Monday, October 31, 2011

Apple Cider

Around October, every year, I get a craving for fresh pressed, cold, crisp, apple cider.  I have experienced this craving for almost as long as I can remember, certainly as far back as my early teens.  When my wife first learned of this "seasonal craving" she passed it off as yet another quirk in my personality. I would seek out fresh apple cider...not store bought, not pasteurized, just fresh from the press, apple cider as well as its required accompaniment...plain, cake donuts.  No icing, no powdered sugar...just plain old cake doughnuts. (Which I generally do not eat any other time of the year)  She asked me about it and I replied that I think it had to do with an old Cider Mill that I was taken to by my Parents, when I was growing up in Michigan.  It was called Yates Cider Mill.

As I thought back, I really could not remember having gone to Yates Cider Mill more than a half dozen times.  I did not recall going there every year, though maybe we did?!  My past childhood memories have become a bit foggy and I rely less on my memory as 100 percent factual, after having been wrong on specific details in other instances.  Certainly the yearly yearning came from somewhere and I have to assume it was the family trips (and a few trips I made on my own in my late teens) to the Cider Mill that planted the seed that seems to sprout every year in October.

I do have some specific memories about Yates Cider Mill and I have even visited it as an adult during a few trips I have made back home.  It is an old brick mill.  It stands literally right next to the Clinton River in Shelby Township and it used a large, wooden water wheel to power a very long/large press that likely seemed even larger to a young boy with wide eyes, waiting for a taste of freshly pressed apples!  The mill dates back to 1863 and looks virtually the same today as it did when I visited it all those years ago.  I have even seen it featured on the Food Network Channel!

When I was a kid, you could literally go inside and watch the apple cider being pressed.  You could watch the hundreds and hundreds of apples being squished and see a jug being filled at the end of the long, enclosed table (10 x 20 feet?) that had a pour spout on one end.  There was no pasteurization here..just pure, simple, apple cider.  The Mill was surprisingly quiet and you could smell two things...apples and the warm scent of freshly made, plain cake donuts.  We would inevitably get a box of the donuts to go with what was usually a gallon of apple cider.  You could walk outside and through the small parking lot, freshly fallen leaves crunching under your feet and sit down in the crisp, cool Michigan air and enjoy your apple cider and donuts at the picnic tables in the park that bordered the river and the Cider Mill.  If you were lucky, you would get to see a train rumble by, as the railroad tracks were a stones throw away from the park.  Can you imagine a more enjoyable scene as a kid?  It had all the elements of a Norman Rockwell scene.  I really enjoyed it...and enjoy the thought of it now even moreso.

Yates Cider Mill, Michigan

I assume that this happy, childhood memory (and truth be told, this was one of very few childhood "Family" memories where we were all together....other than church on Sunday, or dinner each night) explains the consistent and powerful yearning I have to welcome the fall season with a cold glass of fresh apple cider and a donut.

If fresh cider isn't available, I buy the best stuff I can.  I invite my wife and kids and anyone else within earshot, to come have a glass of cider and a donut...thinking somehow that they will enjoy it as much as I do.  They generally smile and comply, knowing it is important to me and brings me a sense of "being home" after being gone for so long.  I appreciate the gesture and I think, just maybe, that my daughter sort of "gets it" these days.

Last fall, while talking to a friend/co-worker, Jim, about the fall season and apple cider, he told me, "hey, I have an old cider press from the late 1800's and we press apples for cider every fall!"  WHOA!! Someone else does this?  I asked him about it and he explained that his family has enjoyed this tradition since before he could remember.  The apple press that he uses was passed down from his grandfather, to his mother/father and now to him.  He said that the wood on the old press had become dry and worn and as a gift, a friend of his restored the press using new oak...and the press is like new!

We talked about getting our squad (and our families) together and spending a fall day pressing apple cider.  It did not happen that year, however, this year after I reminded him what a great/traditional event that would be, we were able to get most of us over to his house (in a very nice rural setting overlooking the water in Port Orchard) with bags of apples in tow.  5 families were able to make it and we had more than 60 lbs of apples to press.  The apple press was simply beautiful.  It was expertly rebuilt with beautiful white oak and all of the original cast iron gears, crank and gear train etc looked old, but in perfect condition.  The press basket (where the shaved/ground up apples are placed before literally pressing the juice out of them) was still original and looked all of its 100+ years old...but was still up to its task. (See above photo of Jim and his kids showing us how its done!)

Most of us took a turn at hand cranking the press to shave/grind the apples, which in turn dropped into the press basket where they were then "pressed" by a hand cranked screw that literally compressed the apples, providing us with fresh apple cider.  The kids were curious and the youngest ones were interested in what the contraption was that we were using to get juice...that could more easily be purchased from the store in bottles!!  I think I was the biggest kid there and I likely had the biggest grin as well.  We sat around and drank apple cider right from the spout of the press table.  We tried different apples and blends. We ate a few cake donuts that I felt compelled to bring.  Truth be told, I am quite sure I drank over a gallon of apple cider...yeah, no kidding.  Anything worth worth overdoing!

We enjoyed sitting around, talking and watching each other get a workout from cranking the cider press.  We watched as a few deer came out of the nearby brush, to see what was going on (and were promptly fed with the discarded, crushed apples)  We noticed all the chestnuts that had dropped from the trees and we enjoyed the view of Port Orchard, just down the hill.  Later we sat around a small fire that was needed to take the edge off the crisp, cool Washington air.  We enjoyed a bit of pot luck, and laughed over some silly stories.  And...I drank more cider.  It was a wonderful day and for me, it doesn't get much simpler, or much better than this.
Good company, good cider...good memories.