November 7, 2017

Cider 13 (2017)

Another great year for cider. The weather was beautiful, the company good, and the cider delicious. Ben's writeup can be found here.

Apple Supply
Apples were plentiful this year. This makes sense since apples tend toward biennial production, with last year being light and the year before being very heavy. For the first time the orchard in Five Islands made a significant quantity of fruit. These trees were planted over ten years ago and are mostly on Antonovka. They are getting pretty big now, and looked lovely in the spring when covered with blossoms.

Ben and his parents have worked hard to build the orchard and take care of it, so it is satisfying to see returns ramping up. This year Ben spent plenty of money and time implementing an organic spray routine to keep the bugs down, and Emily and Dave picked about 1000kg of fruit from the orchard and from wild and untended trees around the island.

There were still a few apples on the trees in the orchard when we arrived for cider. Emily led some picking on saturday, some of which went toward making apple crisp for dinner.

For quite a few years now we have sourced about half our fruit from Autumn Hills orchard in Groton, MA. They give us a good blend of high quality varieties including Golden Russet, Cox Orange Pippin, and Spencer. We buy two bins of seconds from them, and usually Ben has driven down in his truck to meet me there and pick them up. It is a lot of driving for him though, and he is already stretched thin working long hours with his company near Portland and preparing for cider in Georgetown. So this year we experimented with shipping the apples from Groton to Portland. 

I salvaged a bunch of sturdy boxes from work; we empty out lots of these since a portion of our incoming silicon chunks arrive in them. One box holds 30kg of Si chunk, double bagged in 5kg portions. My original plan was to load the boxes and plastic wrap them to two pallets, but it turns out to be cheaper (at least with the company I used this time) to ship via van courier. The sales guy said the drivers are cheaper for a van and the vehicle burns less gas. 

Jim Serdy, a friend from work, was good enough to join me for a morning of packing apples at Autumn Hills. 

We loaded up 24 boxes from two bins, about 20-25kg per box. We picked a few pears and enjoyed the scenery until the courier showed up, then helped him load the van. That afternoon the boxes were delivered in Portland, then transported in Ben's big red truck to deeper Maine. With the purchase and shipping I spent around $400 on these apples, still a reasonable deal for having good fruit delivered.

Total apple input on Saturday was 1589kg.

Equipment Upgrades
First off, Ben rebuilt the hydraulic bike stand for the press. He incorporated an outboard motor fuel tank as the oil reservoir, taking the place of the bucket with a rag over the top. A new frame was built from 80/20 extrusion, with the exercycle mounting via front fork to the side.

 The chain coming from the crank cog goes to a freewheel cassette mounted on a jackshaft near the bottom of the frame, complete with fully functional (though upside down) derailleur. 

This shaft spins in pillow blocks mounted to the 80/20 and has a large diameter double groove cast iron sheave on it to serve as a flywheel on one side, with a small step sheave mounted in the other side to power arbitrary attachments on the table top via a long V belt. Just inboard of the step sheave is a sprocket which links by chain to the log splitter pump. The hydraulic controls are mounted to the frame such that it is easy to operate them while riding the bike.

This improved bike power stand will probably mostly run the Country Living grain mill those 364 days a year when it doesn't run the cider press. However, even on that day it is now possible to mill grain and press cider at the same time. This takes more concentration on the part of the biker, since the right speed to operate the grain mill needs a different gear than the final high pressure push of a press cycle. But the derailleur makes this possible.

As part of the new bike stand project, Ben replumbed the hydraulics and tidied things up so hoses are more out of the way and the plumbing is more svelte.

Another major equipment improvement was made by Eerik to the bottling rig. He built some cool linear slides from roller blades and 80/20. Ben and Eerik worked out a neat compound action footpedal system from odds and ends in the barn, with the force needed to keep the bottle filler seated in the bottle provided by the weight of assorted chunks of metal.

Eerik put in a very full day Saturday operating this new setup to fill many a case of 750ml bottles with last year's hard cider.

I bought an antique corn sheller from ebay and tuned it up in Somerville before cider. I'll make a post on that project later on. 

To adapt it for use with a bicycle, I hand filed a die cast sheave to fit onto the square taper drive of the shaft. 

