Tasting Notes

Apples in an apron

If there’s one fruit that’s been pressed into service as the poster child for American agriculture, it’s the apple. American as apple pie, as one old slogan goes, though of course the apple is not a fruit native to this continent but to Kazakhstan, as we pointed out on our last Homestead Happiness talk. Beans, squash, tomatoes, paw paws, wild rice, sunflowers . . . ; all these might have been a better choice to represent the North American continent. But advertising is a sticky business, and ever since European colonists arrived on the shores of Turtle Island, apple trees have been sold as part of the story. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” is another classic proverb, also coined in order to sell apples in Wales in the late 1800's.(In its original form, the proverb was first recorded in 1866 as " Ait a happle avore gwain to bed/ An you'll make the doctor beg his bread." It’s true that apples are a healthy snack, and have plenty of vitamin C and fiber. But apples, as the FDA might require advertisers to caution today, are certainly not intended to treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

The sanitized child’s tale tale of Johnny Appleseed, lanky, pot-hatted, wandering the westward edge of an expanding empire, is largely a fabrication. The man existed, to be sure, but in the telling and retelling of his story, many of the facts, and most of the context, has been lost. We do know that the apples he sold were seedlings, rather than grafted varieties, and as such would have been largely inedible/unappetizing. What they might have been good for, however, was cider, and from cider, vinegar, a most important food preservation ingredient.

Apples do not "come true from seed," meaning that a seed from a named apple variety will not make another apple of the same variety. Apple genetics are fabulously complex, and the amount of genetic recombination, and variation, that is possible from a single apple tree boggles the mind. Nature, in her exuberant and fearless abundance, is always trying new things; smaller or larger fruit sizes, varies shapes and colors and textures, and a world of nuanced flavors; sweet, tannic, bitter, tart. Many, if not most, of these combinations are less than pleasing to the palate of a particular ape relative, whose likes and dislikes have driven so much of the evolution of food crops. However, an apple that is less than delicious out of hand may almost always be fermented into something that titillates the senses of this same choosy Homonid.

It's cider season again, here in the Santa Cruz mountains. All over the county, apples are dropping onto the ground, cracking the branches of trees that have not been thinned or supported with stakes. The apple is a generous fruit, accustomed to life among the humans; it bears abundantly, more than is good for it, in fact. The flowers are so prolific that a significant portion of the young fruit must often be removed from the tree in order to make room for the remaining fruit to ripen. Accustomed to intervention by centuries of domestication, an apple tree left unpruned will quickly become a tangled mass of elongated branches and snapped limbs. The branches rocket skyward, leaving the fruit out of reach for all but the birds and squirrels. Even these wild old Ents can provide some good cider apples, though. Yeast are not choosy creatures, though they dislike wild temperature swings and do not function well when too many bacteria are present.
This week's featured recipe, for making hard apple cider, is a perennial favorite. The cider that is produced by fermentation can vary widely, depending on the type of apples used, the yeast added or not added, sanitation practices, temperature while fermenting, and other subtle factors. But fermenting cider has taught me many things, about patience and attention, yeast and bacteria and the effects of seemingly fluctuations, as well as the value of seasonal rituals. Making cider every year is a practice that connects me to the year past and the year ahead, while in the present, the invisible legions of yeast make short work of the apple's delectable sugars. Long strings of carbon dioxide rise from the body of the cider, finding their way to the surface to pop and build up pressure in the airlock. The whole process smacks of a kind of slow, earth-based magic, that happens on its own, once the right conditions are met. All fermentation does this, but there is something about the purity of cider that really brings it home. Hard apple cider can be made with nothing but juice; all the other ingredients are optional, or, in the case of the essential yeast, are already present on the skin of the tree-ripe fruit. For a fruit that has been so consistently manipulated by humans, the continued presence of this wild yeast is especially telling. Is it an intrinsic part of the apple? Or an added benefit that we have selected for, intentionally or not? There is compelling evidence that the original bread yeast came from apple skins, as well as the yeasts that we now use to make beer. From such an innocuous, incidental bloom, has sprung such a myriad of forms and functions. Yeast, these days, has been bred to have highly specific functions and preferred substrates that it is specific to. But the original parent colony, from which all of this variety has sprung, came first from a wild apple.

Later on in the year, when the fermentation has halted, we'll rack the finished cider off the lees, and add the lifework of several hundred bees to the carboy, to give the yeast just enough additional sugar to produce carbonation in the champagne bottles we have been hoarding all year. We'll siphon the honeyed cider into the bottles and tuck them back in the cellar, to become airy with carbonation. In time, we'll pull a cool green or brown bottle from the root cellar to celebrate with friends and family, or to mix with orange juice for a sweet Sunday morning mimosa sometime. So much history and labor will be present in every sip, but the lightness of the bubbles makes it easy to appreciate the flavor in the moment. Still, like tasting notes that clarify and broaden our experience of a particular dish or wine, an awareness of the tangled history and importance of the apple and her diverse fruits, can only serve to heighten the experience.

By Jessica Tunis