A Catskill Catalog: October 5, 2011

Prozac for the flood-dampened soul. Apple pressing time!

New York State produces nearly 30 million bushels of apples a year, and that number only includes commercial production. Back-yard orchards and abandoned farmsteads provide bushels beyond the official count.

On October’s first Saturday, a friend brought 24 bushels of apples to the Hubbell Farm in Kelly Corners where, for custom jobs, Bob Hubbell still fires up the old gas engine that powers the three-story apple press that’s been operating there since 1866.

Kevin and Jerrod Hubbell were working the press. They’re the seventh generation of Hubbells who have done so. Their grandfather Bob, fifth-generation, oversaw the entire operation. Kevin’s dad, sixth-generation Toby, tinkered with the engine, an engine he cut his master-mechanic teeth on, when he was a boy.

The press itself is a marvel. Back up the pickup truck to the third-story. In a dairy barn, this would be the hay mow, but here, it’s the apple-chute, where you’ll dump your bags of apples into the maw of the trough, watch them get chopped-up, shredded through the mechanical shredder, and dumped as pulp onto the base-table below, in the barn’s second floor.

The pulp lands on canvas-like cloth spread across the big wooden table, tray-walled to hold the juice, tilted to feed it to the holding boxes below. Toby, Kevin, and Jerrod rake the pulp into a neat square, and Bob offers instruction on how to fold-over the cloth to cover completely the raked pulp.

A slatted-wooden frame is placed on top. Another square of cloth is placed on that, more pulp, raked and covered, another wooden frame on that, until six or seven layers of pulped apples are in place to be pressed.

The vintage 1916 engine provides the power. It’s noisy; belches a heavy, busy rhythm; and, through axles, wheels, gears, belts and screws, turns piston-power into turning-power, squeezing 150 tons of pressure on those pulped apples.

What comes out is pure juice – cider – that runs down wooden gullies and plastic pipe into large square wooden barrels. There, the cider collects until you are ready to bottle it.

My friend bought eight-dozen plastic gallon jugs. Good thing. Seems 24 bushels of apples make a load of cider. Back up the pickup to the first-floor loading deck, where a dairy barn’s milk house would be, and load gallon after gallon of cider in the truck bed. My friend freezes his, and drinks sweet cider all winter long.

Apple cider was a staple in these parts, for generations. That’s why the Hubbell Farm press has been operating for generations. Apple pressing season was a regular part of the farm-based calendar, just like sapping season in early spring, plowing and planting, summer haying, harvest time, and hunting season. Apple pressing came in between the last two.

October 7th to November 7th was apple-pressing season, around here, largely because those were the very specific dates when the Hubbell brothers, every year over several generations, dedicated their mill to apple pressing, rather than lumber cutting, or some other use. The Hubbell Farm mill was a multi-purpose mill. One month of the year was devoted to pressing apples into cider.

Not all apples become cider, of course. This time of year, folks busily make applesauce to put away for the winter. Canning season and apple-pressing season are two sides of the same coin. By October, many vegetables have been canned, and orchards provide for jams, jellies, preserves and apple butter.

I’m told that sweet cider can be canned, using a hot-canning process, but in the days before refrigeration, fermentation was the only efficient way to preserve fruit juice. Fed into large glass bottles, then corked, the cider will ferment over four months or so. I’m told the apples contain enough natural yeast to feed the process. Some modern locals add a bit of Champaign yeast to help things along.

In the olden days, fermentation did create a winter’s supply of hard cider, but over-fermentation was the process most cider went through. Cider vinegar was, by far, the most important product sweet apple cider became. Fermented cider further fermented by air becomes vinegar. Vinegar has always been a must for all sorts of food preservation and preparation. It’s cider’s biggest product.

On Saturday, while Toby, Kevin, Jerrod, and Bob operated the press, a crowd grew, family and friends, and we were all smiling, excited and happy. The smell of apples and old wood, a bit of exhaust, perfumed the air with nature’s bounty and human ingenuity. As the press pushed down, inexorably, on the fruit-filled frames, we each dipped a cup into the trough. Cups filled quickly with the powerful rush of amber liquid.

Cold and tartly fresh, sweet and liquid, the fresh cider had been washed fruit minutes before. How hopeful and new it tasted. Putting-up fruit, processing bounty is hopeful by its very nature, joyous even.

Everybody there felt good. That was nice.