This wasn't perfect but it worked well enough to shell quite a bit of corn quickly. Before trying it, I didn't appreciate that the cob had to nearly exit the bottom of the sheller, but was then pulled back and to the side by the spike disk and ejected out the side. So when I made the stand for the device to clamp to, it put the sheller too close to the table, resulting in the cob getting jammed. We pulled off my plywood base and mounted the thing on blocks to the improved bike power stand.

When we first tried the sheller on Friday night, everyone was highly impressed by how quickly and efficiently it stripped kernels. One problem though was this it sprayed corn absolutely everywhere. So we quickly repurposed a plastic bin to fit over the device and contain most of the corn blizzard. Ben is working on installing a chain guard below.

I taped a flap on the cob-out hole to keep kernels from spraying out too much. Somehow when the cob boinks its head out of the flap after the raucous stripping of kernels, it is tremendously amusing. Check these videos out.

The only downside to having the same bike power stand operate the cider press and the corn sheller/grain mill is that the rider has to pay more attention to the press operation than the grain. So I think the throughput on the grain suffered a bit, and we were cutting it close with finishing the grain processing in time to turn the output into dinner.

I made up 8 new press cloths for cider this year since we were running low after a few old ones suffered blow outs. I ordered the same 12oz cotton canvas from which we have previously used with good results. The fabric that arrived was extremely stiff, I think because of some kind of sizing applied to the fabric. After cutting and hemming the edges, I did wash the cloths twice and machine dry and steam iron them once, but they were still quite stiff. I figured they would get worn in quickly and folded them up to bring to Maine. 

However, trouble was immediately had when using the new cloths in the cider press. The fabric seems to be resistant to passing liquid through its weave, so the layers of wrapped up shredded apple acted like water balloons rather than sponges getting liquid squeezed out of them. The stack of grates and bundles would buckle and try to squirt out the side rather than compressing smoothly. As a result the new cloths were put aside and the old cloths were made to limp along and give another year of service. 

Not sure what to do about the new cloths - I'm thinking washing them a few more times in hot water with strong soap, maybe once with bleach? Anyone know a good way to strip sizing off new cloth?

Cider Processing
Running the cider process went well.

The bike driven washing tunnel was set up again

This time with some manipulators to help the apples get out at the end.

There were enough willing people to operate the machines and do the labor intensive step of cutting bad spots off the incoming apples before putting them through the washer.

The grinder had few problems despite getting rode hard all day and put away wet.

Ben had an electronic scale for the block and tackle in the middle of the barn, and used that to weigh all the apples before processing.

After the issues with the new press cloth were figured out, the pressing part of the operation went smoothly.

Cider is kept track of as it is bottled.

Child 2 helped me wash out and sanitize kegs, then I racked the remaining carboys of last year's cider into these for carbonation and bottling.

Here is a whirlwind tour of the main steps of the process:

The final count as taken was 

1589 kg apples
1041 liters of cider

This works out to about 69% yield, consistent with our previous years. This amount of apples is a good fit for our current capabilities. All the apples were run and some cleanup done by the time dinner was ready. The different parts of the process are relatively well matched now with no obvious bottleneck, so to get much higher throughput in a single day we would have to upgrade several steps. Probably if we hadn't had to fool around with the new press cloths, the grinder would have more obviously been the pacing item.

On Sunday the bulk tank of the run destined for fermentation was distributed to carboys.

Preparation and washing up was much more convenient this year because Ben and family had organized the acquisition and installation into the barn of a second hand stove, refrigerator, and sink. It was nice to be able to cook dinner without having to be completely removed from the goings on, especially since the nearest available oven would otherwise have required driving this year.

Food preparers seem to have settled into a routine menu:

- Fri. Night: Black bean burritos at the shore cabin (Ben and Alexis)
- Sat. Morning: Breakfast burritos (Josh and Kelsey)
- Sat. Lunch: Cream Can Supper (Emily and Dave)
- Sat. Dinner: Chili, cornbread, apple crisp (Becky and myself)

I think it is fine to cook the same meals year after year. These are proven winners, and is once a year too often to eat cream can stew, black bean burritos, etc? I think not. Speaking for myself, I am having a more enjoyable time at cider since we chose easier things to cook for dinner. For instance, it is so much easier to make huge tins of crisp than it was to make four apple pies! And it is cool to process the grain to make dinner, which would not be possible with a lot of pre-work.

