From apples to cider

A little over seven bushels of apples ready for pressing

A little over seven bushels of apples ready for pressing

We have about five big apples trees on our property but because we do not spray them, the apples are only really good for cider. One year we tried making our own with an antique apple grinder and press that we borrowed from a friend. A day later, we had managed to make about two gallons of unfiltered cider. Not only did it taste bad, but it also made us sick.

Instead we now collect our apples and take them over to our friend Bob Sewall’s place. He runs an organic orchard and is known for his great cider, as well as his cider vinegar.

Loading up the cider press with apples, one bushel at a time

Loading up the cider press with apples, one bushel at a time

Bob specifies that the apples must not have been sprayed or picked up off the ground (his cider is certified organic and he does not want to risk contaminating his press). He also requires a minimum of at least five bushels of apples.

Gathering enough apples for the pressing is one of my favorite parts of the process. For weeks before my appointed time on Bob’s press, I drive around with empty bushel baskets in my car, looking for apple trees whose fruit has not been harvested. This also allows me to come up with a blend of different varieties.

I always get some from my mother’s backyard- she has a nice old red delicious. Sometimes I get some from my doctor who has a Wolf River tree outside his office — really big apples with a fairly bland taste. This year I found some pears in the backyard of a house near my office — they taste great in cider.

This year we had help from our neighbors, the Cranes. Jon Crane is just as much of a scavanger as me. He found some Tolman Sweets, a very sweet green apple, Northern Spies (tart and crisp), and Macouns (sweet and crisp). We added these to my Cortlands, Empires, a few Golden Delicous and some UFOs from a friend’s orchard for a total of seven bushels and headed up to Bob’s place on the edge of a mountain. It’s a glorious place to be on a fall afternoon. You can stand in the doorway of his pressing shed and and see the ocean in the distance.

Bob has an old press he bought second hand. We poured the apples into a hopper where they are hosed down. They are carried up into a grinder and the mush comes out of a fat hose. Bob lines each tray with a heavy cloth, fills it with the mush, wraps it up and piles another tray on tap. When he has a stack of enough trays, he puts them under the press where powerful hydraulics extract every bit of juice, leaving behind only a thin mat of skin and seeds — all the pressings from our apples fit into one big rubber bucket, which I brought home and put in my compost bin. Of course the whole time during this process, juice drips down the sides and into the big vat underneath. The fruity smell of apples is intoxicating.

Filling trays with apple mash

Filling trays with apple mash

Juicy juice!

Juicy juice!

Eventually when our load has been pressed, Bob bottles it in plastic jugs. Always important is the taste test. Delicious. Sweet, but not to sweet and a nice backbeat.

Our seven or so bushels make 28 gallons of cider and it only took about 45 minutes. We will freeze most of it to drink over the winter. Each time I drink some I will remember this lovely fall day, the apples, and the neighbors who made it all possible.



More Peas, Please


Back when I was a newspaper editor in Belfast, Maine, one of the more unusual aspects of my job was judging the newspaper’s pea contest. Each spring, the newspaper awarded a prize to the reader who grew the first “mess” of peas.

A recent college graduate from the city, I had no idea what a mess was, other than what my office looked like on a regular basis. Back in those days, you could not just turn on your computer and find instant answers. You had to do your research the more conventional way. Just what is a mess? I asked my colleagues, silently imagining gardens wildly strewn with errant peas and shells. Turns out a mess –- the word comes from a Middle English word for course of a meal — is enough peas to make a dinner. No one I asked knew just how many peas that would require.

This was serious business. Local pea growers were known to plant their peas with heat tape to accelerate the growth or to heat the soil with fresh manure – competitive gardening at its best. But no matter what they did, or when they planted, the peas seemed to be ready at the same time. There would be that day in mid-June when the newspaper phone would ring all day with people calling to let me know their peas were ripe. And I would drive out, up hills and down dirt roads to inspect, visiting each garden and interviewing each grower.


I think of those days often now that I have my own garden and rush in the early spring to plant my peas as soon as the ground has thawed enough for digging. But I’m not worried about winning contests; my goal is to have peas by July 4. Each year I tell my husband that next year I won’t plant peas; we’ll buy them instead. But each year I relent and into the ground they go.

Peas talk to me of summer, past and present. I’m entranced by the curling tendrils that seem to pull the lush green vines up the trellis, by the speed with which star like white flowers morph into succulent green pods. I love sitting outside in the light that seems to last forever this time of year and shelling the peas, eating one every now and then and feeding the husks to my dogs who greedily consume them. When I was a child I would shell peas with my grandfather who used to challenge me to find the pod with the most peas. His record was 11. That pod and its contents sat on his mantelpiece for at least a summer, faded, shriveled, but glorious in its bounty. The very first poem I learned as a child was about peas:

I eat my peas with honey.

I’ve done it all my life.

It makes them taste quite funny;

But it keeps them on the knife.

We ate our first mess of peas tonight. I’m sure the farmers in Waldo County already have harvested many meals, but I’m happy. I beat the fourth by a few days and the peas were delicious.


