Archive for the ‘food’ Category

Assessing The Good Life

July 13, 2018

As my folks were doing a big cleanup of the house I grew up in, an old copy of Living The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing turned up.  I had heard this book mentioned as a venerated bible of the 1970s, but had never actually read it, so I was interested to finally get to the source.  In poking around on the internet after reading it, I came across a related memoir called Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life by Jean Hay Bright, who was invited (together with her husband at the time) by the Nearings to homestead as their neighbors on the Maine coast.  This led me to another memoir, This Life is in Your Hands, by Melissa Coleman, daughter of Susan and Eliot Coleman, who were likewise invited by the Nearings to farm on their land. Eliot subsequently became a guru to the organic growing community in his own right.

Like Melissa, I grew up on an off-grid homestead in a then-remote corner of the coast of Maine, and soon after I entered into the island’s K-6 elementary school I understood that the way our family lived was unusual.  But I knew that we were not alone in our unconventional habits; many of my parents’ friends also lived in funky home-built shelters, kept livestock, and grew vegetables, and some likewise lived without electricity.  And as I read these books I was struck by the similarity, down to remarkably uncanny details, of their memories to the way I grew up, and I came to more fully understand that in my childhood I was unwittingly part of a significant cultural moment and movement.  As a student of the energy and resource issues that motivated many people in the black-to-the-land generation, I’m interested in questions about the significance of the practices and habits of that era, what can be learned, and what it suggests about the future.

The Nearings were a couple from comfortable urban backgrounds who moved to rural Vermont to homestead in the 1930s, when their radical politics drove them from more conventional occupations.  There they homesteaded, grew food, produced maple syrup and sugar as a cash crop, and cultivated an austere lifestyle and philosophy that they laid out in Living the Good Life, which was published in 1954.  As the rural economy recovered from the Depression and WW2, and the New York City culture encroached on southern Vermont with skiing and vacation homes, the Nearings moved to the remote coast of eastern Maine. There they took up their habits in relative obscurity, until young people searching for alternative ways of life following the cultural upheaval of the 1960s discovered their book and began flocking to their homestead on Cape Rosier for knowledge and inspiration in the early 1970s.  Eliot and Sue Coleman and Jean and her husband Keith were two of these couples whom the Nearings took a particular interest in, and they sold them plots of land to build and farm on.

One of the themes that emerges in Bright’s book is the significant gap between the Nearings’ idealistic prescription for organizing home economic and social life, and the reality of what actually works.  The Nearings claimed that one could live well on four hours a day of ‘bread labor’ to earn or produce basic needs, four hours a day of artistic, cultural, or activist pursuits, and four hours of social engagement.  They claimed to meet their economic and spiritual needs by following this plan, promoted it fervently, and scorned those who fell short in various ways (excessive participation in the cash economy, living on the proceeds from invested capital, eating meat, etc.) But Bright lays out a detailed case that the Nearings were essentially trustafarians – at various key points they received inheritances or other financial boosts that allowed them to buy large tracts of land, hire help, take shortcuts, and generally live much more comfortably would have been possible without that ready source of transfusion.  As a particular example, when the Nearings moved from Vermont to Maine, high-bush blueberries replaced maple syrup as their notional ‘cash crop’, but she shows that the crop never broke even, let alone sustaining their lifestyle and allowing them to build a spacious stone house.

Bright’s book is not a hatchet job; she clearly had and has a lot of regard for the Nearings, but also the scars of a person who has attempted to live by following an idealized prescription, combined with a reporter’s nose for the real story.   And I’m sympathetic to her instinct that it’s important to pay attention to the distinction between what is actually true and possible, and what people are motivated to believe is possible.  Richard Feynman said something along the lines of ‘the first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.’  The Nearings laid out a path that was attractive and salutary in its broad outlines, but deeply unrealistic in its details, and they had what is surely a natural human tendency to plaster over rather than expose and troubleshoot the places where reality fell short of the ideal. Bright’s book explores how their actions had profound impacts – both for better and for worse – on thousands, perhaps millions of people.

