Apple Cider

Perhaps it is fitting that while my last post (not counting the one by my guest poster) was about cherries, this one is about apples. Our rental house comes with a large orchard of about 15 trees, 6 (or seven?) of which are apple trees. Last year we ate plenty, but the huge rush of ripe apples came when the kids were in the throes of starting school and the combination of that and the lack of a good way to preserve them meant that most of the apples fell to the ground and became yellow jacket and birdie food.

I especially liked to think about the well fed birdies — it kept me from feeling guilty about not using the apples.

But this year! This year we determined to make use of the communal pressoir – the village cider press. It’s something I find absolutely charming, that the community organizes a cider press in the autumn and that you have to call the town hall to make your appointment. More specifically, you call the town hall on Wednesdays and Thursdays between 9 and 10 a.m. It also tells you something about how many apple trees are in the fields and backyards here.

I wish I’d thought to take a photo of all these crates and bins full of apples and crammed into the back of our Mazda! When I called for my appointment and explained that I’d never done this before and how many apples would I need anyway? the nice man told me that 100 kilos of apples would be ideal and would produce 60-70 liters of juice.  I wasn’t quite sure how many crates 100 kilos would be, but when I left I was sure we had more than that.

Last Thursday evening was our appointment. We drove them down to the community building next to the bank where a lot of people were milling about. It was hard to tell who was or wasn’t in charge. There was one truck with a trailer full of apples and I felt slightly silly with mine all packed into the car with the seats down — like a real amateur. But then I saw that there was also a very bent old lady who was frail-ly loading up her finished cider into her car with the help of her children.

We loaded our apples into this VERY LOUD room and dumped them into the hopper on the left. HORRIBLE chomping noises came from the machine as it schlurped up the apples and squished them to a pulp. The boys were fascinated. Then it rolled the squished apples on the squishing bands and out squeezed the cider. The hose in the middle of the photo sucked up the fresh juice and pumped it over to…

A big blue barrel marked for us!! The nice cider pressing man gave us little cups of the fresh juice — mmm, good!!

 After a waiting interval, our juice was pumped by hose into the next room where the apparatus for pasturization is set up. A bunch of guys were working non-stop to fill bottle after bottle and carton after carton. We had ours put into cartons and then there were 20 liters left over that we took home to drink fresh in the next couple days. We also shared with friends and neighbors as 20 liters is a lot of fresh cider to drink in 3 days. It was delicious!

 The next morning I had the kids unload the car and stack up our wares. We had 25 cartons of 5 liters each! 125 liters of juice ~ that might last us through the winter!

Since the total amount of liters (before pasturization) was 160 liters, and since we are curious about exactly how many apples I lugged down to the car (with the help of the workers, of course), we can use what the appointment man told us in the following equation:

               60 liters                    =                              160 liters
          100 kilos of apples                       Number of kilos of apples we picked

I tried to get people interested in this equation as in “Real Life Homeschool Math” but no one fell for it and I ended up doing it myself. We picked 267 kilos of apples!! Gracious! And translating to kilos by multiplying by 2.2 we discover that that is 586 pounds.

 Yummy delicous fresh pressed organic apple cider. Wish you could come by and share some!!

Cherry Season

This week I bought my first ever cherry pitter. Here’s why.
There is this whole tree full, of which the southern half is already ripe. This picture below shows only about a third of the tree. It’s full sized, about 40 feet high. There’s no way we could reach the upper branches without breaking some necks, but I am quite sure there will be enough bounty on the lower branches for us. Especially since there are four more cherry trees in the orchard that will ripen after this one! Goodness! Anyone wanna come cherry pickin’?
I’ll just have to keep telling myself that it’s good to leave lots for the birdies – I’m sure that’s how many folks have injured themselves….if I could juuust reach that juicy bunch over there….
Here is part of the tree with Artemis “doing her math” on the bench and Hermes up the ladder scouting out the goodness.
Here is what you do with cherries after you pick them off the tree:  Cherry earrings! image
We didn’t have a cherry tree growing up and since my parents weren’t huge fans, we didn’t come across them very often. Cherries became the stuff of children’s literature where children dangle cherries on their ears.
Later on, I realized I really liked cherries. The real ones are even better than cherry flavored lollipops!
Here is the cherry pitter in action. It’s a Leifheit and you fill the cherries into the hopper on top, press the handle, hear a satisfying cher-CHUNK as the little blade pushes the pit into the box underneath, and the pitted cherry drops out into the waiting bowl. You can get through a lot of cherries fast!

