Thursday, October 11, 2012

Turn, Turn, Turn

You can’t live in Vermont without being fully aware of the seasons. There’s a dramatic shift as we cycle through the year, and right now is one of the most striking, when we transition from verdant, steamy summer to autumn’s chill and its astonishing display of colors. Addison County is at peak foliage this week, with crimson sugar maples stealing the show among the oranges and golds.

One of my favorite trees this time of year, however, doesn’t put on much of a show at all, unless you count its fruit.

Apple trees go through their own dramatic changes as the seasons turn. We have three in our backyard, which we planted in 1998 as saplings to celebrate Faye’s birth. We like to plant things to mark milestones in our lives—blueberry bushes for Isabel’s arrival, and these apple trees for Faye’s. They’ve weathered literal storms, such as the late ice storm several years ago that lopped off two of them at their main branch base. We didn’t know if they’d survive, but they came more vigorous than ever, if a bit scraggly. 

Right now they’re in need of a good pruning, something I never seemed to get around to last spring. At this point they’re so overgrown that I think I’ll need to bring in the experts next year to give them a professional shaping. But overgrown as they are, we’ve still had one of our best crops of apples ever. Yields were erratic this year in Vermont, so we were lucky. 

Since we don’t treat our trees—in fact we do nothing at all to them—the apples are never perfect but still tasty. I had wanted to put in McIntosh trees, but they’re vulnerable to disease and need to be sprayed, so we settled for hybridized relatives: two Liberties and one Freedom. They’re disease-resistant, but lack the spicier, more distinctive flavor of a classic Mac. 

Throughout the fall we snack on our apples or bake them into pies and muffins, but there are always far more than we can ever consume by ourselves, even with help from the squirrels. So when our friend Callie Brynn (daughter of maple sugarers David and Louise) asks if she and her boyfriend Cam Barrows can have some for their newly purchased cider press, we're more than happy to oblige. I tell her she can take as many as she'd like.

I remember Callie as a little girl running across the Brynns’ lawn with her sister Devon, shortly after Chris and I were married and before we had our own two daughters. Now the Brynn girls are successful young women in their twenties, and Devon is in the process of planning her own wedding. To everything, turn, turn, turn.

Callie and Cam come over to collect our apples and then haul them about a mile to her parents’ house where they’ve set up their old-fashioned press. 

Chris and I join them and try to convince the girls to come too, but they’re busy with teenaged demands and distractions. Not long ago they were running around on the Brynns’ lawn themselves, chasing after our former dog Cooper. There is a season, turn, turn, turn.

The process of making cider is simple: toss the washed apples, seeds and all, into the top of the press, and then turn the wheel to grind them up. 

The ground apples fall into the wooden bucket below. 

When the bucket is almost full, Callie puts on the lid and Cam turns another wheel to compress the apples. Et voilà, out seeps frothy cider. A fine mesh filter prevents bits of apple pulp from passing through, so what you get is pure juice, full of fresh apple flavor that hasn’t been diminished by pasteurization.

Although our apples themselves are mediocre in flavor, as cider they’re delicious and taste as good as any cider I’ve ever had. I think this must have to do with our apples’ texture. So much of the enjoyment of food is about texture, but since our apples are mealy and lack the crisp quality of a Mac, they’ve always been a little disappointing to sink your teeth into. With the flavor concentrated in the cider, though, it possesses that complex sweet-tart sensation characteristic of a good apple. 

There’s plenty of cider to go around, so we bring a few quarts home. We drink some of it immediately (the girls are happy to join in this part of the process) and put the rest in the freezer. Cider freezes well, so we’ll pull it out later in the fall or maybe at Thanksgiving. The apple trees will be bare by then, their twisted limbs stark against a gray sky. But I find them beautiful at that time of year too, when their bent forms are most visible. And also deep in the winter when snow will, hopefully, reach to their lowest branches, accentuating their stillness. I like to look out at them from the warmth of our home.

When the trees flower again in May, they'll fill the air with their soft fragrance. 

A week later the petals will fall off to reveal miniature apples. These will gradually swell over the course of the long summer days 

until at last they redden in September.

When our daughters were babies, we held a Welcoming Ceremony for each of them during early September in our backyard. We chose readings and music celebrating their arrival, and a three-year-old Isabel performed an original dance at Faye's. As our neighbor David Gusakov played his violin, all of our friends and family members took turns watering one of the newly planted blueberry bushes for Isabel, and one of the apple trees for Faye. The plants thrived, although none of them fruited in the first few years. They were busy putting down roots. But then the berries and apples started coming in and they haven’t let up since. Every year we’ve been blessed with more and more fruit. And with the plants’ loveliness in all of their seasons. Turn, turn, turn.

* This post can also be viewed as an essay in the Burlington Free Press.

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