One of the most interesting aspects of both the Bright and Coleman books was the amazing degree of commonality in fine detail with how I grew up, three hours further west along the coast, including:

  • Practical daily use of an antique Glenwood wood cookstove
  • Drinking goat milk, and other people thinking goat milk was nasty
  • Amateur goat obstetrics
  • Trauma of butchering animals in the yard
  • Racoons in the corn at night, wrangling of electric fences, and usually-futile attempts to shoot them in the dark
  • Being the only kid in class with heavy whole-grain sandwiches, while the other kids have Hostess Twinkies
  • Keeping a freezer on the porch of a neighbor in town who has electricity
  • Concerns about a nuclear reactor uncomfortably close to home
  • Newspaper reporters coming to write human interest stories about your family (I was too young to actually remember this, but the aluminum printing plate with a faded image of my mom cooking over a woodstove is still tacked to the wall in the back of the pole barn).
  • The Tomten, and other children’s books that I have not come across elsewhere

These were among the quirkier resonances, but there were broader and more poignant ones as well.  Bright’s conclusion is that it is possible to live a fulfilling life on the land, foregoing many of the conveniences of modern society, but that unless you have a trust fund, it’s not realistic to do it by working only four hours per day, and that it’s all but impossible to do it without materially participating in the cash economy.  And so a related theme is how homesteaders find their craft and their place in that economy –  for Eliot Coleman it was market gardening and related promotions, and for Bright and her husband Keith it was writing and carpentry respectively – exactly the same trades, as it happens, that my parents found for themselves.

A related question that preoccupies me at the interface of ecology, economy, and culture is the question of which back-to-the-land practices represent true advances from a sustainability and social progress perspective, and which are solely cultural badges.  The Nearings were surely serious about ending war, alleviating social ills, and living in harmony with nature, and organizations like MOFGA were explicitly set up to change things.  So it’s fair and important to ask whether they/we were on the right track with their prescriptions, and to what extent they’ve been effective.

Surely a nuanced view is appropriate here.  Some of the cultural practices of that time (such as a whole-grains-based vegetarian diet) are surely improvements from an ecological perspective, a great number are surely neutral (e.g. the colors and patterns one chooses for their clothing), and a few are probably counterproductive (e.g. frequent trips to India in search of enlightenment).  Rather than painting in broad strokes, it seems necessary to look at individual cases, consider realistic alternatives, and actually do the math.  And to be effective, prescriptions must be socially as well as ecologically sustainable.  Another word for subsistence is poverty; sustained, austere, backbreaking labor of the sort the Nearings advocated is not going to catch on broadly in a world where mechanized assistance is cheap and readily available.  The Bright book is chock full of accounts of visitors who tried out the life and then went back to the city, and while some people (e.g. Eliot Coleman) find the hard work of farming viscerally compelling, most others (e.g. Jean Hay Bright) do not. Even those (like my family) who took to the back-to-the-land life gradually reintegrated themselves into the modern economy to a large extent, although many maintained back-to-the-land interests and cultural practices as well.

One thing that has struck me after attending the Commonground Fair off and on for close to 40 years, is how much of it is the same every year – the sheep dog demonstrations, the dry stone demonstrations, the spinning and weaving demonstrations, the draft horse demonstrations, the guy selling high-end Italian walking tractors, and so forth.  The Fair is extremely valuable as a gathering place and a venue to meet old friends and affirm cultural affiliations, but how effective is it as a mechanism to drive real change?  Forty years later, only a vanishingly small fraction of Mainers live off-grid (even though technology has made it quite comfortable), very few grow a meaningful amount of their own food, spinning and weaving are still oddities, virtually everyone still drives everywhere, and very few farmers are using horses for their tillage – and would we want them to?  I’m wary of the tendency to turn sensible-sounding sustainability concepts like Local Food into talismans or cultural badges rather than theories that should be soberly assessed as possible means to a particular set of ends.  As an example, I’ve calculated elsewhere on this blog that even fairly serious amateur gardening has only a marginal quantitative effect (even for the families that practice it), and speculated that it could be fairly easy to overwhelm any positive benefit by e.g. driving a truck repeatedly to a garden center for supplies.  It’s not hard for me to imagine that the greatest quantitative benefit of home gardening might come not from direct effects on the carbon impact of their diets, but rather from capturing the attention of the gardeners and reducing their inclination to take long trips by air during the growing season.

Another resonant theme is the challenge of maintaining relationships through the challenges of hard work, personal discovery, and parenting – particularly among the freewheeling communities of vibrant young people attracted to the Good Life scene.  With the exception of the Nearings, the couples at the center of both books grew apart and split up (perhaps hastened in the case of the Colemans by the tragic drowning death of their middle daughter in a farm pond).   I remember this phenomenon likewise as one of those mysteries of the adult world as seen from kid height – how families that I knew as inseparable social units would suddenly spin apart, with fragments moving to far-flung places, and newly-wise children solemnly explaining custody arrangements. But despite the unconventional mores of the back-to-the land community, I have no reason to believe our families were any less permanent than those in the mainstream, and the question of why certain couples weather these challenges while others do not remains a mystery toward which these books can only offer particularly detailed singular case studies.

There’s a lot more that could be said, but in any case, I heartily recommend this three-generation sequence of books as a thought- and memory-provoking journey for anyone who lived or is interested in the 1970s back-to-the-land movement.