With those particular cherries (after eating a whole bunch and making cherry clafoutis) we made jam. Yum! Sunday afternoon we all went out and picked 10 pounds in about 45 minutes (I weighed them because I wanted to know.) Those have been frozen for winter clafoutis, eaten in a tart and dried to go in homemade granola.
Something I love about eating in season is that when a particular fruit is ripe, you eat and eat it until you are nearly sick of it when the season end. Then it is a treat to look forward to next year. For now we are in the eating and eating stage and not yet to the tired-of-them stage. image
Here is my recipe for Cherry Clafoutis, which I got from Zeus’ mama. It’s a good one to keep handy because it is about as easy and Makin’ It Work as you can get. However, if you like your measurements to be super exact, then you should maybe look away. If you don’t and you like super forgiving recipes, then this one is for you!
You can call it dessert if you want, but we often have it for a small dinner, with a bit of cheese or sausage beforehand to make it nutritionally and socially acceptable. You can whip it up reeeeaally fast which makes it excellent for times when you’ve been doing a craft or being chatty on the phone and then realize that dinner time is bearing down on you like an express freight train. If the table is set and there’s a pretty clafoutis on it, then maybe your husband and kids won’t notice the pile of crafty creativeness all over the table in the next room.
Cherry Clafoutis (Claw-foo-TEE)
Oven to 350 degrees. Or maybe 375 if you feel so inclined. Butter a 9×13” Pyrex pan or if you live in a metric country grab the metric equivalent – something large and rectangular.
Cover the bottom with your pitted cherries. (Or apricots or plum halves – sunny side up.)
Sprinkle the fruit with some sugar.
In a large liquid measuring cup, measure roughly 1 cup of milk. Add three eggs, a touch of vanilla and a tablespoon of flour. Take a fork and mix, mix, mix. If you are feeling fancy, you could use a whisk – but odds are you are in a hurry, so why bother?
Pour your egg mixture over the fruit and put it in the oven to bake. For, oh… maybe 30-40 minutes? Until the custardy bit has set and it’s not jiggly in the center. The kind of fruit you use and whether or not it’s frozen will vary the time. Using frozen cherries that you have diligently stored during cherry season may mean baking it up to an hour.
When it’s done and getting just a little brown on the sides, pull it out and sprinkle a little more sugar on the top. It will sort of melt in. Or, if you want to make it all pretties, wait until your clafoutis has cooled and sprinkle powdered sugar. We eat ours only slightly warmish or at room temperature. Ta-da! All done! The next time I make one, I’ll have to take a photo to post. Bon Appetit!

how ‘bout some Chickens?