In addition to the standby meals above, participants always are generous and thoughtful in bringing other dishes and foodstuffs.

One thing the kids like about this trip is drinking plenty of hot cocoa

Becky prepping apples for crisp:

Dinner on Saturday

Breakfast on Sunday

Sunday lunch - leftovers!

Ben grew rye and a stand of corn in the orchard this year.

The corn was put into the homemade food dryer to get hard enough to grind in time for cider. This corn is a great looking open pollinated heirloom dent corn called Wapsie Valley, from Fedco.

The Five Islands based crew had already threshed the rye with a string trimmer in a barrel and winnowed it using just the breeze.

Saturday we shelled enough corn for dinner using the Black Hawk No. 9 set up on the bike power stand in about 20 minutes.

I roped in Erin and Aaron to help with winnowing the corn, which was swiftly done with the dual box fan setup (the wind was too mild that day for winnowing).

This corn really is attractive.

We switched the sheller out for the Country Living Mill and started grinding (whilst pressing cider of course).

It seemed to me to go slower than the last two years. One issue was the knob controlling the burr spacing kept trying to back itself off every couple minutes, so you had to grab it and tighten it frequently. If one forgot about it, the output got too course and then needed to be put back through the mill. The Country Living is a well built piece of equipment though; I bet something can be done to fix that problem. 

I cajoled my family into picking out the little round black seeds dispersed in the rye, which Ben says are vetch, plus the odd bit of trimmer string (easy to see since it is fluorescent green). The rye then went into the queue for grinding.

We ground up enough grain to make two big trays of cornbread according to this recipe (so 2x below list in total):
  • 900g corn
  • 450g rye
  • 140g chia
  • 200g sugar
  • 70g baking powder
  • 1.5c butter
  • 1600g milk
  • 10 eggs
Mix dry ingredients, work in room temp butter with cutters or whisk. Add wet ingredients and mix. Pour into parchment lined greased trays. Cook at 200C (400F) until tester comes out clean, 30-50 minutes. Top will be quite brown.

These two cornbreads turned out very well; great flavor from the fresh grain grown on site.

Rye was also used in place of wheat to make topping for apple crisp. Becky made up 15 recipes of topping, each consisting of:

- 1/2c oats
- 1/2c ground rye
- 1/2c nuts
- 1/2c brown sugar
- 1/2c butter
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon

Plenty of helpers were kind enough to run three apple peelers and two cutting boards to prep about 30L of apples mainly from the orchard. There were some Redfield, some Spitz, a few Wickson, some Indian Point Russet, among others. Two giant trays with nut topping were assembled, and a small tray with no nut topping. We had a huge amount left over since the people with little kids and babies had mostly turned in by the time it came out of the oven. Those giant trays take forever to bake through. It was good leftover Sunday morning, but there was still a ton left even after lunch on Sunday so next year we will reduce to one huge tray and one small tray. 

Becky made 6 recipes of chilli, which was also too much. Probably cut back to 4 next year. We ate it for lunch Sunday, then took the rest home with us in our big pot. Our family then ate it for dinner for two more days, then froze it for a week, then finished it off as tacos after defrost. Whew, lots of chili.

On Sunday, with a less pressing (ha ha) schedule, Steven and I helped a handful of kids shell the rest of the corn crop.

People worked on bottling up the tank destined for fermentation, stowing equipment, and cleaning up the barn.

The Scene
This was the 13th year of this cider making tradition, and my kids are increasingly into it.

They really like going to Maine, to romp in the countryside, set things on fire, and spend time with the other kids they have made friends with over the years.

These days we always manage to stay in the shore cabin, which is an excellent place to visit. No electricity, plumbing, or insulation. But this adds to the novelty. We always make a fire in the woodstove morning & evening, even if the temperature doesn't truly warrant it. The view across the cove is very peaceful. Child 3 says he wants to live full time in the shore cabin, ha ha.