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Spring Planting 2018

May 6, 2018

Despite limited preparation on my part and very soggy ground conditions, a small but powerful crew came together in Five Islands in late April of this year and made significant progress on the orchard.  Thanks to all who participated, the orchard is in good shape, and our fingers are crossed for another good harvest this fall.

We set up about 330′ of permanent woven wire fence defining the western boundary of the orchard, took down the ratty plastic deer netting that had protected the orchard until now, and planted about a dozen new interstem trees with varieties recommended by Holly and David Buchanan, a local professional cidermaker. (David’s Portersfield Cider operation in Pownal is definitely worth checking out, both for the high quality cider and the beautiful reclaimed timberframe barn full of gleaming stainless steel equipment.)

The kids, led by Bodhi and Nola gathered an impressive quantity of rockweed at low tide, and this was spread along with organic fertilizer and lime around the new trees, which were then mulched with cardboard and wood chips.  Hopefully this will keep the weeds and grass at bay for a season and help them get established.  The crew also cleared a bunch of rocks, roots, and old fencing material in preparation for turning over and seeding the rows in the new ground in the northwest corner.  I hope to put this area in buckwheat and clover for the new bees, which hopefully will arrive in time to do the pollination.  We transplanted five of the Cornell high-octane sugar maples that had been temporarily growing between apples trees at the bottom of the orchard, moving them outside the fence and protecting them temporarily with cattle panels rolled into free-standing rings.

We also moved the last of the apple trees that had been planted in a five-gallon bucket with the sides split and splayed four ways; I came up with this technique after learning to graft, when I didn’t have enough space prepared for all the trees I made.  The usual approach is to dig up the trees bare-root and transplant them, but especially for larger trees it sets them back pretty significantly.  I started using the buckets in hopes of keeping more fine root tissue intact when doing the transplant.  Inevitably as these things go, the trees sit in the nursery for more years than you plan, and in this case the tree (a Wickson) was over 2″ in diameter.  But the roots find their way out between the split sides of the bucket, and the location of the splits gives a good idea where to go looking for them with the shovel.  Emily and I dug out the roots as generously as we could, and between us we could schlep the bucket, tree, and roots onto the platform extension on the front end loader of a tractor.  There was one remaining open spot on the original grid of Seedling rootstock trees (had been thin soil over bedrock, but we piled some extra loam there a few years ago), and we set the tree in this spot, peeling away the bucket at the last moment.

The bucket technique seems to work surprisingly well, and I think it could be the basis of a local small-time nursery business, since the Transfer Station could probably turn up an unlimited supply of used buckets.  But recently I’ve gone over to planting out new benchgrafts directly in their permanent location, resigning myself to replacing the few that don’t make it.

With three sides of the orchard enclosed in permanent fence, and the remaining north side hemmed in by an outcropping of ledge, the natural extent of the orchard is defined.  There is still a bunch of area inside the permanent fenceline that isn’t yet planted; my folks are contemplating adding some berries, and since the peaches seem to be doing well for us, we might plant a block of those in the northwest corner.

On Sunday I put on a hundred gallon tank of dormant oil and copper, with a pound of BT mixed in to knock back the tent caterpillars which were already starting to spin their webs.  There was a light shower as I did the spraying, so I hope it holds on until the first dose of Surround (organic clay protectant) that I will put on when the apples are nickel-sized.  Surround is literally a high-grade kaolin clay product that I sprayed for the first time last year.  It forms a patchy layer of white powder that turns the entire tree a ghostly shade, but apparently the diminished sunlight doesn’t affect the photosynthesis significantly, and I found it to be quite effective against the various curculios and maggots that attack unsprayed fruit.

Speaking of peaches, the peach buds were coming on fast in Five Islands, and when I got back to Stroudwater I was distressed to see that the -25F lows we saw this winter seem to have killed or severely damaged both of the peach trees we have there.  This is an example of where the marine climate on the island is a big help; lows were probably 10F warmer in Five Islands.

The resistance of the Five Islands peaches to a pretty bad winter makes me think I should take peaches a bit more seriously there; to this point I’ve been interplanting them between the apple trees in the rows, which has worked well since the peaches grow significantly faster but die off unpredictably.  But the new block of interstems has a tighter spacing that doesn’t have room for peaches, and the older apple trees are getting bigger, so it will be harder and harder to keep them from getting overspray on them when spraying Surround.  Last year we found that once the peaches get Surround on them, it never comes off.  This is a just a cosmetic issue that doesn’t matter for freezing the fruit, and Surround is nontoxic (I can’t taste the difference eating them out of hand), but if we ever wanted to sell them at Joanna’s farm stand or Heidi’s store, the chalky spots would be a turn-off.

