Before the daily pall of ash and dark skies in the afternoon from the forest fire cloud cover, seventy-five quarts or more of apple cider were ground down, pressed, pressure cooked in Mason jars and stored for the coming winter here at the ranch. It is probably more, but with giveaways I've lost track of the count.
A favorite from the past, quart upon quart of Gravenstein applesauce being canned and stored away didn't happen this year because two bears made the Gravenstein trees the object of their desire. A handful of those Gravenstein trees date to plantings during World War II by my parents. Others, on the bottom lands here, were planted by my Macdonald and Robertson ancestors in the 1800s.
There are a decent number of quinces on bunched together trees near the site of the log house my sisters and I were reared in. The next potential fruit project may involve preserving jars of apple-quince jelly, a favorite on popovers and corn fritters. Comptche Road resident Catherine Zilboorg McMillan makes some of the very best corn fritters, from a Midwestern recipe handed down by her grandfather, Fred Stites. Without supplemental fallen, then washed, apples from Catherine's trees, this year's early season cider output would have been significantly diminished.
Not this year, but in many past apple picking seasons Catherine has also been a preserver of significant quantities of apple butter. That sometimes included apple butter made from Maiden Blush, a variety not widely seen or used anymore. In the early 1900s, the Maiden Blush apples from this place often earned my grandmother, Lillian Robertson Macdonald, blue ribbons at the Apple Fair when it was originally held in the town of Mendocino.
The precise historical origin of apple cider remains murky as the mud-colored liquid itself. The word derives from Old French (sidre), Latin (sicera), and Greek (sikera); possibly originating in the Hebrew as chekar or sekar. Leviticus, Chapter ten, Verse nine refers to sekar (chekar), meaning strong drink. The first Romans occupying Britain, in 55 AD, documented cider production by the natives, but the first creation of the apple drink must certainly go back centuries if not millennia before that. Most references to cider in books and even on the internet describe it in terms of a fermented drink; however, my Macdonald ancestors only pressed and produced sweet (non-alcoholic) cider for immediate consumption and canning. This may have been a by-product of the closely held Temperance views of my paternal grandmother. She did keep one small bottle of hard liquor in her medicine cabinet to aid in treatment of accident victims in woodswork or railroad mishaps from the Albion River rail line that ran right past her house.
Twenty-first century Macdonald cider is still hand cranked and pressed, a task that can be, if necessary, performed by a single individual. Here at the ranch, early season cider has often been made from “sweet” apples such as Gravensteins, but many folks prefer a mixture of sweet and tart apples. “Tarts” we have used include Baldwin, Spitzenberg, Northern Spy, Winesap, Golden Russet, and McIntosh varieties.
Cider pressed from a blend of sweet and tart apples has an acidity (or ph) level of approximately 3.6 –– with enough acid to prevent bacteria. However, a relatively new form of Escherichia coli (E. coli) has developed, one that survives even in very acidic conditions. E. coli O157:H7 can also persist in products such as mayonnaise, buttermilk, and salad dressing. Because of this, almost all commercial cider is flash-pasteurized at temperatures exceeding 170 Fahrenheit.
In Kazakhstan, where the apple itself most likely originated millions of years ago, the city of Almaty (originally Alma-Ata, meaning Father of Apples) has nearly tripled in size in the last half century to well over a million inhabitants. Where once wild apple forests surrounded outposts of “civilization,” now hordes of city dwellers engulf the remnants of orchards and the nouveau oil-rich cut down the last vestiges of wild fruit trees for upland vacation dachas.