One of the attractions of the country for the kids is having more freedom than usual to roam around as they please, cut things with knives and burn them up in a fire. Fortunately there are some older kids who seem to be relatively reasonable about keeping things from getting too out of hand (thanks Wilkins kids!). Here they are grinding up some graham crackers with the country living mill, which they later cooked with other stuff as an experiment on the barn stove.

There is one dirt pile near the barn which could have almost been purposely set up to attract kids. This year it had an abundant crop of ripe milkweed pods waiting for them, the seeds of which predictably ended up all over everyone and the neighborhood. Child 2 stuffed her pockets with fluff, which later clogged up the laundry and required several rewashings of that load of clothes. But they had a wonderful time. Here is Child 3 rolling down the dirt pile with Nick. Amazingly there were close to zero injuries the whole weekend!

One downside of the warm and beautiful weather was that the yellowjackets were out in force. Only a couple stings though, which is better than I would have expected from these aggressive pests.

I had brought my fiddle to Maine on the off chance there would be time for music. Saturday is always super busy and chaotic and by the time things are settled it is late and it is hard to motivate to do much besides stare into the fire before turning in. But Sunday things are calmer and since we didn't have to get back to town early this year we took our time. I packed this stuff into our scion xB, along with sleeping bags, pillow, dinner cooking equipment, and the five of us. I have a large cartop carrier!

Ela had also brought her fiddle and was enthusiastic enough to overcome the reticence of a beginner like me and make it happen. I'm not good enough to play along with someone unless I've practiced that particular tune a lot, so I played some of my basic repertoire while Ela jammed some backup lines and chords. Ben soon joined us and played some of his tunes, and we both knew a couple well enough that we could play together. It was a lot of fun, and I hope we can do it again. 

Ben walked us around the orchard on Sunday and climbed up a few trees to pick us a few Spitz and Wickson to take home. The trees are getting big. The best time to plant a fruit tree is ten years ago, so looks like we are ahead of schedule on that front.

My carboys are now bubbling along slowly in my basement.

We use sulfite because it reduces the chances of losing a carboy and makes the results more predictable. I think you can get more interesting flavors using natural yeast and no sulfite, but I don't make enough cider to get the process stable and it really hurts to lose a carboy. Here is my process:

1) I put in 1/2 tsp sulfite powder to the raw cider, in the carboy it will ferment in (assuming a ~20L carboy), then put in a solid plug. Swirl/shake it up a bit.

2) At the same time, I make a starter by boiling 500-1000ml of cider per target carboy to sterilize it in a small pot with a lid. Then I let it cool sitting in a pan of cold water with the lid on. Sometimes I dump ice cubes in the tray if I want it to cool faster (usually I'm doing this at night just after driving back from Maine and I want to go to bed). While it is cooling, make some iodophore solution and sanitize a glass jug or empty 2L plastic bottle, a funnel, and an airlock that will fit the small bottle. Once the boiled cider is cooled down, funnel it into the small bottle.

3) Pitch yeast into starter, put on airlock, dose airlock with iodophore or vodka

4) leave this for 24 hrs. By that time, the sulfite will be dissipated in the main carboy and the starter will be developed. In theory you should be able to pitch yeast straight into the cider without making a starter. However, having tried this for a number of years, I always have better results when using a starter. Without the starter, it often won't start or will be very very slow to start and I'll have to fool around with it adding nutrient and warming it up, etc. The longer it sits without getting eaten by your yeast, the greater the chances something else will start eating it. Using plenty of starter will increase chances of success and make it more likely to just work without intervention. And you have to wait 24 hours for the sulfite to die down anyway, so why not have the starter brewing during that time?

We have mainly used champagne yeast, which is gives a very dry, clean tasting product, and is less prone to getting stuck during fermentation than some of the craft cider and ale yeasts I tried the first couple years of cider making. The one I most often have bought is Red Star brand, in a yellow packet and called Pasteur Champagne Yeast. However last year I tried something called MO2 cider yeast from Mangrove Jack, and I liked the result better. I feel like it got going faster and it had more interesting side flavors going on. I'm using it on all my carboys this year.