So I’m contemplating doing a block of peaches in the northwest corner, which combined with whatever the folks do with the northeast corner will pretty much finish out the enclosed space.  Our favorite variety so far is Lars Andersen, which is apparently a Local variety that only Fedco offers, but I’ll ask around for other advice before moving ahead.

Thanks again to everyone who pitched in to make the 2018 Orchard Weekend a success!

Another Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat – 2017

November 26, 2017

As is our recent custom we gathered at Stroudwater on Thursday for a feast representing the combined culinary forces of five families:

2017 thanksgiving

The disadvantage of this approach is that even if you only take a couple bites of each dish, you end up stuffed to the gills, but complaints were of a good-natured variety, and we took a nice walk along the river and through the woods before dessert (not shown), consisting of 12″ pies (apple, pumpkin/squash, and chocolate cream) and some sinful variety of chocolate coconut caramel bars.

Local content included Stroudwater potatoes (mashed, and also in gnocchi), butternut squash (for the pie, far superior to actual pumpkins) beets, and pesto, and Five Islands apples (plus sweet and hard cider, naturally).  I hadn’t yet retrieved the pedal grinder for the winter, or we could have done virtually all the baking with Five Islands grain (we have rye and corn from this year, and wheat from last).  It would be fun to try to grow the brussels sprouts next year, using Bt to keep the worms at bay.  My folks were given a hoophouse by a neighbor, which should open up possibilities for a greater variety of homegrown greenstuff at Thanksgiving next year.

Given that we have close to a bushel of corn left from the patch I planted in the newground by the upper cabin, it would be tempting to figure out how to make tortillas or something for next year (Joanna made a very nice dish of enchiladas). The relative ease with which we produced this amount of corn even on a first attempt in indifferent soil brings makes me think it wouldn’t be overly difficult to produce enough to feed a flock of hens (though we would also need to grow some soybeans or other protein source).

 

 

 

Holly’s Cider Year 13 writeup

November 9, 2017

Holly did a super nice writeup of the recent Cider Weekend at his blog – see here:

http://tooling-up.blogspot.com/2017/11/cider-13-2017.html

Orchard Update: Summer 2017

August 30, 2017

While this blog may have been dead for quite a while, the orchard has been very much alive.  This spring I grafted around a dozen interstems for a new block of semi-dwarf trees in an area of newground that we prepared north of the original orchard area last year.  And at the end of April a small but dedicated crew put in a great day of fence-building and tree planting to enclose the new area and plant the interstems.

Meanwhile, the oldest of the trees are around ten years old, and had begun to produce fruit in previous years, but being completely unsprayed it was misshapen and quite wormy, requiring a fair amount of cutting around by the cider crew.  So this year began experimenting with an organic spray regimen, starting in the spring with dormant oil, copper hydroxide, and Serenade (a competitive colonizing bacterial culture), and following that with two or three sprays of Surround and BT.  Surround is a refined kaolin clay product that makes the trees and fruit inhospitable to crawling and chewing insects, and BT is a parasitic bacterium that is very effective against tent caterpillars, which had in previous years set back many of our trees by defoliating whole branches.

To apply this stuff, I bought a 100-gallon PTO-mounted Kings sprayer, which fits on the small Kubota tractor (though not by much) and it has worked out quite well – if I’m careful I can do the whole ~1acre orchard with one full tank.  I bought most of the supplies from Seven Springs, which has significantly better prices than Fedco for some reason.  Many of the trees are quite laden with apples at this point, and the spray regimen seems to have all but eliminated the tent caterpillars and significantly set back the Plum Curculios, which otherwise scar the fruit badly with their crescent-shaped bite marks.  It’s too soon to tell how effective it will be on the flies and moths that damage the fruit later in the year; some folks use Spinosad or stronger synthetic stuff to knock them back, but Spinosad is expensive and I’d like to try sticking with organic pest control if it provides sufficient protection.

The Surround spray makes the trees a ghostly white, but it doesn’t seem to block enough light to affect the growth.  I also sprayed the peach trees, which turns out to be a mistake; here at the northern end of their range not many insects seem to bother them, and the clay is impossible to remove from the fuzzy skin of the fruit.  It’s harmless and I don’t mind eating it (after all, what’s in Kaopectate?), but it is impossible to wash off, and it makes the peaches look much less appetizing, so in the future I’ll skip them and work harder to avoid overspray on those trees.

