Bringing Historic Harvests Back To Life
By Harry Matthews
As fall gets underway with leaves changing color, the nights getting cooler, and the days shorter, it’s not an uncommon sight to pass an old overgrown apple or pear tree studded with ripening fruit left unpicked.
Why is this, you might wonder?
Time was, in the sometimes hard-to-imagine-not-so-distant-past, that we didn’t have supermarkets, farm stands, or green markets to get our produce from. It was a time when people were required to be more self-sufficient, relying heavily on what they could harvest or forage from the land to sustain themselves throughout the year. As life modernized it became easier to have someone else grow your food than to do it yourself. And as times changed, small backyard orchards went to seed, trees went unpruned, and fruit was left for the birds, the deer, and the bears to gorge on before the onset of winter (and if you’ve ever seen a bear “drunk’ on rotting and fermented apples it is a sight you will not soon forget).
From the first European settlers on into the early part of the 20th century, cider (and we’re talking about the “hard” or fermented alcoholic variety) was the drink of choice for many in these parts given that the water from wells or streams was often not safe to drink. Apples were also some of the earliest crops grown by newcomers to our area, and cider making became such a big and lucrative business that the end product was often used as a type of currency. But Prohibition changed much of that, and cider orchards were renamed “demon orchards” and were either chopped down or left unpruned and overgrown.
Now much of this seems to be evolving yet again as the locavore and “back to the land” movements gain solid footing here in the Hudson Valley. From wild foraging of all types of berries, mushrooms, and other edibles that our fields and forests teem with, to old orchards being reclaimed, pruned up, and turned back into thriving producers of fruit, old trees are coming back into cultivation.
I know of a local collective of industrious young people who have been harvesting long-forgotten apple orchards to make cider of both the hard and soft variety, as well as drying and preserving the fruit for future use. I’ve also tried the wares of the amazing Aaron Burr Cidery in the southern Catskills, which started making its small batches of high-end ciders using foraged apples before planting their first cider orchards more recently.
When it comes to producing a mildly alcoholic beverage, hard cider is one of the easiest to produce. Step one: get a whole lot of apples. Step two: press the juice out of them. Step 3: either drink it fresh (soft cider), or bottle it and let it ferment outside for a few weeks to turn it into hard cider. And that is that.
But I digress. What about the reclamation of old fruit trees, the foraging of wild berries and all the things we can do with this delicious produce that abounds in our often untouched landscapes. As one who’s highly interested in food I can get for free from the surrounding countryside, I have spent a lot of time picking blueberries in the woods, and out under power lines picking raspberries, blackcaps, and strawberries that grow wild and free for the taking. Throughout the summer and fall I make all types of preserves, jams, and jellies from everything I’ve harvested. Some I will freeze and some I will can; there is nothing like cracking open a jar or thawing out a freezer bag of blueberry preserves on a cold winter day to bring you right back to that warm summer afternoon you made it.
Taking matters to an extreme, a good friend has planted hundreds of blueberry bushes in a sort of double spiral labyrinth that bursts with delicious fruit every summer. And his bushes are of all types and varieties, many transplanted from oak forests and vernal pools deep within his expansive property. With love and care his bushes have thrived, growing into a glorious work of environmental art that feeds not only his family and many friends, but provides him with a modest income from selling at local farm stands.
From that point of inspiration I have transplanted a number of different berry bushes from the woods and power lines into my backyard. And every year their harvest gets a little better. For whatever reason this summer seemed to be an especially good one for wild fruit, and I took full advantage of it. Is it enough to create a decent cider of my own making? Not yet, but I still encourage any and all to get out there and harvest from our wondrous and wild bounty that might be hiding just beyond that hedgerow, in that dark copse of oaks, or some sunny spot along your local road. And start planning your own ciders.