Spectator on apple-pressing

We’ve just spent a few days in Spain, celebrating the birthdays of two friends who have been married for nearly 25 years, but who never had a wedding. This, the lucky guests decided, was the party more than two decades later. We took the opportunity to visit a vineyard and a jamoneria, on the basis that, having planted vines at home, any wine tasting is, in fact, business and as for Susie, our gigantic and bad-tem-pered pig-well, her days are finally numbered.

We sampled wines of various ages, from four days to four years old. One, a dry white, was called Ocnos, in honour of Luis Cernuda, who wrote a collection of poems with that title and lived in exile in Glasgow, then Mexico.

Ocnos is a state of mind, the wine producer explained, best illustrated by the story of the man who happily weaves beautiful flowers from corn stalks, tossing them onto a pile at the side of the field and who looks up to see that a donkey is equally happily eating from the same pile. The man is not in the least put out and continues with his task. Ocnos, she enthused, is about contentment, being in the moment, albeit with a melancholic edge.

It’s a charmingly positive slant on the mythological Greek character of Ocnus, illustrating the entirely fruitless efforts of all human labour. Our wine has yet to be pressed or named, but I’m ready to christen our cider.

Our apple-pressing weekend has been a great feature of recent years and we’ve become more and more ambitious. Cousins gather, tables are set up, jobs are divided. Hosepipes-the most essential tool in a very sticky process-are uncoiled, buckets are procured, sieves and muslins are begged and borrowed.

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Each part of the process is rewarding: the violent scrunching of the apples in the wheelbarrow before they go into the press; the pressing itself, increasingly laborious; the trickle of the brown juice, which runs faster and faster; the slightly hysterical calls for more bowls and buckets; the sloppy journey to the tables where sieves and muslins are waiting for the first straining.
Then comes the heating of the decanted, filtered juice, now in pleasing glass bottles in pans of water, and, finally, the vitally swift application of a lid and the lying of bottles on their side to ensure a perfect seal.

My sister-in-law, contagiously ambitious, bought the bottles that moved us from squishing a few fruit to larger-scale production, and we’ve managed to pasturise the potent juice. It doesn’t suit all tastes, being extremely strong, not to say bitter, but it has a longish shelf life and a small glassful is truly delicious. Last year, there were too few apples to press, but the year before, we filled at least 60 bottles and had so much left over that we decided to put it in a bin instead. Which was a mistake.

We couldn’t resist pressing and added more and more to the dustbin where the original juice had been fermenting for quite a few days. We siphoned it into glass demi-johns, topped these with bubbler airlocks, added sugar to some in order to brew crisp and less crisp. It was clear and honey-coloured-most satisfactory.

We tried the beautiful draught after a couple of months and, although we hoped to convince ourselves that this was cider in the making, one sip told us we’d produced vinegar. Gallons and gallons of it. The nine bin days (three, I now discover, is the optimum) had been fatal. We’d been pouring good juice onto bad.

We stared at the demi-johns and they stared back. The contents were so beautifully clear, we couldn’t bear to chuck any away, but, in the end, we poured three-quarters of it down the drain and have kept the rest to sip with hot water because cider vinegar is apparently very good for you. The futility of our efforts at home produce usually have this melancholic edge, but provide just enough contentment to keep us trying. Ocnos.

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