Speaking of peaches, like others in Maine we’ve had a stupendous harvest this year; I took home about 65lb last weekend and it hardly made a dent in the crop still on the trees; I would estimate we’ll get at least 300lb of peaches this year, and my folks are having a hard time figuring out what to do with them.  Some of the apple trees are heavily laden as well, particularly the Honeycrisp, with branches drooping down to the ground.  We’ve also had to prop up some of the branches on some of the peach trees.

Meanwhile, the crop of winter rye did very well, and it’s currently drying in the overhead of the red barn – we’ll try to thresh some out at cider and see how it grinds.  I planted about 1/10 acre of buckwheat for a new hive of bees, and they seem to be enjoying it; it’s headed out now and we probably harvest some of that if we liked – or just let it go to seed for next year.  I also planted about 1/20 acre of Waspie Valley field corn from Fedco; it went in a bit late on account of the wet spring and new ground, but it’s way over head-high by now, and I’m hopeful that it gives a good crop before the weather gets too cool for ripening.

All in all a good year so far; despite the recent dry spell things seem to be doing pretty well.  I have noticed that some of the wild apple trees in the woods have gone completely brown; I have never seen anything like it – perhaps it could be a response to two dry summers in a row, though the trees I noticed are not in particularly dry locations – quite the opposite in fact.  I also noticed that many but by no means all of the local red maple trees have very weak-looking growth in the tops; relatively few leaves, and the ones they do have much smaller than normal.  Other maples nearby seem completely unaffected.

2016 pruning, remembering Poppy

March 12, 2016

Today was the day for the annual spring pruning, and it was a great occasion to remember my grandfather, who died peacefully earlier this week at the age of 95.  William F. Herman (‘Bill’ around town, ‘Poppy’ in the family) was a big part of my life as a kid, and his love of growing things inspired me to plant the orchard when we moved back east over 10 years ago.

Pops and my grandmother, ‘Ummy’ grew up and lived their professional lives in eastern Massachusetts, but spent a lot of time in Maine – her father was an avid rod-and-gun sportsman. In the sixties they bought a slice of land on a remote island in the midcoast, two miles beyond the end of the electric power lines near the village of Five Islands.  When my parents decided to settle down after some years of teaching mountain-climbing in the mountains out west, Um and Pops invited them to homestead on the land in Five Islands, and I grew up off the grid, surrounded by the natural wonders of the Maine coast.

In 1983, Pops retired from a 25-year career at Polaroid, and my grandparents joined us in Maine.  By then electricity had come to the North End, and my father built them a passive solar home.  Though rocky and overgrown, the land had been a farm until early in the 20th century, with stone walls, foundation holes, and odd bits of pottery and rusted iron in evidence. Over the years the family cleared land and planted gardens, berries, and apple trees, and some of my earliest memories of my grandfather relate to agriculture.  He kept a very neat vegetable garden, which he would weed in khaki pants and a button-up shirt (he’d shower and put on a jacket and tie for dinner every night until he was far along in years). He grew masses of vegetables – great sweet corn, bowls and bowls of shell peas, and so many cucumbers and tomatoes that he put a wooden box at the end of the driveway and wrote ‘Help Yourself’, to the joy of the neighbors.

The garden was surrounded by semi-dwarf apples – Cortland, Winesap, Rhode Island Greening, Red Delicious, and he showed me how to prune the trees.  There was also a big wild tree behind their house that was saved in the construction, and it gave great green apples that were my favorite kind when I was a kid. In the fall we would collect the fruit in bags, and Poppy, Ummy, Joanna, and I would press them using a hand-crank cast iron press that had belonged to my great grandfather – the same press that Alexis, Holly, Becky, and I used back in Cider Year 1.  I think he tried to ferment some a couple times, but it was a casual attempt in a plastic milk jug and I don’t remember anyone thinking it tasted good.

In all the years of living and romping around as a kid, I can’t remember Poppy ever raising his voice.  He became a respected character around town, serving as selectman and sometimes as moderator at the old-fashioned town meeting. An engineer by training, he loved to keep careful records – of the amount of firewood he burned each month of each winter down to the tenth of a cord, of the number of quarts of blueberries his waterfront bushes produced, and of gallons of maple sap we collected each spring.  He taught himself to play ragtime piano by ear, and made some pretty nice oil paintings in an engineer’s realistic style – I think he said Norman Rockwell was his favorite artist.

If I drank another pint of this 2014 cider I could probably go on all night, remembering Poppy teaching me how to build kites and drive a tractor, and ‘messing about in boats’, fishing for mackerel in the Sheepscot river out of a 13′ Boston Whaler – he loved the water though he famously would never swim no matter how hot the summer. As the years went by, Poppy’s world gradually compressed; the boat trips shorter and the garden smaller and weedier, but he stubbornly kept at it. I remember a couple years ago when I was working in the orchard, I looked back toward the house and saw him at the edge of the field, using his old-fashioned scythe instead of a cane – he’d take a couple of swipes at the overgrown brush, then lean on the tool to catch his breath.

