Sometime early on in 2010 I was watching one of my food heroes, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, make cider on River Cottage from apples he'd collected from a neighbours field and it got me thinking. You see I am fortunate to live in the semi-rural paradise of Oratia, settled in the 1890's by Dalmatian immigrants, our European friends quickly set about planting orchards and vineyards.
At one point Oratia was known as 'the fruit bowl of Auckland', but in recent years it has become too residential to spray and the fruit too costly to pick to make organic farming viable. However, there are still trees if you know where to look and I happen to know the owners of said trees, fortunately the owners are amenable to being remunerated for their apples in 'liquid' cash (cider).
So I took to the orchards with a wheelbarrow. I commissioned my brother, a builder, to make me a basic framework for a press and borrowed a car jack to act as the pressing force. I set about almost killing a food processor to turn the apples into pulp. My first attempt was a measly 30 litres, but it worked. I could make cider! Not store bought apple flavoured fizzy alcohol, real cider. Or at least that's what I'll keep telling myself when people say “huh, it isn't as sweet as most cider!”, I actually now prefer my cider to most others available.
I've stepped up production each year and streamlined the process too. There are many choices for apple pulping but an insinkerator/waste disposal unit has been my go to (despite being slightly scary to operate). I've bought plenty more fermentation buckets and made countless tweaks to my press. It's become an annual tradition for me; I make the cider before the Golden Delicious drop entirely and the other apples are ripe and sweet, and then by December the cider has matured enough to drink and we have a big Christmas party to celebrate. I'll make a gingerbread house and we all get umm... quite 'merry'. We never seem to be able to drink enough of the cider, but every year I make more, just in case.
Which brings me to this year. A few weeks ago I set about building a better press, my builder brother and I bought some wood and dismantled my (primitive) previous press to build a much stronger frame with a threaded rod to push down on the apples instead of a car jack, and a barrel to contain the bags of apple pulp. I headed out to the orchards through pouring rain and shining sun to collect six wheelbarrows and six buckets full of apples - about 2500-3500 apples (I didn't count) filling every spare box and container I could lay my hands on ready for the pressing weekend. I'm not entirely sure of all of the varietied, but I get as many of the sweet Golden Delicious as possible. I think there are a few Gala trees and a couple of Granny Smiths and from what I've read you're best to get a good mix.
On Good Friday I finished building the barrel for the new press. I like being able to cross over my newfound love of woodwork with my love of food and brewing, I enjoyed getting into the workshop to make the press as much as I do using it, and I enjoy using the press almost as much as I do drinking the cider! Press done I was back in the orchards collecting the last few apples and taking a break to pet the friendly neighbour's dogs.
I love being in the orchards, there is a shed in the centre with abandoned farm machinery and a couple of old trailers, at one point there would've been 11 of these big trailers running all day full of apples. My neighbour's father used to run the orchards when everything was still done with horse and cart. But untended as they are the apples still grow every year. Some of the trees are so laiden with apples the branches reach down to the ground.
I went about finishing my other preparations; assembling the last few pieces of the new press, collecting and cleaning all of the buckets, the insinkerator and various pieces of equipment I store away all year.
I managed to convince a couple of friends that were free over Easter to come and help and we took turns chopping apples into insinkerator-able sized pieces and discarding any really gross bits of apple, or took on the mildly scary task of feeding the insinkerator. In a bid to keep my cider slaves happy I made them some gluten free corn fritters from the Kenko Kitchen cookbook, slightly modified to use a real egg and cheese in the avocado smash.
I had a couple more volunteers on Monday, this time with no gluten allergies amongst them I made cinnamon rolls as a treat, perfect for a busy day as you can let them rise in the fridge overnight.
After the apples were passed through the insinkerator the pulp was put into the muslin cloth-lined barrel. When it was full, a wooden disc was put on the top and I wound the threaded rod down. My brother had welded a bolt to the top of the rod so I could use a power drill to wind it up and down quickly before moving to the hand crank for the pressing.
A couple of years back I decided my cider needed a label. I wanted to reference the beautiful old label that used to go on the apple boxes that left the orchards over the road. Fortunately the letters for 'cider' can be found in “Oratia Valley Orchards” so with a bit of photoshop magic I managed to make a fitting label.
We pressed about 55 litres of juice on the first day, I pressed another 60 on the Sunday and a couple of friends helped on the Monday to get a final 30 litres. After fermentation and siphoning off the clear liquid from the collected sediment at the bottom I should have 120-140 litres of cider. This is going to be a great Christmas party.