Anyone for cider?

In the ideal world of TV commercials, we would have summoned up our neighbours and their children and grandchildren, clad in Laura Ashley smocks, and skipped out to the orchards for the apple-picking.

But life is not like that. We chose a gloomy day. We trailed round several friends’ gardens and by the end of the apple-gathering everyone was rather bad-tempered and tired. But we are now in production. Fourteen gallons of cider and more to come.

This has been one of the best apple-growing years for a quarter of a century. But there is a limit to how many crumbles and charlottes you can make for the freezer. There is only one sensible way to deal with excess apples, cider. But first squeeze your apples.

In theory, a kilo of fruit should produce almost a litre of juice. But this sort of return is achieved only by the likes of Mr Bulmer of Hereford with the help of a 30-tonne industrial press. The rest of us have to rely on cunning and the lure of free alcohol. We are currently getting two gallons to a potato sackful.

Cider-making is simple, in theory. Extract the juice of many apples and leave it covered in a warmish spot. The airborne yeasts on the skins will ferment with the natural sugars of the fruit to produce alcohol. In less than three weeks you will have a just-about-drinkable brew at around eight per cent alcohol (a hydrometer to check alcohol levels costs about 3 to 5 euro). This is almost double the strength of a pub beer and better than half the strength of a rough Provençal red. Leave it until Christmas in one-gallon glass demijohns or screw-top bottles and it will acquire that slightly lavatorial whiff that tells you this is true Scrumpy.

Before pressing, apples have to be reduced to a near pulp called pomace, they are too tough to press whole. A simple chopper driven by an electric drill costs about 30 euro, although the Czech-made Vares apple-crusher costs a ludicrous 350 euro. The common man’s alternative is a blacksmith-made neep hasher, should you possess such a thing, and a garden spade or a fence post for pounding purposes. All of these are hard work. The idle man’s answer is a garden shredder designed to chip small branches and garden waste. You will still need to give the apples a couple of chomps with a spade to get them through the narrow shredder throat, but the result is high-speed buckets full of tarte tatin-thin apple. We rented an 1800-watt shredder for 25 euro to see if the theory worked. It does. A smaller one would almost certainly do the job as well.

The press is the fun bit and the internet is full of plans. The easiest to follow are on www.ukcider.co.uk – otherwise you are faced with buying beautifully made but low-yielding presses starting at 50 euro. The Americans are serious juice-makers – check out www.kuffelcreek.com. A homemade press is essentially a rectangular wood or steel-welded frame standing on its end. Flat square parcels or “cheeses” of pomace wrapped in hessian sacking (wash the hessian first) are piled up on a collecting tray.

A board at least two inches thick sits on top of the pile of cheeses. Into the gap between the board and the top of the press frame insert the secret ingredient – a hydraulic hand-operated bottle jack (1,30 euro at a farm sale or about 9 euro from Screwfix). Forget laborious screw jacks. Hydraulics hold the answer. When the juice gushes forth you will understand why. The more juice you can ferment in a single batch the more likely it is to work. (Pigs like the pulp but it can ferment in their tummies and make them drunk.) The juice will take a day or two to start fermenting at about 60F, but if you are worried the natural yeasts are not up to it a spoonful of wine yeast will ginger things up.

You are not obliged to make cider, of course. Apple juice freezes well in fruit juice cartons.

John Butterworth, who wrote Apples in Scotland (www.butterworthsorganicnursery.co.uk), recommends Katie, Golden Spire and King of the Pippins as the best for cider. But most of us have to make do with what we can pick or scrounge. A mix of eaters and cookers will do. Windfalls are fine, rotten apples probably not. And on the question of hygiene, the worst that can happen is the brew goes off.

Don’t make cider in 45-gallon metal drums, stick to plastic. If you are worried about bacterial growths swab it all with baby-bottle steriliser. But I don’t suppose the druids bothered.

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