Fall is the time of year for rituals: shutting down the garden; raking up the leaves; putting away the harvest.
When it comes to food processing, I have a few staples — dill pickles, raspberry jam and borscht, to name a few — but the most fun are always the ones you do as a team: Think, one or two of your closest friends, a case of peaches and a bottle of wine.
The first time I tried processing apples, on the other hand, it felt like solitary confinement: After a summer of picking berries, I got carried away with the sheer availability of the apples. I filled a recycling bin and a bucket. Then I spent the next three days peeling, chopping, mashing, baking, slicing and freezing. It looked like an apple tree had exploded in my kitchen.
Maybe that’s why I’ve rarely made apple picking a priority.
Paul Glover and Christoph Dietzfelbinger have their apple processing a little more dialled. Paul started picking and pressing over a decade ago and Christoph joined him a few years later. It’s become an annual tradition for the friends of 25 years, one that yields close to 500 litres of juice, cider and wine each year — not to mention some memorable afternoons spent in the late-summer sunshine.
I joined the pair at Christoph’s house, a beautiful property high on the slopes overlooking the Bulkley Valley, while they were pressing apples last summer.
Paul and Christoph’s routine may have refinement, but it isn’t rocket science: “The easiest way to pick the apples is to shake the tree,” Paul tells me. They fall amongst the grass and dirt (heaven forbid the property owner has a dog) and are tossed into the back of a truck, roughage and all. “It’s pretty much the way it’s been done for millennia, or centuries, anyway,” Paul adds, noting the apples’ acidity should be enough to kill any nasties.
He estimates a single tree can produce up to 400 pounds of apples (while some offer up a mere 20 pounds) and the pair picks around 2,000 pounds over a season. Paul admits to having his favourite trees: “You get to know certain trees or certain types of apples that you like their juice or they’re easier to grind.” Most disappointing is when a property changes hands and those trees are cut down by the new owner.
“Fortunately, people are still planting apple trees,” he says, adding that some are still around that were planted in the 1920s.
Tossing out the moldy ones (although bruises are A-OK), they cart their apples home and put them straight from the back of the pickup through a grinder to create pomace — chunks of apple ground to roughly the size of a fingernail. From there, it goes into the press.
Although Paul started out with a press of his own, Christoph soon bought a heavier-duty one from an American manufacture, then used a local tool and die maker to replace the forks and spindle. “This modification makes the press work well,” he says.
Each season, the press is put to the test: the barrel is filled to the top with roughly 50 or 60 pounds of pomace, then clamped shut. A long arm screws the lid down progressively tighter, pressing the pomace into juice that soon begins to flow from a spout at the bottom.
Tightening the lever is sweaty work on a warm September day: Once the apples have been given all the pressure they can take, the press is left to drip while the next batch goes through the grinder. And it begins again — 30 or 40 times, Paul estimates, over the course of a season.
What happens to all that juice depends on the picker: This year, Christoph froze 50 litres as juice, while another 200 litres went into carboys to ferment into apple cider. He says it takes about four to six weeks until the cider stops fermenting and begins to clear; he then takes it to the local U-brew, which is set up with equipment for bottle-washing and bottling, as well as the ability to filter the cider and add a little fizz.
Paul prefers to keep most of his juice in its “more universally appreciated” non-alcoholic state, bottling between 100 and 200 litres that go into his freezer each fall. He reserves a few dozen litres for wine, which he ferments in a crock, fortified with added sugar to get a higher alcohol content. The wine tops out at about 12 to 14 percent alcohol, while the cider is closer to six or seven, he says.
Although the pair only picks and presses for a week or two late summer, the apple-picking season starts late August and can last into October. Which makes me think it might be time to track down a tree and try processing my own apples again.
“I just love getting wild food. Gleaning the food value from all those plants,” Paul says. “It’s something we both really enjoy.”
Cheers to that.