Gently Fermenting

I have mentioned before how in autumn my house fills with apples and pears, none of which I am allowed to touch until they have been marched off to apple days, conferences or shows. By which time they get a bit past it, and people start asking where I got the cider-flavour air freshener.

Cider-press

We are getting better at it. The construction of a lean-to back shed with shelves for trays of apples, and the brilliant but hitherto strangely overlooked option of turning off the heating in one room and closing the door, slow down the rot. So we are likely, even in this year of poor productivity, to have a fair few fruit to process in a couple of weeks.

The first option, after eating the ripe ones and storing the most sound of the slightly unripe, will be to juice them. Some apples and pears are quite dry, and juicing shouldn’t be attempted unless you have a real stack of them – let them ripen first. Others are just made for juicing, and a couple of carrier bags full will yield a gallon of pure juice. Mostly, a mixture of varieties is best – and don’t worry about including cooking apples. Once juiced, they are sweet and full of flavour.

The apples must be washed, and any seriously rotten bits cut out. If the fruit is straight off the tree, we think a cursory hose down is plenty of hygiene! We borrow a big electric crusher and throw the apples in whole – if you are using a hand crusher, it’s best to cut them in halves or quarters first. First year we juiced, we used a meat mincer. It worked, but slowly! The crushed fruit is then placed in the press wrapped in coarse sacking-like cloths. As the pressure is applied, juice starts to run freely – don’t forget the bucket to catch it in! It is ready to drink – you add nothing and take nothing away. We bottle the spare in small plastic bottles or old drinks cartons and put it in the freezer. However, you can refine it if you wish. Pure fresh apple juice is usually brown (due to tannin in the apples) and cloudy. Leaving it overnight sometimes clears it completely and you can siphon the clear juice off the sediment. If this doesn’t work, you can try adding the enzyme pectolase, which should clear the pectin that causes haziness. I’ve never known this to work well, and nor does filtering! If you haven’t much freezer room, you can pasteurise the bottles of juice by placing in a vat of cold water, raising the temperature to 70 degrees and keeping it there for 20 minutes.

Left alone, the juice will start to ferment within days. Wild yeasts work on the fruit sugars to turn them to alcohol – cider. Cider made accidentally this way can be superb – or appalling! If we want to ferment our juice we try to be a little more scientific. This means adding Camden tablets to kill off undesirable microbes that would taint it. This also kills the wild yeast, so we have to add some more. We make sure air is excluded completely, first with cotton wool, then an airlock. After a few days, fermentation is dramatic, and calms down after a few weeks. When it’s about stopped, we siphon the cider into lemonade bottles, with a teaspoon of sugar. This sets off a wee secondary fermentation, giving us a sparkling cider when we open the bottles at Christmas!

Our cider is nothing like shop-cider, and probably too dry and sour for some. It’s always unpredictable, because we are using a different mix of apples each time. We’re growing some proper cider apple trees, but for now, we are very happy to experiment and see what it turns out like – it’s all part of the fun of Appletreewidowhood!

© Margaret Lear, Bankfoot. Originally published in Comment, October 2012

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