Bubble Bubble, Toil and Trouble
Aching joints and endless scrubble
Bubble bubble, toil and pleasure
Fill the hold with apple treasure
The apples are in. Yesterday I finished a last task, canning five gallons of cider. Now, aside from taking stock of the rosy fruit crowding our fridge and root cellar, watching for those rotters that might spoil a whole box, and perhaps making another batch of applesauce, we are done. It was a bumper year for our little Toad Hill Orchard after two barren seasons. At last we feel like apple farmers. When the sun shines you make hay and when the orchard bears, you put away fruit—who knows what we will get next year.
When we bought our original thirty acres in 1980, there was a pair of big old apple trees in the little sloping field next to the road, a Baldwin and a Snow. The former is a venerable New England favorite cooking apple, the latter a crisp, luscious “eater” with snow white flesh and cherry red skin. We knew them from our years working in orchards in New Hampshire and the Champlain Valley. I can imagine the first settlers in Whitesville traveling out toe western New York with these two precious and essential apple trees which would eventually fill their cellars—as ours is filled this year.
Our second spring, we planted about thirty trees of many varieties to keep the two elder trees company. Hopefully the original chart is somewhere in Fred’s desk—the untidiness of which is only surpassed by mine. Perhaps one winter day I’ll take on the project of digging it out. Several of the trees are planted too closely and they all need to be pruned to accommodate ladders. Every spring for the fleeting few days that the trees are in bloom, we savor the ethereal scent and beauty, and hold our breaths hoping that frost and rain will hold off enough for the bees to do their work. It’s an organic orchard. We could improve our management, but we have never sprayed. We’ve had some good crops in past years, but nothing like this year.
We two fifty-eight year olds felt like we were in our twenties again, climbing ladders and limbs with one ratty old picking bag and a canvas shopping bag—until evening when aching joints reminded us of our age. Twigs tugged at my hair and leaves slipped down my shirt. Geese winged southward across the sky. Ravens circled overhead. Perfect apples are rare without chemical assistance. I tuck especially lovely ones into my jacket pockets. Sometimes I find one so irresistible that I crunch right into it on the spot. Eve had it right. Apples are definitely meant to be eaten. And there is nothing like picking apples on a bright autumn day. One afternoon Mom and Dad Beckhorn, both eighty-one, helped pick the lower branches, Dad from a lawn chair using his metal grabber. Later the two of them make and can a big batch of sauce in my kitchen. We reserved a sweetly laden little tree for my six Girl Scouts to pick to make into apple crisp for one of their meetings. I’ve made apple pie, kuchen, sauce, cider, and one batch of deep red crab apple jelly. The deer have been busily cleaning up drops and I’ve been giving our three horses armfuls of apples every day.
Fred has become a fanatic hard cider maker, traveling to western Massachusetts to attend workshops, and collecting wild fruit and special varieties to add to his blends. He went to Lains’ Cider Mill in Canisteo to press large batches, three times, some of which we sold fresh. He rebuilt our antique press to do small specialty mixes. (Unfortunately the grinder is horribly inefficient and it’s a bear to turn the handle, especially when grinding hard, small apples. But the exercise is great!) Now the cellar audibly gurgles with many yeasty, fragrant brews, one mixed with black currants, another purely from wild varieties.
There is an amazing difference in apples. One of our favorite findings this year is the pale yellow, thin skinned Calville Blanc D’Hiver (white winter). Our daughter Spring, home for the holiday weekend, made apple tart with it, crumbly with butter and ground almonds. Wow. Everywhere Fred goes, he spots wild trees—potential taste discoveries. I roll my eyes. I’m ready to be done with the harvest. With Spring, we pick up yet more small, hard, wild apples for her to make chutney. “That’s it!” I say, walking back to the car. “I am finished picking apples this year!” We drive up the driveway. It’s satisfying to see the trees bare except for a few stray apples that the deer and grouse will enjoy. High in the branches of the tall old Baldwin tree, the sun catches a tantalizing cluster of bright red fruit, enough for a couple of pies . . .