Last week, I watched my neighbor press apple juice by hand as a demonstration for local school children. It’s something he’s been doing for a few years, taking his smaller apple press around to various village schools or inviting them up to the farm so kids can see what’s been going on here for generations.
Unusually this year, he set up the old apple press, the big one that was still in annual operation when his parents were alive. We were lucky to see this process in action when we first moved in next door, almost 18 years ago.
I have a feeling that, with the current sales of land taking place in our village, with the increasing weariness I see in my neighbor at the lack of anyone else to step in and take over the apple-pressing (much less the farm), that this press might not be assembled again anytime soon. Maybe in a museum.
The components are mostly handcrafted. Satisfying to the touch, robust and functional.
My neighbor says it’s only worth using the big press if the planned result is more than 300 litres (80 gallons) of juice. If my conversion calculations are correct, that amount should require around 600 kg (1300 lbs.) of fresh apples.
The family still has a few orchards, but many of them have been sold, and the best apples from the ones that remain are sold at market. It’s the less picturesque apples, the fallen apples, that get pressed into juice.
I’ve written about the pressing stone before, a solid block of stone from Jurassic rock quarried in the 1840s from the mountains a few miles from our home and hewn into shape by a stonemason two villages over.
It was hauled down by horses and has been sitting in its spot for over 160 years.
Once a smooth block with an even groove that ran around the inside perimeter, which led the pressed juices to a spout at the front, the stone is lined with folds and now looks as if it was shaped from soft dough, or clay.
The apple press is somewhat newer, from the late 19th century, and undoubtedly some of the parts have been replaced since then.
When we first moved here, the family was still bottling cider for sale. They had racks of sterilized bottles and a filling table, with a small hand-powered bottle capping tool that seems to have been either permanently stored or moved off the farm.
Bottles for friends, family and fortunate neighbors were less fancy. Old bottles, plastic wine jugs, water bottles, anything handy.
It was always a happy day when – as I did last week – I opened the door and found a quiet gift to greet me, bottles of apple juice lined up like visitors.
When the big press was running, some neighboring farms would bring in their own apple harvests for pressing. Small tractors would pull up with a flatbed of crated apples behind them, the farm courtyard filled with people taking turns at the turning the press.
This year, from the small batch our neighbor made on the small press, we somehow ended up with three gallons – they had been intended for a school class that cancelled due to heavy rains. But usually, back in the day, most of the juice that hadn’t been sold or given away would get fermented into vinegar or hard cider in the adjacent storage area.
Our neighbor and his sister, who run the farm together, are in their 70s. They go through the annual tasks with an easy familiarity and confidence that reminds me of their parents, who ran the place until they passed away in their late 90s.
But they are growing tired of the various ordeals of autonomous farm life. They both have homes of their own, all the modern amenities, and what keeps this place functioning is determination and a commitment to passing along the knowledge that has been passed down through the family for generations.
Documenting this task is the least I can do in return for almost 20 years of friendship, and all that delicious, hand-pressed apple juice.