Vintage Virginia Apples 10.31.07

October 31, 2007
Rural Ridge Farm/Vintage Virginia Apples
9:30 AM

In anticipation of their pending annual Harvest Festival, the folks at Vintage Virginia have extended a grateful invitation to help them press cider. I arrive at 9:30, clothed in long underwear and army pants, toting my farm survival kit of sunscreen, water, a lean lentil lunch, cell phone, and digital camera. The sun has risen over the lower barn and shines directly onto the cement floor of the apple shed, which is flanked by an enclosed office and a huge walk-in cooler. Apples are stacked in bushel boxes on pallets, labeled with variety, date of harvest and a designation as to their destination. Some boxes say #2, some say cider; these are not the apples for resale at feast!, nor for sale here at the apple shed. These apples are destined to become fresh pressed cider. Lacking the expensive equipment to pasteurize the juice, this cider can only be sold directly to customers for consumption.

I work next to Bud Shelton, ‘daddy’ to Chuck and Charlotte and ‘sir’ to Rob, his grandson. I have met Bud on a handful of occasions, but I always reintroduce myself, marveling at how many people a man his age must have acquainted in his life. I load out a case of Rausse wine and ask Mr. Shelton if he knows the Rausses; he begins to shake his head before I hold out the bottle for his inspection, as if he suspects he will never know what I am talking about.

After some scurrying about on the part of the Sheltons, we are ready to press. Bud and I face each other over the hopper of a crusher; he holds a chewed-up wooden stake to help push the apples that get ‘caught up’ in the churning teeth of the crusher. We mix as we go, working from a bushel each of three varieties: We start with Albemarle Pippin (our local hero), a greenish gold beauty that is as suited to cider as baking as just plain eating; Black Twig, a dusky reddish apple that occasionally sports a twig encompassed by flesh, like an emerging umbilicus; and Grimes Golden, a glowing gold apple that I recognize as one of the earliest ripening varieties. Bud favors a low-maintenance, get it done mentality, and he doesn’t stop to trim any rot or finger bruises or scars from the sorting machine. He recommends that I wear earplugs (which I miraculously have in my car) but states that his hearing is already shot – we communicate mostly with our hands.

As we throw apples into the crusher, the apple pieces fall through to a large red bin on rollers; when we have filled three bins Rob and his helper Eli empty the bins into the press. The press is an old design, and looks to be made of barrel staves that are spaced out a bit to allow for some oozing and air flow. A complicated series of pins and blocks settle the machinery into place, and gradually they work the ratchet to push the lid of the press down onto the fragrant crushed apples. The fresh cider drains out the bottom into a 2 gallon bucket, and they gently tip the press to get the last of the moisture out. Once completely pressed, they remove the casing of the press and are left with a multicolored ‘apple cake’ roughly 3 feet in diameter and 2 feet high.

Rob crouches and pushes the spent fruit into the back of the Gator parked below, then they disassemble the press, hose it off and begin reassembling it to digest our three tubs of apples, already waiting. As much as Bud blames the crusher for the slow speed of the operation, it is really the press that limits us – we always have apples ready for the press, even when we take a breather and ride on the Gator to empty the spent apples at the side of the field for the wildlife to devour. There is no livestock on this farm, just the dogs Pippin and Hobo, and so the apple waste goes to the deer, the raccoons, and the occasional bear.

We work the whole morning, stopping to sample some cider and declaring it delicious. I taste it before it has been strained, so it has a delightful body to it, vaguely fibrous and somehow carrying more flavor than a pure liquid. Chuck warns me (eventually) that fresh cider is a laxative, so ‘you should limit your intake’. Chuck is a crafter of fermented (or hard) cider, and favors a more scientific, quality-minded production. He trims rot spots of all types, cutting down conically into the apple to get rid of all of the browned flesh. As we pull each labeled box down from the pallet, Bud says repeatedly ‘That’s a good apple. That’ll make some good cider’. He whistles a bit when he talks. Chuck cuts his eyes as if to disagree, and later gives me a more refined evaluation of acidity, brix and characteristics to consider when choosing your blend. I work with a small paring knife next to me so as to taste all of the apples; today I like the Gold Rush the best.


~ by a local notion on November 26, 2007.

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