Wednesday, October 28, 2009

When Life Gives You Lemons...Make Apple Cider

“Woah, so there she is,” I said, as I admired the beautifully crafted wooden structure before me. It was simple and concise, but still apparent that some engineer put a lot of thought into its design. That early Wednesday morning there was only one task on the day’s schedule: pressing. Apples, that is. Emily and I were excited to see the whole process go down, and the introduction to the fun toy in front of us made us eager to start.

The back garage door to the packing shed was lifted and we set up our station. All of the apple seconds (apples set aside for things like pressing, since malformations, hail damage, or extreme sizes prevent them from being sold directly as such) were taken out of the cooler. The towers of boxes stood up against the wall, and next to them we set up our chopping and inspection table, with the final destination of the apple press at the end of the table, placed just right to have the juice ‘luge’ hanging over the gravel outside. Despite our excitement, Emily and I knew there wasn’t much hope for the chilly morning to warm up with the blanket of grey clouds above us outside. So, after a quick addition of layers – including a pair of large, suspender style, kids snow pants, some long underwear, and a poncho – we were truly ready to get our press on…with style.

Paul gave us a run through of all of the different parts of the press in sequential order. First, we take an apple – either a Gala or a Fuji – and cut out any ominous black tunneling or spotting if necessary.

After, the whole fruit is tossed into the box chute that leads to the grinding blades. Here the apple is ground into small pieces about the size of peas, without extracting a large amount of juice.

Once the bucket below, lined with a mesh bag (similar concept to a cheese cloth), is almost full with apple pieces (called pumice), the full bucket is moved down the luge and the other bucket takes its place.

As more apples are being ground into the newly introduced bucket, the edges of the mesh bag are folded over the collection of apple pieces in the full bucket at the end of the luge. Next, a large wooden circle that fits just inside the sides of the bucket is placed on top of the bag. Once it is placed just below the metal crank, one of us would wind down the crank and apply pressure to the apples, slowly extracting the juice still held within the small bits of fruit.

Once we reached a firm resistance, we would let the final juice drip out into a large kitchen pot,
and the pressed fruit debris would be tossed out of the mesh bag into the large bucket of the backhoe. Repeat.

After just a few run-throughs, we found our groove and were in the apple pressing zone. Chop, toss, chop, toss, toss, toss, swap, crank, drip, dump, swap, chop, toss. We had become one with the press, and soon enough we had pots and pots of freshly squeezed juice surrounding our work hub.

All of our pressed juice was destined for 60 gallon jugs. These particular 60 gallons, though, were requested to remain unpasteurized for a Harvest Festival that was that following weekend. That meant we could literally siphon the juice directly from the stainless steel pots into the plastic gallon bottles. I learned quickly about the speed of the siphon once the juice was summoned down its tube. After a quick clean up of a minor ‘spill’, I kept my focus and carefully transferred the tube from opening to opening of each jug.

With every gallon we cranked out, the more and more the afternoon felt all-encompassing, for many reasons. One, as you can imagine, is the fact that I had been a part of the entire existence of the apple cider. We were using the same Fuji apples Elane and I had picked weeks before (a measly 2000 pounds). These were also the same apples we had sorted through, one by one, by hand, and now were escorting them to their final destination as an eager customer’s fall cider.

But apart from this, and apart from how great it was to learn the actual pressing process, I was creating something that had at one point lead me to exactly where I was standing at that moment. Needless to say, to many this cider would be nothing more than a fall staple, but for me, it was an incredible dictator of fate.

Let me explain. In fact, I’ll start at the very beginning.

When I first came out West, I had no idea Excelsior Orchards even existed. Actually, it was as far away on my radar as possible. I was not only on a different WWOOF location, but was literally almost on the complete other side of the state of Colorado.

During my first market with the initial WWOOF farm, I took a moment to browse the other booths surrounding us. Knowing me, I can’t just look at most booths and move on. Sometimes it’s physically impossible for me to not inspect what the different producers have to offer, and proceed to ask numerous questions about it all to the people behind the table. Again, bless anyone who has the patience to deal with me during any type of food venture.

On my browsing walk that morning I spotted a table that was offering fruit. Delicious! I meandered my way over and starting chatting with the two ladies there as I munched away on one of the more delicious peaches I had ever tasted. Not only did they have fresh fruit, but they had juices and cider too: my favorite being the creative and unbeatable tart cherry-pear. I had a nice conversation with the girl who had been working there for a few weeks, and she boasted about how much she had learned from the owners and what a great experience she had had working there. As I thanked them for the sample and the quick chance to chat, I walked away from the stand with one main thought: “Boy, that would be nice if that place had a WWOOF opportunity…”

But, the market went on, and I spent the rest of the day back at our stand selling veggies (enter the inappropriately shaped potato the old woman bought in "The Other Side of the Table") and chatting with the customers. One man in particular, named Ernest, perked up when he saw my ‘Vemont Hockey’ sweatshirt I was wearing. I heard not only all about his years living in Vermont, but also in Massachusetts. And once he got into describing all of the different hikes I needed to do in Colorado during my time here, he placed all of his purchases in his arms on the table in order to gesticulate all of his excited and intricate descriptions. We finally said our goodbyes, and Ernest quickly gathered his things to let the other customers have their time to check out what we had to sell.