5) pitch starter on cider in carboy, put airlock on carboy

6) wait 1-4 weeks for primary to go and die down. I keep it in my basement, which this time of year is 15-20C. I don't think it matters all that much how long you let it go, you just want to let most of the sediment settle and then take it off the sediment.

7) rack to secondary using sanitized carboy and tube. It can sit in secondary indefinitely - the cider we bottle during cider weekend is still in secondary from the year before

8) rack to corny keg

9) carbonate from CO2 cylinder

10) serve or bottle. I usually fill up two 2L plastic bottles with repressurizing caps to drink from at a time.

Cider as it currently stands would be impossible without plenty of hard work and dedication from many folks, both Maine based and visitors. Thanks to everyone for pitching in and making it an enjoyable yearly event. Thanks to Eerik for doing a great job with photos too, many of which I used in this post (you can find the rest of them here).

May 19, 2017

Garden Review 2016: Peas, Greens, Corn, Nightshades, Sweet Potatoes

Child 1 and Child 2 grew old fashioned Sugar Snap on 120cm trellises in back of their patches, as seen below.

This variety is so far still my favorite and produces well, but of course needs support. The girls grew Oregon Sugar Pod II on 40cm trellises in the front. Child 3 and I grew OSP II on short trellises too, though I'm not convinced the trellises did them much good; they didn't grab onto the strings much anyway. Maybe next year we'll just grow them without support. OSP II is easy to grow and a good producer, even if the large snow peas are not quite as tasty as snaps.

It's hard to imagine having too many peas, and so far we have never achieved that happy state. Mostly I try to not grow legumes in the same spot two years in a row, instead alternating years with early season greens.

This year (2017) we will try Super Sugar Snap and Sugar Magnolia Tendril as well as OSP II.

Along with the peas, I planted a small row of Ianto's Fava. Something kept digging these up while they were in the process of germinating, and the ones that grew up had a tendency to fall over. But they ended up making a small bowl of beans by the time they were done. Wow did they ever attract black aphids; but to be fair these afflicted many other plants in early season 2016. I'm feeling like in a space constrained garden I'd probably rather just have peas. The fava flowers did look nice, and the plants look interesting.

Once again we had Tokyo Bekana, which continues to amaze. Also had some Tatsoi and Green Wave, which grow quick and easy, if not quite to the level of Tokyo Bekana. Becky is always a little annoyed at how many greens I bring in during late spring, so we end up giving some shopping sacks of greens away to friends, which I consider a fine use of homegrown produce. We also blanch and freeze some, but I feel with these varieties at least they taste rather bland after coming out of the freezer.

It just seems like a waste to NOT grow early greens in space which will not be planted until late May or early June.

For instance this year, I had greens in beds that would later get corn and potatoes.

The greens are not totally done by the time the main season crop wants to start, but the main planting is small for a while. In my 90cm wide beds for both corn and potatoes I put two rows, each 25-30cm in from the edge. So one row of greens running down the center works well; I can plant the next thing in the outer rows while the greens are getting big in the center. Then I cut the greens down when they are done and the next plants are gaining steam.

Another green which is a little too easy to grow, and perennial to boot: horseradish. I grew some in the orchard in 2015 but it got too tall so I moved it to the sidebar by the driveway where normal plants have difficulty. I made a point of giving extra water the first year, but it did grow well and looks interesting.

Once it gets established it seems pretty hard to kill. Remember those spots in the orchard I moved it from? Knowing its reputation for coming back from tiny pieces of root, I put two layers of cardboard over it and some salt marsh hay. Well, it came blowing right through that by July. I began cutting leaves taller than 20cm down to the ground every week, but it just kept making more.

I'd rather have kale, but horseradish greens are fairly edible. They get somewhat bitter late in the season especially if you let the leaves get big and old. They wilt very quickly once cut, and are thin. But especially if you have other greens to mix them with I think they are worth having. Their flowers are nice too.

Speaking of kale, we removed one of our sea kale plants this year because they were getting too big. This is another perennial green which is not as good as you wish it was. But again, when mixed with some other greens it is ok. The flowers in spring are really cool and smell strongly of honey.