Soon after we got our impulse bunnies, we invested in chickens. It was inevitable! Our garden shed here was already perfectly set up with a large fenced in chicken run, roost, laying boxes, feeding trough, and an adorable little chickeny door. Hey, presto, just add chickens! So we called the number in the ad in the paper that I’d been eyeing for months advertising “young laying hens.” It was a man at a chicken farm about 30 minutes away. (I should add that I had asked the Bunny Lady about hens because her ad had also mentioned them, but she was fresh out of young chickens that day, wouldn’t I like to come see a bunny instead?) So on a Tuesday afternoon when the kids didn’t have school, we went to the Chicken Man. I don’t know what I expected, but not quite what we found.  A large building with lots and lots of chickens, chicks on one floor, slightly older pullets in a pen behind, and upstairs on a big, stinky, floor what must have been hundreds and hundreds of chickens. Only we couldn’t see because they were in the dark. I’ve never quite understood why they are kept in the dark, to keep them calm or something? Anyway, we didn’t like it, and while the Chicken Farmer (who seemed nice, despite keeping his chickens in the dark) had his back turned, the kids and I were happy together that we could rescue a few hens out of the darkness and confusion. He had three colors: white, brown and black, (I don’t even know the breeds – isn’t that ridiculous?), so we asked for two of each, for prettys. So while we waited just outside, Mr. Chicken Man went into the big, dark, fluttery room with a flashlight to, as he put it, “fish you some chickens!” Then when he had three, his cell phone rang. Calm as anything, he answered with three hens dangling from his left hand. There they dangled upside down, looking quite perplexed with this turn of events while he chatted on and on with someone else who wanted to get some hens. Suddenly they mustered a great squawking and struggle and Mr. Chicken Man had to tell the person on the line, “Ouai, j’ai des poules dans la main.” Yeah, I’ve got some chickens in my hand. IMG_0416 (I surreptitiously took a photo.) We brought them home in Bella’s doggy crate and put them in their new home. Since there are six, we each got to christen one. (Mine is called Heidi since she is a Swiss hen.) They seemed rather stunned by the light and air for a bit and afraid to go outside. Soon enough however, their curiosity overcame their fear and they were exploring and pecking about the yard in a fine chickeny way. And to my delight, going in and out of their sweet little door. It’s all just so perfect. They have pretty much gone to chicken paradise. The whole thing made me feel philosophical. Out of all the hundreds that the Chicken Man had, why these six? Why did he fish out these particular six? While the rest of them would continue to live out their lives in dark smelly confusion or else become someone’s chicken dinner, these six were chosen to come live a life of rapturous natural chickeness: pecking in the morning, sun bath in the afternoon, more pecking, lay an egg, little more pecking and then roosting. I am willing to bet that they were no better or worse than the other chickens. There were plenty of other black, white and brown ones running around there. It seems to me that there is a deep metaphor there, but I am afraid that I might mess it up. The Chicken Man is not God and as far as I know, the chickens did not get themselves into the smelly room through their own sin, but in clumsy metaphor lies the truth that God does choose some people to draw to Himself, into His glorious light while others remain in darkness and confusion. I have no more intrinsic merit than one brown chicken had more than the next brown chicken.  Yet, here I am, given the gift of His grace and a beautiful new home in His love and care, pecking and sunbathing away while He watches over me and gives me everything I need. Why He does that I cannot say. He has His reasons, and I have to learn to trust Him and let my heart dwell on the gratitude I have to be here. Perhaps the Chicken Man had his reasons too, that I couldn’t see, why this hen and not that one. A mystery. In the meantime, I am very pleased to have hens about again. Something so domesticated about them. And we’re enjoying the fresh eggs! I dislike waste, and one reason I love chickens is that they are marvelous recyclers: they take our old bread and carrot peels and turn them into fresh eggs. Which reminds me that it’s time to take them this morning’s leftover oatmeal. IMG_1936  Discovering their new home. IMG_1925 Hermes with hens and little roosting spot inside the coop. IMG_1943 Trying out the new door and exploring the outside world for the first time. IMG_1963 What is that? I think I’ll eat it!IMG_2007  How I love the look of a chicken in the grass. IMG_2031  chicken heaven (with my $10 thrift store bench for chicken gazing) IMG_2027 please, oh please, just one little nibble?IMG_1932 chicken gazing, much better than television IMG_2129 I am a country girl at heart ~ this sight make me very happy. garden boxes, laundry drying on the line and chickens. sigh.