After about ten minutes after he had left, I noticed that he had forgotten to grab his half gallon of cider that sat on the corner of the table where he had left it. I waited until the end of the market to see if he would come back to get it, but by the time everyone was ready to pack up, the cider still sat unclaimed.

I walked back over to the fruit stand with the jug in my hands. I explained to the two ladies there that a man had left it on our table and that I wasn’t sure if they wanted it back or not. The owner told me that she wasn’t even sure if they’d be back next week and that I should either keep it or bring it back with me come the next market and weekend. I said alright, and it was placed at my feet in the car to keep with me until the next market to hopefully give back to Ernest.

To make a long(er) story short, after the next few days at that first farm site, I knew that it wasn’t going to work out for seven weeks. Luckily I have some fantastic friends in good places, and David was able to pick me up with a quick rescue drive down from Colorado Springs. As I gathered my things to be ready for David’s arrival, I noticed the cider sitting there, staring at me like a sad dog who was about to be left home. I stood there conflicted. I knew it wasn’t truly mine. But then again, if I left it there, it would be surely abandoned since no one else knew of its connection with Ernest but me. I just couldn’t leave such a delicious tasting drink there to spoil, and in it went with me to Colorado Springs as part of my thank you to David.

If you have read an earlier post of mine, titled ‘PB&...what?’, you may know exactly what happened to that cider. If not, one afternoon David and I had an awesome food adventure by testing different types of sandwich combinations with peanut butter. To keep our taste buds on target, our perfect palate cleanser between samplings was none other than that single half gallon of cider. During my efforts to document all of the food items we had created before they were devoured, I decided to take a picture of the cider too, because, well, why not? And, mostly because there aren’t many things that I eat that aren’t photographed before consumed. Call me a weirdo, its okay, I even think so sometimes.

On I went to my next destination, which was Denver to stay with my other friend Charlotte for the interim while I figured out what the heck my next step should be. My initial plan for the fall was completely shot now, since my time slot set aside for WWOOFing lead me all the way up until the end of October. At that point it was still September…ugh. I spent a lot of time contemplating how I should handle this turn of events. I couldn’t move up my eventual plans to go to California, and my trust in WWOOF with the thought of trying another place had deflated rapidly. Do I throw in the towel and go back East? No matter how easy it would have been to do that, I just knew that I couldn’t fold on myself just yet.

One night, after a frustrating day of trying to figure out what I should do, I thought I’d humor myself and check the WWOOF website one last time for sites in Colorado. It was late, I was tired, and just before I closed my laptop, I noticed a name on the listserv that I could not pass over. Excelsior Orchard…why are you so familiar to me? I clicked on the link and read the description. It seemed like a pretty decent place. But where do I know this from?

Then it came to me. I couldn’t open my picture files fast enough, and finally the file opened that had all of the pictures I had taken during my time with David in Colorado Springs. I spotted the picture, and once it enlarged on my screen, I couldn’t help but gasp outloud “No Way!” “What?” Charlotte asked. I turned to her and presented her my computer, where the screen was taken up by a picture of a close-up of a label on a half gallon of cider (don't ask me why I felt the need that day to take a close up of just the label, because I have no idea. It makes you wonder though...) The label read that it was made by the one and only Excelsior Orchard in Paonia, CO.

Well, as luck would have it, my aimless wish I had as I had left the fruit stand at the farmer’s market the weekend before had actually come true.

And the rest is pretty much history from there. As you can imagine, I was on the phone the next day with Elane, one of the owners, and she told me that I would be able to try out working there. I bought a bus ticket a few days later, and off I went to Paonia. If you want the rest of that story, start with my ’22 Skidoo!’ post about my birthday, and read every post until now. You’ll get an idea of what I’ve been up to here, and, more importantly, how much I couldn’t have asked for a better place to have this sort of experience.

So, as I stood there chopping apples, pressing juice, and filling gallon jugs, you may now understand why it was such a special and full-circle moment for me. Without going to the first farm, without working at that particular market, without being a little nosy about farm stands, without Ernest’s charisma with his story telling, without David, without Peanut Butter and Jelly experiments, without my fixation with taking pictures of food, without taking a small leap of faith on one of life’s many coincidences, and without that one, lone half gallon of apple cider, I would not have learned, seen, heard, and experienced all that I have here on the orchard. Mainly, the story that I have been telling you would be very different indeed. I reflected on how life can unravel in these ways sometimes, and quickly went back to my chopping board. Those apples wouldn’t make themselves into life changing cider on their own, of course.

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