As Poppy slowed down my parents increasingly picked up the slack, mulching and pruning the berries, planting the corn, and splitting the firewood. And in 2006 I asked him if I could clear some land off to the the south to start a new orchard for cider apples, and he was happy to let me get started. For as long as he could walk, he’d totter up the woods road to the orchard gate to see what I was up to, and we’d talk about trees and plans.  I’m grateful to my grandparents for the opportunity to grow up in a unique and beautiful part of the world, and for the sense that tending and caring for the land is a project that can last more than a lifetime, and build connections across generations.

 

 

Cider Weekend 11 – Mast Year

October 31, 2015

 

Last weekend marked the 11th year we have made cider with Holly, Becky, and an ever-expanding group of pedal-powered cider enthusiasts.  We’ll remember this year for the record cider production and the massive apple crop that fueled it.  With help from Holly, Andy, and Emily we gathered the usual two bins of mixed sweet apples from Autumn Hills, plus a bin of Dabinet and mixed sharp and bittersweet apples from Poverty Lane, totaling a bit over 2000 lb. And the orchard finally started to kick into gear, producing perhaps 3 bushels from a number of the trees. But what made this year special was the massive influx of semi-cultivated and wild apples harvested all over Georgetown by my parents, and all over southern Maine by the folks who came to help us make the cider.  I’m told this was what the botanists call a ‘mast year’ – a year when trees deliver fruit in reckless profusion, and we took full advantage. (Thanks to Eerik Hantsoo for the photos in this post – if you have good pics please send along or post on your own site.)

buckets of apples

I managed to get up to Five Islands the weekend before the big event, and with Dave’s help I got the equipment down from the loft of the barn, hooked it up, and got the basic functionality tested.  Already by then he had dozens of buckets full of apples from around the property and around the island – at least a bin’s worth (about 600lb).  The gear came together smoothly, and I attribute this to our liberal use in recent years of ‘Fluid Film’ aerosol lubricant, a WD-40-like product that goes on with a satisfying fizz of bubbles and leaves a cosmoline-like film on everything to prevent rust.

The big event started early afternoon Friday when I arrived with a truckload of apples and a trailer of random gear; I cleaned and provisioned the cabins, set up the water system, and organized apples.  Holly and Becky, Holly’s mom, and the kids arrived well before dark and set up camp in the lower cabin, then he, Dave, and Ben Wilkins worked to assemble the latest addition to the pedal equipment collection, a cast aluminum hand-cranked grain mill adapted for pedal power.  Holly and I had coordinated beforehand, and we had pulleys, 5/8″ shaft and pillowblocks, bike chain, and adapters that go from shaft to the fine-pitch thread that accepts a bike freewheel.  With these parts they soon had the rig set up and working smoothly.

pedal-power grain mill

A cold front had come through and a cold wind was blowing straight off the water, so we elected not to do dinner at the shore, but rather serve out of the barn, and we refried a big bucket of black beans and folks made burritos followed by Emily’s chocolate chip cookies and smores around a campfire.

In the morning we ate delicious baked goods and breakfast wraps provided by the Kaufman/Wilkins/Kneen clan, then we got to work.  We set up the usual wash station to clean the apples going into the process, but many of the feral apples in the mix were really small, so for expedience we set up a parallel processing step to clean them using a pressure washer.  Even the ones that got pressure washed got individually inspected and bad spots cut out – I think this attention to detail is an important part of why the cider ends up tasting so good.

The grinder worked smoothly all day with the exception of the chain coming off the starboard bike once, and the derailleur on that same bike lost a sprocket once, but we were able to pilfer the missing part from another derailleur and get back online within a couple of minutes.  The press ran smoothly, thanks in part to new press cloths that were properly cut to size and thick enough to do the job (mostly) with a single layer.  Now that Holly has discovered the joy of sewing pants from used press cloth, we are going to cycle new canvas and muslin through the process each year to keep him and his family in trousers, since he refuses to buy pants.  All through the weekend he was wearing the first pair he made, which look awesome, and the construction process is detailed on his blog.

violet runs the press

holly and millie peel apples

Meanwhile we set up the carbonation and bottling system, washed 750ml glass bottles, and set to work bottling the 2014 vintage.  We ended up bottling 7.5 tanks of cider; there was half a tank left over when the capper broke just before dinner, so we left the remaining cider in the root cellar.  The bottling rig could definitely use some streamlining; the janky linear guides I made out of copper pipe and scrap mahogany don’t work that smoothly, and a foot-actuated spring- or gravity-balanced system using 80-20 linear guides could make a big difference.  And the failure of the capper was a wake-up call; now that we are processing this much cider it makes sense to keep some redundant equipment around.

