Wednesday, September 29

Apple Picking Day 22: Hard-working Hands

My hands have been showing the wear and tear of several weeks of picking.  The scratches, welts and calluses that come from picking thousands of apples a day.  The trees always seem to be able to reach out and find the same cut or banged-up knuckle over and over again.  It is especially bad with apples that spur a lot, where the constant motion of knocking the spur off the apple can wreak havoc on your cuticles.  
After a day of picking Cortlands
Wounds that won't seem to heal
Today we can add to the list of battle wounds, a swollen wrist I got from picking a little too enthusiastically in the first of the Mutsu.   I may have picked the most bushels of any day so far this year, but I also picked myself right out of the orchard and into an Ace bandage.  After applying Arnica and a heat rub, I hope this will be a temporary setback, only a reminder to slow down and listen to my body.  Picking apples can be very hard on your body, especially when you put all you have into it, which I have a tendency to do. 
Tomorrow I expect a reprieve from picking as we are expecting more rain.  Instead I will spend the day under a roof helping press cider.  I hope with a day of rest my wrist will be ready to face the trees when the sun shines again.
Waiting to pick the Empires in Lansing
After about a month of picking we are in the thick of it.  The equinox passed about a week ago and at the orchard it seems we have also reached a point of equality, with many trees already picked bare and a similar number still laden with fruit.  All of the McIntosh and Cortland have been picked and we have put a good dent in the Empires as well as the Jonagolds .  Still ahead lie the Mutsu, sitting there like the promised land, along with Golden and Red Delicious, Ida Reds, Liberty, Fugis and Northern Spy as well as a handful of lesser known varieties.  Last will come Goldrush, in late October or even the first part of November.

Cortland in the early morning

Monday, September 20

Picking Apples Day 14: Cider Apples

Chisel Jersey
For many people cider is a sweet fresh pressed juice that can be found at any orchard in the autumn months.  Historically however, the term cider referred to hard cider, which was the only kind of cider for centuries until refrigeration and more recently pasteurization allowed cider to be kept fresh for weeks or even months.  Today's fresh cider is pressed from the very same apples that we are used to eating, ones like McIntosh, Cortland and Honeycrisp.  Hard cider on the other hand can be made from a wide variety of apples, many of them seedlings.
Cider apples are rarely consumed fresh, many of them are lovingly referred to as "spitters," due to the high concentration of tannins and generally unsavory texture that makes them unpalatable.  Historically hard cider was made from almost any apple in the orchard and early cider orchards were often planted from seeds and did not require the grower to have mastered the art of grafting.
At Cornell Orchards there is a far corner block of apples with names like Summerset Redstreak and Chisel Jersey.  This is the cider block where they cultivate a handful of different apples that have traditionally been used for making hard cider.  Last week we took a few afternoons to pick some of these apples.  It was a nice change of pace from the usual picking.  One does not have to be nearly as gentle with the cider apples being as they are going straight to the press.  Unlike other apples cider apple drops can also be collected since the fermentation and alcohol will kill any unwanted bacteria.
picking cider apples
First we picked up the drops under the trees with five gallon bucks, the apples making a fun "ker-plunk" as we dropped them into the empty buckets.  The drops went into a separate bin from the ones that came from the trees, but all will find there way to the press.   What cider apples lack in taste they make up for in appearance: they are beautiful colors and a single variety can range from green to yellow orange and red depending upon their ripeness.  They are also varied in their texture, some are very firm while others feel almost spongy.  Picking cider apples feels much more relaxed than picking where one is getting paid per bushel.  The crew moves together though the trees, stripping the apples from the branches.  There is usually conversation and banter and sometimes even a bit of singing when the tractor is not around.
We will revisit the block a few more times this season as different varieties come ripe.  When it is all said and done and the apples meet the press, I hope to get my hands on some of the juice and try my luck at a batch or two. 
A full bin of Chisel Jersey ready to be hauled away

