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Zaleski: Cider time with trees older than me

Jack Zaleski, The Forum Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Tunbridge, Vt.

Vermont is not the only place that grows apples. It's not even among the top-producing apple states. But it boasts an apple history that is 300 years old. There are trees here—some in abandoned orchards on long-gone farmsteads, others still cared-for and productive—that are more than 100 years old. A friend from high school and her husband have such a stand of trees, and my wife and I joined them for picking and cider-making.

The timing was perfect. Vivian and David have a place in the hills above Tunbridge. The orchard is a few steps from their restored farmhouse—a couple acres with a few dozen apple trees. Gnarled and twisted, the trees are of at least five heirloom varieties, the oldest of which dates to 1730, the "newest" to 1915. The varieties, that is. Their trees are at least 100 years old, and a few older, according to horticulturists and amateur Vermont apple historians, David said. The history of the trees is fascinating.

Gravenstein was introduced to North America in eastern Canada in 1811, and by the 1850s was being grown in New England and New York state.

McIntosh took hold in the Northeast in about 1900 and is still a common variety.

Baldwin's heritage reaches back to 1740 in Massachusetts, and for years was a favorite in the Northeast.

Pippin is the oldest, having been cultivated in Queens, N.Y., in 1730.

Cortland, also a favorite for generations, was identified in 1898 in New York state and by 1915 was in orchards in New England, New York and Pennsylvania.

The trees were heavy with those five varieties, branches bowed, some broken by the weight of the harvest. We picked bushels from low-hanging limbs and off the ground, which was carpeted with apples from the tallest, oldest trees. After hauling apples from trees to barn, it was cider time

Grind and press

David's hardwood apple press is a marvel of simplicity. The original grinder was hand cranked, but he rigged a belt and electric motor to the mechanism, so the process is speedier, and easier on arms and shoulders. The ground apples fall into a burlap-lined round oak bin. When's it's filled with the aromatic grind, a press is screwed down in stages, squeezing the juice out of the mash and onto a contoured wooden deck, from which it flows through a hole into pitchers.

Then the new cider is filtered with cheesecloth while being poured into jugs and jars for settling and cooling. The aroma is magical. The taste of the raw cider—spiced with apples that range from puckering tart to apple pie sweet—is a wonder of nature.

We made enough so David and Vivian could fill their five-gallon jar with the recipe to make hard cider. By the end of the day the mix was starting to work and bubble.

Sampled some of last year's hard stuff, but that's a story for another time.

Zaleski retired in February after nearly 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He continues to write a Sunday column. Contact him at jzaleski@forumcomm.com

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