cider and baby on back

My folks made up the usual Nebraska Cream Can Dinner for lunch, along with random tasty food that folks brought.  We paused the process briefly to eat, then got back to grinding and pressing.  We filled the 100 gallon bulk tank with sweet cider, washed and filled plastic jugs, then started on the hard cider mix, using a combination of Dabinet, Bramtot, Wickson, etc. from Povlane, mixed sweets from Autumn Hills, and a wide variety of feral apples.  We filled the tank again with hard cider mix, filled all the carboys from it, and still the cider kept flowing – and more people kept showing up with more apples.  By the end we were searching everywhere for clean jugs, and even resorted to using a few of the 2.5 gallon jugs that my folks use to collect maple sap.

Holly brought some whole kernel corn and wheat to grind for cornbread for dinner, and it went through the grinder fine in two passes (even though we didn’t have the special large-grains auger for the mill). In the afternoon we experimented with grinding the buckwheat that we grew this summer between two rows of trees in the orchard.  We succeeded in winnowing and sifting the grain, but it still had thin black hulls on the groats.  After some experimentation we determined that we could grind the grain extremely coarsely, which would crack off most of the hulls while leaving the groats mostly intact.  We then winnowed a couple of times using a box fan, which drove off most of the hulls, then we ground finer and passed through a mesh strainer which pulled out still more hulls. Finally we ran the material through with the grinding plates quite close together, yielding a satisfyingly fine flour. There was still a fair amount of dark hull material in the flour, but we figured this would be good for our digestion.  Later someone looked online and read that the trick is to size the grain using a series of graduated sieves, then crack the hulls off each size of grain separately, so as to get more of them off without breaking up the grain too fine.  If we grow buckwheat again next year maybe we’ll get some better sieves, instead of just using the hardware-cloth versions I made for this year.

Dinner was served just as we finished the last of the pressing, and it was delicious as we have come to expect, with chili, cornbread, and apple crisp made entirely with apples from the orchard.  Then more sitting around the campfire, and more cleanup as light rain was predicted in the morning.  All day and all evening the ragtag tribe of kids ran around with spears and bicycles; Bodhi faceplanted at one point and banged up his face a little, but it’s a miracle there wasn’t more carnage.  We got most of the equipment put away and a rough squeegee-ing of the floor, then folks retired to the cabins.

shifting carboys

Saturday night was warmer, and a light drizzle set in around breakfast time.  We made pancakes with 100% Five Islands buckwheat flour topped with Five Islands maple syrup, and some had Five Islands blueberries as well. Plus home-fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, etc.  We did some more cleanup, including breaking down the water system and pressure-washing the barn, then said goodbye to most of the crew who headed home mid-morning. We transferred 9 carboys of cider to the root cellar, sulfited, and set 2 gallons of starter going to pitch on Monday. Holly and family stayed through leftovers for lunch, then got on the road in a zipcar minivan heavily-laden with cider.

All in all we produced a massive 292 gallons of cider from 3448 pounds of apples on Saturday, with a calculated 71% yield.  This smashes the 2014 record of about 230 gallons, and it was such a prodigious amount of cider that I don’t feel the need to exceed it next year; rather we can make however much comes natural from year to year depending on the crew and the crop.  Thanks to everyone who pitched in and made Cider Year 11 such an amazing success!  Here is the final tally sheet:

IMG_20151025_095152

Nutty pumpkin/squash pie

January 29, 2015

Tony asked me to share the recipe for the pie I baked for the winter get-together at Stroudwater last weekend.  First some thoughts on pumpkin pie in general:

  • Nowadays I always make 12″ pies, in a deep ceramic dish my mom gave me.  Go big or go home.  Cut the filling recipe in half if you want a 9″ pie, and make a 1-stick-of-butter crust.
  • Butternut squash is my standard for ‘pumpkin’ pie.  As best I can tell, squash is in every way superior to traditional round pumpkins, which give coarse, loose, watery pulp.  Reading online, it seems that the canned stuff they sell at the grocery is probably actually squash.
  • To avoid a watery pie, the squash should be roasted or steamed, with roasting giving better flavor but taking longer.  If steamed, it should be left to drain in a colander for a while after it is stripped out of the skin.  I usually use fresh or frozen Stroudwater butternuts, since we always grow lots, but this is one case where canned is fine (though I’d steer clear of the pre-mixed pumpkin pie filling; I’ve never used it but pre-made pie filling usually sucks).
  • Once all the filling ingredients are together, they should be blended vigorously with a hand blender to shred the fibers of the squash and get a good mix.  I would say this is the main secret to making a really luscious pie from homemade squash.
  • Another secret is to use coconut milk in place of some of the evaporated milk.  Coconut is basically magic in baked goods, I picked this up from Kelsey and don’t know why we don’t use coconut for everything.
  • After all kinds of attempts including pre-baking the crust, I have basically given up on getting the crusts of pumpkin custard pies to come out crispy/flaky.  The time it takes to cook the filling will saturate the crust anyway.  So I am gravitating toward nut crusts that are tasty and have some crunch even when saturated. This was a definite improvement, but I was not entirely satisfied, and will probably go further in the nut direction in the future.

