or "A little more, just a little more. Stop. Stop now!!" The sledge hammer was the only way to knock the pressed mash out the bottom of the wooden, cylindrical cage and into buckets for the sheep's dinner. The tricky part here was not to bang the frozen, red knuckles of the person holding the cage in the air as he tried to absorb the shocks from the sledge hammer being pounded down and again, down. I did manage to miss once with the sledge hammer, and Allen yelped.

It's quite amazing the liquid pressed from apples. When I speak of liquid gold, we all simultaneously had the same image and called it this. The golden, brown juice flowed into our salvaged plastic containers reading 2% milk, cranberry juice, even quart canning jars, and we stacked them triumphantly on our tables. "Hey, look what we made!" Was there bonding going on? Sure. In a shared experience sort of way; also in a first-time experience kind of way. And the first sip all around was like...liquid gold.

So, maybe we weren't sitting in the middle of the orchard with the buzz of bees in the background, the smell of fall upon us, the picnic table laden with pies and potato salad, but, in that cold, dingy carport with mud on the cement, we made something to remind us of the end of summer when the nights start to cool off and the grass is brown and autumn and winter are coming.

I now have about 14 gallons of cider left in the freezer. I think this should be just enough to see us through some special occasions and still allow for the casual glass of juice. Until next November and we think to start the process over!

Top: Greg and Allen taking turns at cranking the press. Bottom: couldn't hold the camera still enough to get a good photo, but this is our group at work.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2007 Scottie Jones
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Monday, November 12, 2007

What We Talk About

It doesn't seem that unusual these days to sit around a table and talk about the animals in our lives. Allen will mention that he hates sheep, which will lead Greg to concur that sheep are stupid. I add, as an odd non-sequitor, that the cougar is probably lurking in our woods because we have gone 6-8 weeks without a kill. Karen will murmur something about the poor lambs. On it goes, to raccoons and chickens, horses and cows, deer and elk, salmon and salamanders, Blue Herons, hawks, moles, rats, and of course, our dogs.

It's what we talk about, without even realizing how strange this conversation appears to others not caught up in the rural life we lead! Only a couple weeks ago we attended a Salmon Fest put on by our local herb company, The Thyme Garden. Every fall when the salmon come up our creeks to spawn, The Thyme Garden pays tribute with speakers, nature walks, and tables laden with fall food dishes and salmon grilled on alder planks set around an open pit fire.

We shared a table with folks from town and didn't realize until we introduced ourselves that they found our prior conversation quite amusing.

"I don't know when I have ever heard a group so entrenched in conversation about trimming sheep hooves, worming, and castration, ...and at the dinner table!" one of the guests said.

Had we moved so far into rural America as to have lost our finess with normal, dinner table conversation? What a reality check! I don't know if Karen, Allen, or Greg were as surprised as I to consider our removal from years of suburban living, when the wildest animals around were feral cats and the only toe nails to trim were those of the dog. What did we used to talk about over a meal with friends?

It's not as if we don't know what is going on in the rest of the world. On our hikes we talk politics and wars, but we also speak about our kids, ask questions about the gardens we grow, share concerns about our parents, our health, our know, normal talk. It's just that there is now an added subject: livestock care and well-being, including defending it from being eaten, and more general living off the land conversations.

What we are talking about is really like "shop-talk", except we are not trading in stocks and bonds or discussing marketing and advertising ideas, rather we are talking about picking apples in exchange for gallons of apple cider, or, in the case of the sheep hoof trimming, a trade-out for doggie daycare.

It all adds up to creating relationships and building friendships. Our conversations are top-of-mind talk because the problems are here and now. Just like any group of friends sitting around a table talking. Tomorrow it may not be about our animals, but about splitting wood or building fence. It's the same all over. Whatever is in front of us is grist for the mill. Our mill, however, might just be a real one!

Harvest was hit and miss this year. Allen told us about the nematodes digging into our potatoes; Nancy suggested we use more mulch to keep down the weeds; no one helped with the pumpkins, but Greg seemed to get it right. These chiles and tomatoes are out of our greenhouse. We brought that expertise with us! Patches, the dog, walked into the shot just as I clicked.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2007 Scottie Jones
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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Rap and the Country Lamb

The rap music we now play at the barn, come nightfall, may not have worked as well as I would have liked to scare away our resident cougar, but the sheep are acting more hip! After losing lambs this summer, we fixed the fences, we added a spot light, we even turned on the radio - all to dissuade predators from approaching our livestock in the dark. The alternative was to sleep in the barn with a gun. Yeah, right! Fish and Wildlife, and a number of our local hunter friends, didn't seem to think this was such a rough request. Well, no one in our family raised their hands for camping and shooting in the dark, so the lights and music seemed the next best bet.

I was surprised when I first turned on the radio to find I couldn't get a nice, soothing station with Classical music - something the sheep and horses could sleep to. No, the only station without static, coming in loud and clear at the barn, played rap! The sheep lifted their heads from the manger the first time I put it on. I turned down the sound some, but needed it to still ring out across the creek towards the dark, dank forests.

I can deal with some rap music. It gives me a beat to feed by, to get the hay down from the loft, to spread the grain in the feed troughs. Then I turn out the main lights in the barn, with only the spot light pointing out into the dark, and the sheep are left to deal with rappers singing about their troubles in the hood, or sex, or girl friends and sex, whatever. In the morning I will come back to count heads.

I find in the daylight, when I start my routines all over again, the rap station has taken on a head banging vigor that grinds at my sensibilities. Before I even feed or count, I have pounced on the radio to shut it off. Ah, the peaceful sounds of country life returning to normal. The horses stretch their necks over the stall doors nickering to be fed. The sheep look up at me with sleepy eyes as if they are in need of a good cup of coffee, some rising to their feet, others continuing to chew their cud. They wander to the mangers, looking at me expectantly, looking at the empty mangers. I feed them some hay to stop their wandering back and forth because I need them to stand still enough for me to count. 28-29-30- 31. 28-29-30-31. I count them twice just to make sure. Then I count the boys in the barn field 9-10-11-12. They are only protected by proximity to the light and the music as long as they lie close.

I mentioned at the start that the rap hasn't always been good enough because this fall we lost another lamb and a ewe. We think the male lamb was pulled over a low part of the fence at the far end of the barn field, not long after I separated them out from their mothers. There was some wool on the barbed wire too high up for the sheep to rub. The cat must be full grown to have dragged a 60-70 pound lamb out of the field, over the creek, and again up the hill. We found the remains several days later and fixed the fence by adding another strand of barbed wire. Another six to eight weeks and a ewe went missing. We never found a trace of her, but the woods are dense and there are many places a cat could hide its kill.

If this cougar is working a territory, we are about due again. I have to hope there are enough deer and hunters in the woods to keep our predator at bay. No one on the road has sighted anything for a while, but I am not letting down my guard and the sheep will continue to listen to rap through the night.

It does make me smile sometimes, though, to think what the rap artists would say if they knew their tunes were not only making it into rural America, but also being used to save livestock. Sounds like a good beginning for a song. Let's see, now, how would it go ...?

Life in the sticks really sucks if you're a sheep,
'Cause the farmer plays loud music and you can't get to sleep.
There's a cougar on the loose and he's killin' all the babies,
It's enough to make you cry and to really make you crazy...

It's a start. Anyone want to run with it?

Photo from late August of lambs that had survived at least four cougar attacks

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2007 Scottie Jones.
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