Tried about 1.8 square meters of Parching Starburst Manna from Carol Deppe. Planted in groups of three in early June, thinned to one plant later on. The germination was good and the plants grew well, if not to a very impressive size. Here they are right before I took out the border greens and planted beans by them.

I was constantly shaking the plants to help pollination, which turned out ok but still had room for improvement. We let the corn dry most of the way on the stalks, then brought it inside.

I made two batches of cornbread for a chili cookoff at work entirely from this batch of corn:

It was a fun way to spend a couple hours; first I picked the kernels off the cobs, then ground them in the C.S. Bell #2, then made the batter and cooked it. I used this recipe.

Still have probably 1/3 of the corn left. I was saving it for a potential tamale making effort we may do with some friends; it would be cool if we had some token amount of home grown corn to contribute. I do want to make sure to try some parched which I have not done yet.

Tried to plant some pole beans at the edges of the beds after the spring greens came out. They came up well, but were apparently irresistible to the pack of rabbits that plagued our garden this year. Might need to figure out a way to cut back on the rabbits in future.

A few groups of Cosse Child 1ta pole beans were planted around, but all were a near complete fail. As mentioned in the corn section, young bean plants must be especially delicious to bunnies. Up on the orchard terrace level, I had about three plants growing up a piece of bamboo which the bunnies did not find. However after the first picking of beans, the leaves were near completely skeletonized by some insect overnight. The plants did not recover.

A relatively small tomato effort in 2016, with just 3 Sungold, started inside and moved out in the second half of May to grow on a string trellis in the grain maze area. True to form for everything grown in the grain maze, they did better than terrible but put in a weak performance. I'm starting to think the root competition from the nearby sycamore maple is more oppressive to plants in this area than the shade cast by the tree.

We planted some morning glories to grow on strings up the edges of the trellis, which worked out pretty well.

This year (2017) I'm trying to get tomatoes earlier using wall-o-waters. My mom uses loads of these things, and they always seemed like a lot of work to me, but it would be great to get a few extra weeks of tomato season. We started Sungold seeds inside in February and put them out under wall-o-waters in late April, about a month earlier than I would normally put out tomatoes.

They look very happy in their jackets. We have not had a freeze that whole time, so they probably wouldn't have died even if I didn't put the water cloches over them, but the plants are growing significantly faster than they usually do when I transplant.

Child 2 is doing two plants in the terrace bed and I have four in the front box.

Planted about 4 square meters of Nicola bought from Maine Potato Lady into a grain maze bed. Green Wave mustard greens were grown in a strip down the center of these beds, then the potatoes planted on either side of the greens using a handheld bulb planter.

This worked out well and the plants were happy other than showing the usual failure to thrive in the grain maze. They were done pretty early and we dug them in August.

Sweet Potatoes
After growing them once, I like this plant! One downside to it is that our resident rabbits seem to find sweet potato leaves extremely tasty. I got slips of Molokai Purple, Korean Purple, Apache, and Laceleaf from Sand Hill Preservation Center. They looked pathetic when they arrived and I had my doubts about whether they would survive. But they quickly gained steam and looked set to do well, right up until they got completely defoliated by the bunnies.

I tried spraying castor oil, put on granular animal repellent, and a cage over some of them. The bunnies munched a few more times to a less severe degree, but I think the initial stripping really set them back.

Nonetheless we dug them in the fall and got an ok amount of tubers.

The rabbits didn't like the foliage of Laceleaf as much, but unfortunately some kind of root eating insect grubs preferred Laceleaf to the others and ruined all but one tuber. Molokai purple did not produce as much as Apache and Korean Purple.

Upper left is Molokai Purple, upper middle Laceleaf, upper right Apache, lower is Korean Purple.

I was hoping for more, but it was fun to eat these. No one except me was much into eating sweet potatoes, but Child 1 recently made some baked sweet potato fries that everyone liked pretty well. Over the winter I made pan fried and tempura fried sweet potato rounds a few times. Those were nice. Something must be done about the rabbits if I am going to grow them again though.

Another cool thing about sweet potatoes is that the above ground part is edible, unlike irish potatoes. Here is my friend from work Jim Serdy about to bike home with a box of apples and a couple of my just cut sweet potato plant tops.