All that being said, first the crust, which is approx 3/4 of a two-crust 9″ pie (for a single 12″ crust):

  • Mix together:
    • 1.5c white flour
    • 1T sugar
    • 1/2t salt
    • 1/2c almond flour (TJs has)
    • 1/2c unsweetened shredded coconut
  • Cut in 1.5 sticks of cold unsalted butter with pastry blender until largest chunks are pea-sized (I used a food processor for the first time last weekend and it worked fine, but it’s easy to overdo it and smear the butter hopelessly.)
  • While mixing continuously with a fork, sprinkle with ice water until it’s not powdery and seems like it would form a mass when pressed.  I don’t measure how much water it is, and you shouldn’t either – it’s too dependent on the flour.  If it won’t roll, use more water next time.
  •  Form into a disk and refrigerate for a while, if not in a hurry.  If refrigerating for a long time, wrap in waxed paper or the like
  • Roll out and transfer to pie plate.

For the filling:

  • Blend with a hand blender for a better part of a minute:
    • 4c well-drained squash
    • 5 eggs
    • 1 can thick coconut milk or cream
    • 1 can evaporated milk
    • 1c white sugar
    • 2/3c brown sugar
    • 2t cinnnamon
    • 2t ginger
    • 1t nutmeg
    • 1/4t allspice
    • 1/4t cloves
    • 1t salt
  • Pour into crust.  Usually it doesn’t quite all fit, so I take the scrap crust and press it into a small ceramic cereal bowl and bake it, it cooks quicker than the big one and you can eat it while preserving the virtue of the the big pie for whatever social affair you have in mind.
  • Bake at 375 till the center is no longer liquid-y when you nudge the pie plate in the oven.  This will take a good long time -seems like over an hour though I never time it.  It’s OK/good for the center to still be jello-like, but by the time it gets there the periphery will have risen and have temporary holes in it.  There is probably some way to prevent it from cooking from the edges in, but the end result is fine anyway.
  • The edges of the crust should be protected once they approach the desired state of brown-ness.  Alexis got me some reusable silicone rubber thingies to do this, but aluminum foil is traditional.

Let it cool. That’s it.

Stroudwater Thanksgiving: year five

November 28, 2014

We joined forces with the Kaufman and Wilkins crews for “another Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat,” with a fair measure of local content including potatoes, beets, squash,  kale, and brussels sprouts.

stroudwater thanksgiving dinner 2014

I was hoping my folks could join us, but the big snowstorm put the kibosh on that, with power out in all of Georgetown and lots of work for the plow, chainsaw, and volunteer fire crew.  Maybe next year.  We got off pretty lightly by comparison, a few branches down in the woods and the light deer netting around the garden pulled down by the heavy snow – nothing in there but the last few frozen stalks of kale anyway.

I’m becoming more a fan of galvanized wire cattle panels – might consider permanentizing the garden fence with these come next year. Kelsey has been using them to stake tomatoes for a few years, and this fall she suggested rolling them into rings to protect young apple trees from the deer.  If overlapped by one pitch of the verticals and wired tightly together, they make a nice enclosure that protects a small tree so long as the branches don’t spread too widely; since we are on standard or B118 rootstock I am tending to train the yard trees with the first rung of laterals higher in any case, to keep above the mower and the deer.  The next step would be to create some kind of three-roll type arrangement to form the panels so they naturally hold the circular shape – that way the end could be easily pried open by hand to access the trees, for instance to seek and destroy the evil Round-Headed Apple Borer.

 

Holly’s report on cider 2014

November 28, 2014

Holly and Becky Gates have been our steady partners in cider madness these ten seasons – here’s Holly, his mom, and eldest daughter Ultraviolet preparing cornbread from freshly hand-ground grain to feed the multitudes:

holly and fam making cornbread

To see Holly’s report and more photos on this year’s cider adventure,  check out http://tooling-up.blogspot.com/2014/11/cider-10-ten-years-of-pedaling-malus.html – and I highly recommend perusing his blog for reports on his various other adventures.