Pressing matters

Pressing on with the task of making apple juice

Boadicea Meath Baker

Mysterious mixture: Varieties of apple found growing in a Norfolk garden

Literalists may be disappointed to hear that the apple in the Garden of Eden is no such thing. It takes someone pointing it out to you to realise that the fruit of the tree of knowledge is only ever referred to as that — it’s “the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden” (in the King James version). It’s an apple because the people who made art showing this scene used the default fruit for them, and possibly wanted to pun on the Latin “malum”. Rabbis of the first century AD theorised that the fruit was figs (because of the figleaves Adam and Eve used to clothe themselves) or grapes (meaning that they had got drunk). The various golden apples in Greek mythology are also suspect: I’ve seen someone claim the apples of the Hesperides, which Heracles was tasked with stealing, were the fruit of the argan tree — the Hesperides being, in “reality”, in Morocco, somewhere in the Atlas mountains.

In England “apple” could be used generically, to mean a fruit (as “meat” for “food”) into the 15th century, but the default-ness of apple survives in other ways: as the basis for names of other fruits and vegetables: ardappel, pomme de terre, pomodoro, custard apple. Apples are particularly peculiar because they vary so much — their genetics make apple offspring unpredictable. Seeds found in a delicious eating apple, if they grow to a seedling, are highly likely to produce sour, crab-apple type, semi-inedible fruit. But plenty of well-known varieties come from what are called “chance seedlings”, genetic accidents, not deliberately bred for anything: Granny Smith (famously found growing on a rubbish heap), Red Delicious, Braeburn.  I think this is partly why “golden apples”, which help gods in Norse mythology retain immortality, or cause strife of various sorts for ancient Greeks, recur so much: delicious apple trees in ancient times must have been distributed fairly randomly.

Many people have an apple tree of semi-unknown origin growing in their garden. My parents have several: some are russets of some kind (not Egremont); some are Bramleys (the unmistakeable shiny green skin, the slightly cloud-like shape); some are Cox’s (small, aromatic); and some remain mysterious. The Bramleys were planted in the 1940s — my grandmother remembers it. The others are probably older. The ground underneath these apple trees is rich and soft from years of apples rotting into it. They don’t get fertiliser or spray. So technically they are even organic.

What are our mysterious varieties? Perhaps we will never know. One makes a huge number of stripey, slightly bitter green apples. One produces very delicious large shiny bright red and green apples, which alas are irresistible to the codling moth. The wax on them turns almost oily in storage. In a Germanic fairy tale these would definitely be poisonous. One wizened tree makes tiny, fizzy-tasting dappled red apples the size of cherry plums — is the tree just old, is this a “chance seedling” or is this some weird unfamiliar variety?

And what to do with our excess of apples? Longtime readers may recall that two years ago I acquired a truly excellent ladder, enabling us to gather a really excessive amount of fruit. Many warnings are printed on a label on the side of it: do not rest your basket on the top step, do not ascend beyond step x, do not lean out too far. This can work as a metaphor if you declaim it portentously enough: “Some apples . . . will always be out of reach.”

This past year’s development is an apple press: with various helpers we’ve pressed something like 120 litres of juice and at the time of writing still have several trays of apples in a cold room waiting to be dealt with.

Apples are something like 80 per cent water and you can get an awful lot of it out. Our press is pleasingly industrial-looking — made of stainless steel, with a car jack underneath the fruit basket for pressure. (Old-timey-style wood and cast iron presses look  nice but are less efficient.) Apples have to be shredded before being put into the press: our fruit mill — “scratter” is the traditional word — has the self-explanatory title of “Fruit Shark”. (Both are made by the Czech company Vares; being concerned about The Brexit, I did not want to wait until 2019 to buy fine European apple equipment.)

Once you have started pressing apples there is an obvious next step: cider. I would say that if you have got this far you should be prepared to find that you can actually drink an awful lot of home-pressed apple juice — it’s significantly more delicious than almost any commercial juice and the taste is much more complicated and aromatic. (You can pasteurise it in bottles half-submerged in simmering water in a saucepan, or freeze bags or boxes of it unpasteurised.) With cider there is the risk of turning this delicious thing into something that is disgusting.But the lure of cider is that the apple juice can do it of its own accord: if you leave apple juice alone, the natural yeast from the skins of the apples starts to eat the sugar. (You can also — for a reliable outcome — kill the natural yeast and replace it with a commercial wine yeast.) All cider starts the same way: sweet or dry, sparkling or still, you start by making a dry still cider. The process isn’t as science-y as some home brewing projects, although you need to test the sugar levels (by testing the juice’s density): first to check there is enough sugar for the yeast, second to check that fermentation is complete. Then you “rack off” your cider (siphon it off from the sediment and dead yeasts) into something suitable for storage (in our case glass demijohns and a plastic tank, both with airlocks) — and wait for it to start tasting nice.

One website warns that every year you will inadvertently find yourself making more and more. It’s true: we have two 30-litre batches maturing right now, allegedly ready to drink in April — four times the amount we intended to make at the beginning of November.

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