Tuesday, September 14

Picking Apples Day 11: The Standard

At Cornell Orchards there is a small collection of very old trees known as standards.  This term refers to the rootstock, which in the case of these trees was grown from a seed.  Almost any apple tree in a conventional orchard is grown on a particular rootstock bred to produce a certain size tree, such as dwarf tree which will only grow to be eight to ten feet tall .  Prior to the propagation of particular rootstocks, all apple trees where grafted onto seedling rootstocks which would grow to the height and size of a wild apple tree.  These standard trees could easily reach eighteen to twenty feet in height and a similar breadth.  They are a whole different breed of apple tree, anachronisms in an age of controlled breeding and dwarf trees, magnificent stalwart giants of a time largely gone by. 
The rows of standard trees at Cornell used to stretch for almost a quarter mile, all the way to the treeline.  Now, rows of grapes and dwarf trees grow where these trees put down roots for almost a century.  Less than a dozen standard trees remain, mostly Cortlands and one McIntosh.  Today I got to pick that McIntosh.
Sixteen-foot straight ladders (eight foot in background)
After a morning of picking dwarf Cortland trees with eight foot tripod ladders we broke for lunch under the large McIntosh tree, surrounded by fallen apples.  Leaned up against the tree were two sixteen-foot straight wooden ladders waiting for us.  Finding the right nooks and crannies of the trees in which to place the ladder requires a lot of thought and a little intuition.  I felt as if I was picking apples they way they were meant to be picked; with thought and care and at the top of every climb up the ladder, an awe-inspiring view.  The tree took two of us about half an hour to pick and yielded only half a bin of apples, although I suspect there was another half of a bin on the ground under the tree.  High in the upper most reaches of the tree there were a few apples even our sixteen foot ladders and six foot bodies could not reach, as if the tree was reminding us that we can not always attain every fruit.
After we were done I took an apple from the bin, call it a reward if you will.  As McIntosh goes it was incredibly delicious, one of the best I have tasted.  The horticulturist in me knew that this could have little to do with the rootstock and much more with the particular variety grafted onto that rootstock, but I would like to believe that only a tree such as this one could yield such delectable fruit. 

Monday, September 13

Apple Picking Day 9: Rainy Mornings and McIntosh

The last few mornings have been wet and rainy, coating the trees and the apples in small cool droplets that work there way up your sleeve and drop into your eyes as you pick the upper branches.  It has also been much cooler, making me grateful for long sleeves, dry shoes and the morning cup of coffee I take out into the orchard with me.  It certainly feels like fall has come to stay and every day I see more and more maples with tinted tips.
We have moved into the world of Macs, some tastier than others, but all soft easily bruised.  The rain only exacerbates these traits making the apples ever so easy to blemish.  McIntosh are otherwise very enjoyable to pick.  They come off the tree with only a small flick of the wrist and many of them are very sizable, almost reaching the proportions of a Cortland.  Although the days have started out cool and wet the sun almost always shows it's face by the afternoon.
Elaina donning her rain gear on a rainy apple morning
 The forecast is for more rain and more Macs as we move into mid-September and closer to the autumnal equinox.  It feels wonderful to be picking in the cool air upon which rides the nostalgia that makes this my favorite season.  I am cool damp and content.
The morning cup of coffee

Thursday, September 9

Picking Day 8: A New Variety

The weather has turned toward autumn, much to my delight.  For the last two mornings I have worn a long sleeve shirt into the orchard and armed myself with a hot cup of tea.  Rain has also threatened for the last two days.  We have been picking in the Lansing orchard where one can see the rain rolling over the western hills across the lake.  The lake kept most of the rain on it's western shores, as mist and a few rainy gusts were the only inclement weather that intruded upon our picking.
We have moved past the Galas and into Macs and Honeycrisp as well as Jonamacs.  Today I picked Shizukas for the first time; a sister apple to the Mutsu that ripens earlier in the season.  If I had not been told otherwise I would have had little trouble believing I was picking Mutsu.
Unfortunately I did not carry my camera with me today so the following picture was taken after the fact.  Tonight we are baking the first apple pie of the season with some Galas and Honeycrisp.
Shizuka 2010

Mutsu 2009

Friday, September 3

Picking Day 4: Heat Wave

All I can really say about the last few days is hot hot hot.  Although the nights are cool September nights, the days have been stuck in August or maybe even July with ninety plus days all week.  Yesterday I picked out at the Lansing orchard for the first time having spent my first two days at the Ithaca orchard.  Both are owned by Cornell and used for research.  The Lansing orchard along with apples also has grapes, pears and pawpaws.  It sits on the eastern bluff of one of the finger lakes providing a stunning view of Cayuga Lake - a tempting proposition when one is standing at the top of a ladder in the hot sun at three in the afternoon.
 It has been the week of Galas, first color picking and then stripping.  The stripping largely consisted of pulling small green marble size apples off the tress.  There is no finesse involved in this kind of picking, as the tree seems almost as determined to hang on to these small spheres of joy as you are to pull them off, ideally getting them into your picking bucket.  Paired with the hot temperatures, this kind of picking quickly leads to frustration and low morale on the crew, which in turn compounds the situation by making the task take even longer than it otherwise would.  Today should be the last day of extream heat and also of the Galas, if all goes well.  Next week still has highs in the seventies and eighties, but somehow I think it may feel just a little more like fall. 
Rows of trees with the Cornell Orchard shed behind