Our Village

Sunday afternoon, and after a good church service this morning, the three big kids are playing Risk around the coffee table in the living room. Hermes is upstairs playing Legos with his Papa. Two chickens and oven fries are all roasting snugly together in my petite oven, and I thought that in between bastes, I would take you on a little tour of our village. *** From the south, (that is, the rest of Switzerland) this is the first thing you see in our village: a ruined tower from the 11th century – the Tour de Milandre. It sits on the hill overlooking the village and was used as a guard tower for some lords living further upstream on the small river – l’Allaine – that runs through the valley. In the 1980s a metal staircase was built inside and one can climb to the top of the tower and survey the lands from a great height. If you have a doggy with small paws that might slip through the metal grating, you should to carry her and hold her up to the windows for a view and fresh breezes. IMG_1568 Then you round the bend and enter the village. IMG_1572 But before you go thinking that it’s all chateaux and history, here is the view as you enter the village from the other direction. IMG_1579 The sign says “British American Tobacco” – as in cigarettes. It’s the cigarette factory that employs about 60% of the town residents. That’s down from what Zeus estimates was 80% when he was growing up. Back then it had a different name: Burrus, after the farmer who several generations ago started growing tobacco in this area. His factory employed Zeus’ father, his grandparents, and probably some great-grandparents as well, not to mention many aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends. It’s a company town, and when I first visited, it was still the Burrus company and Monsieur Burrus lived in a large house at the top of the hill. People would sort of nod deferentially when he drove on by and they would talk about him and his family by their first names: Monsieur Charles and Monsieur Leon. I found it very feudal and rather odd ~ especially in strongly democratic Switzerland.  When she passed away, Zeus’ grandmother still had a handwritten cookbook from a cooking class that Madame Burrus had given for the young wives of the village. Dotted about the town are some of the fancy old homes of members of the family that now serve other purposes; one is a conference center, one is a rest home, and one was donated to be the town hall, or mairie. Here’s a picture of the latter from the summer – they were doing some maintenance work, the blue tarp isn’t usually there.IMG_9593 Back at the end of the village with the ruin, when you round the bend, this is the view into the village on the main highway. When I first came to the visit, lo, twenty years ago, the big rectangle on the left was painted as a huge pack of cigarettes. Charming. IMG_1573 This is the train station. You can see the Tour de Milandre again on the upper right. There is no longer anyone on duty in the station – just an automatic ticket booth. Trains arrive from Porrentruy and points south every hour at :21 past. Then the train continues on to Delle, just across the border into France. After a couple minutes, it comes back, and leaves from this platform heading south at :36. Artemis catches the train here twice a day with the other secondary school kids. IMG_1575 Looking down the tracks the other way. Across the tracks is a big warehouse used to store tobacco. IMG_1576  The Hotel de la Rochette – the one and only hotel in the village. Because of the shape and pitch of the roof, it makes me think of a large pink Darth Vader. A pink Darth Vader certainly takes the scare out of him. IMG_1571    A typical farmhouse and attached barn. Historically, the two shared a roof and a wall. The animals were handy for milking in the winter and helped keep the house warm. There’s a house in the village very near this one that has 1794 carved in the stone over the doorway – the year of construction.  IMG_1583 The commercial center of town. Not a PF Chang’s in sight. Instead there is the post office, the bank, our small grocery store (which despite its small size carries refried beans and taco shells!), and a bakery/cafe with curious opening hours – i.e. sort of when the owner feels like it. Fortunately there is a little more parking across the street. IMG_1582 The one main thing not on this little tour is the church. Maybe for another day? I will take some nice photos of it. It does tower over everything else which is very nice and the church bell tolls the hours which I love. Thanks for coming on the tour! *** Allrighty, now I have to tell you that it’s no longer Sunday afternoon and those chickens have long since been eaten up. But speaking of food, I have been getting adventurous with fermentation these days! After one friend’s recommendation of homemade sauerkraut as a way to keep nasty germies at bay (Gina), and the encouragement of another (Marijo), I asked for the recipe. I subsequently found roughly the same recipe in the cookbook I recently recommended, and soon I had a big jar of it fermenting on the corner of my counter and a skeptical husband keeping his distance. One fermentation inspires another, I suppose, because I soon began toying with the idea of making a sourdough starter. Now Auntie Janet has shared several sourdough starters over the years, all of which ended up coming to an untimely end from neglect. But since we are now eating spelt flour and since it’s been years since I ate sourdough bread, I started to get a hankering and wondered how it would work out with spelt flour. I would give it another go. Only this time, I would start from scratch with no packaged leavening and just pick up the lovely yeasties floating here in the countryside. For good measure, I let my mass of spelt flour and water sit next to my compost bin for a few days. Surely there’s some good fungi and bacteria there, right? Well, it worked – really well!! Apparently we’ve got a good strain here – maybe Boncourt Sourdough will be a new craze. It was for me at any rate. My loaf was soooo good! Hard crusty outside, soft chewy super sour inside. I almost cried, but I was too busy slapping on the butter and salt and chewing. Then I annoyed the rest of the family by telling them over and over again just how good it was and asking them if I had mentioned my sourdough to them yet? But I hadn’t told you yet! And now I have.  Here is the link to a site with instructions on making a starter and here is a picture of my first beautiful loaf. Ah, so crusty! IMG_1650 The sauerkraut came out very tasty as well, and when we had it for lunch one Sunday dinner (the week before the roast chickens), everyone had a small bit to try. I didn’t have high expectations, but 50% of my children liked it! And I did, so that made 50% of the family! Hermes was especially surprised since he had been making faces at it. That is why we have No Thank You helpings. Zeus, despite the fact that he grew up in a seriously heavy sauerkraut region (choucroute) does not care for it (– and never has, so I won’t take it personally), but politely ate his No Thank You helping.  The many pots of things fermenting on the counter had been getting to be a bit much for my dear man. So when it came up in conversation at one point, I pressed him. “So you don’t really like all these pots of fermenting things everywhere, my dear?” “Well, no, not really.” “So you’re not really into fermentation then, honey?” “No, not really.” “So are you ready to give up on all fermented foods then, sweetie?” “Uh…hmmm….I think this is a trap.” Aha! Yes, it was. Wine and cheese are two of my sweetie’s favorite foods – both of which, I think we all know, are fermented! I think that maybe they are just supposed to ferment a little further away from his personal space. Okay, I get that. I will make my next batch of sauerkraut down in the cellar, and my sourdough starter is now living quietly in my little fridge waiting until it’s time for the next tasty loaf.