On Autumn, Apples, and Cider


One of the highlights of the Autumn of 2009 for me has been the day I basically reënacted the scenes in these two woodcuts (minus the period dress, of course). Pressing apples into cider, at least as it is artisanally practiced by some folks close to my heart in a nearby town, has changed very little over the past few centuries.  Apples are placed, in bulk, into a well, which leads to a grindewpressxr/chopper. The little bits and pieces, collected in a loosely-staved coopered tub, are moved underneath the press, which (as in the print to the left) uses a threaded screw operation to compress the chopped apples into pulp and extract the juice from them, which then runs into a bucket. The collected juice in the bucket is then poured into a vat with a spigot, covered in cheesecloth to filter out big pieces of pulp. It is then poured out the spigot, through another filter, and into the containers it will be stored in.  Simple as that. (a much more thorough treatment can be found — but of course — at Wikipedia.)

This is pretty much what I got to do, a couple of Saturdays back, with my buddy CW up the road in the heart of North Carolina’s apple country.  Indeed, the only real concessions to modernity in our pressing operation were a metal frame on the press, and a jury-rigged motor to power the apple-chopper/grinder crank.

At this point, it is probably worth noting that, almost anywhere other than the United States, cider refers to a fermented beverage made from apples.  In our enlightened land, the term generally means unfermented, unfiltered apple juice, necessitating the descriptor hard to designate the alcoholic version.  Personally, I get a little tired of saying (or writing) “hard cider” all the time — and also feel that phrase calls to mind such liquid travesties as Cider Jack or Hornsby’s. Artisanal cider from the traditional producing areas (the South and West of England, Wales, Normandy, Brittany, Flanders, Basque Spain, Quebec, and so forth) is a much-respected, ancient,  and complex beverage that generally bears little resemblance to the super-sweet hooch sold in bottles in your neighborhood beer store. Therefore, I’ll stick to the European and Canadian convention and refer to the fermented beverage in question simply as cider, thank you very much.

The best cider, we’re told, is made from a blend of different apples.  Our little operation had Cortland, Gala, Fuji, and something crisp, sweet, and golden that CW grows in his yard — something akin to, but not quite, Golden Delicious.  Out of about 6 bushels of apples, we pressed close to 9 gallons of juice (we weren’t expecting nearly that much), which we brought home and stuck in the freezer until “go time.”

Go Time was this past Tuesday evening: and let me tell you, it’s really difficult: thaw the juice, pour it into a sanitized fermenter (in my case, the trusty glass carboy), pitch some yeast (I used Red Star dry Champagne yeast), stir thoroughly, and cap with an airlock.  I encountered all sorts of complicated recipes involving honey, brown sugar, potassium metabisulphite (Campden) tablets, and so forth, but the more I delved into this the more I decided to keep it simple.

I could have gone even simpler: there are a number of folks out there who don’t even add yeast, but simply let nature run its course by way of wild yeasts already present in the juice. Hoping for a finished product as dry as possible, and not wanting to wait until next October to drink the stuff, I decided to splurge on the $1 packet of Champagne yeast.

Original Gravity came in around 1.052, and it’s happily fermenting away now.

It’s hard for me to think of the apple harvest season, and therefore fresh cider, without thinking of the fall season, and all the richness of Autumn: the chill in the air, the evaporation of the oppressive summer humidity, the trees turning into their final chromatic tapestry of splendor, the bounty of the vegetable garden’s last efforts…it’s one of my favorite times of the year.

peasant dance

The Autumn harvest season always conjures up for me those wonderful images from the artwork of Bruegel (the Elder): the depictions of 16th-century peasants in their everyday lives, punctuated with holidays, wedding feasts, and dances.

peasant dance1

village wedding

So, in thinking of a good St. Cecilia-worthy name for my cider, I went with my Bruegel inspiration, put a sound-world to those paintings, and landed on those wonderful collections of Renaissance dances (both courtly and rustic). Among the best of the French, Flemish, and German composers associated with these collections are a trio with truly incredible names: Thoinot Arbeau, Tylman Susato, and Michael Praetorius.

Susato published his Dansereye, a collection of instrumental dance tunes,  in Antwerp in 1551.  Fantastic performances of these pieces, by the New London Consort, were featured in the 1998 film Elizabeth.

Arbeau (actually an anagram pen-name for a priest, Jehan Tabourot) published a work called Orchésographie in 1589 in Langres (north-east France), which is a detailed compendium of dance steps and techniques as well as tunes.

Praetorius came out with his Terpsichore in 1612, a compendium of over 300 instrumental dance tunes and in many ways a retrospective for the previous century’s instrumental music from both France and Germany. There’s a terrific recording, from the late 1980s, also by the New London Consort.

As Terpsichore is the Muse of music and dance, and as Praetorius’ collection in many ways is the zenith of this sort of thing, I’m think I’ll call my finished product by that name, too.  Come back around Christmastime to see how it turned out!


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