Fiddling Around


Those who like to forage in the woods know mid-May marks the time for fiddleheads. These delectable green coils emerge from the ground and grow up into what most people know as ostrich ferns. The key is to harvest them just as they start to reach for the sky. I have looked all over the woods behind my house and have found only one small patch, so when my friend Bridget asked if I’d like to go with her to her special spot somewhere in Searsmont, I jumped at the chance. Most foragers keep their special places secret, but Bridget is a wonderfully generous person and does not play by the same rules as most people. She gave me a pound of fiddleheads a few years ago when I admired her harvest in a Facebook photo—really one of my best Facebook moments ever.

We agreed to meet at 5:45 a.m. and I was to bring a backpack lined with a plastic bag, a small bucket for picking, drinking water and my boots. She picked me up and off we went into the wilds of Waldo County, down a dirt road past several old farmhouses, before finally parking by a big stream, donning our backpacks and setting off on a faint path into the woods. Bridget says this spot is known to many fiddlehead foragers and that she also often meets people fishing along this stream, which runs into a larger river. But she seems confident we’ll find plenty of ferns today.

The running water provides a steady background to cheerful bird songs and the squish of our feet on the wet ground. The trees have only just begun to leaf out. Instead silvery, lichen-laced trunks stand out in the early light. We soon come to the largest patch of trout lilies I’ve ever seen. Their mottled white and olive-green leaves cover the ground, giving way here and there to tall, fuzzy ferns (not fiddleheads) and a few yellow, trumpet-shaped blooms.


As we walk Bridget tells me fiddleheads are finicky, preferring sandy soil near running water. She learned about fiddleheads from her mother growing up in Aroostook County.


The first patch we find have grown past the fiddlehead stage into two-foot tall ferns. Full grown they can stand up to five feet high. Fiddleheads, so-called because they look like the curved scroll on the end of a violin, must be harvested just as they emerge from their crowns. That’s when their fronds remain tucked into tight coils. Bridget often knows she has found a patch when she steps on the bumpy crowns, one distinctive feature of these ferns. Other identifying characteristics of fiddleheads include their smooth, deep u-shaped stems and a papery brown covering on the coils. I’ve read enough about the ferns to know the importance of proper identification. Eating the wrong ferns can make you sick, as can eating an under-cooked fiddlehead. Bridget says she boils them for at least 15 minutes. This is really important because fiddleheads contain some kind of bacteria or chemical that merely sautéing in a pan does not kill. Food scientists have not identified the cause of the problem, according to University of Maine Professor of Food Safety Dr. Jason Bolton.

“We just know that cooking for a fair amount of time destroys whatever it is,” he says.

Properly steamed or boiled, fiddleheads taste like a combination of fresh grass and asparagus, like Maine woods in the spring. I usually boil them and then sauté them in oil. This year I might also try pickling. My mother’s friend, Peggy, says fiddleheads are carcinogenic. But Bolton says the cancer-causing ferns are some other type. He also told me potatoes contain some kind of carcinogen. But I’ll write about that some other time.

The next patch we find contains loads of perfect fiddleheads and we pick until the sun comes out and black flies arrive. I have been careful to harvest only a few fronds from each plant, figuring that will help promote the health of the fern, although it’s clear many of these fiddleheads are just the first set of shoots. We also have to pick around slightly brown fiddleheads that have been nipped by a frost earlier in the week. Eventually we fill our packs and head back.

When we get back home, I realize the picking was the easy part. Cleaning off the papery coverings requires much soaking and rinsing in the sink. Bridget says she likes to use an air compressor to blow the husks off, but it rained yesterday and these fiddleheads are damp so that won’t work.


I fill my big sink and get to work. As I’m cleaning, my husband comes home and looks at the pile of green. “You’re crazy,” he says as I tell him my haul weighed in at 15 pounds. He quickly adds, “That’s why I married you.”

All is well at my house. And tonight for dinner? Fiddleheads with pasta and sausage. Tomorrow? Fiddleheads again, maybe.

What’s for dinner?

Today we toured the main galley for the kitchen off the
Britannia Dining room. All the top chefs on board lined up like
celebrities to be introduced. Wearing their calf-length white
cotton aprons and tall, white pleated paper chefs hats.

The Executive Sous Chef Steven Peter Schaap, who is Australian, told me
that in the old days the number of pleats on a hat corresponded to
the number of egg dishes a chef had mastered. I think he might be
full of it! He also said that the chefs’ aprons were double
breasted to protect them from burning if they had to carry hot
platters close to their chests.

The kitchens on this vessel process
an extraordinary amount of food. On a 7-day voyage, they will serve
about 45,000 meals and clean over 500,000 pieces of china and
glass. This includes about 800 pizzas, 5,500 scones, 45,000 cups of
tea, 2,000 pints of beer, about 2,600 bottles of wine and 250
bottles of champagne. In terms of raw ingredients, a typical 7-day
trip will require 35 tons of fruit and vegetables, 15 tons of meat,
including poultry, 10 tons of fish and seafood, 15 tons of cheese
and dairy products, 1.5 tons of sugar, 33,000 pints of milk, 2,300
dozen eggs, 4 tons of flour and 1.5 tons of rice.

The ship has a
crew of 10 people who handle all the food provisioning when in
port. The storerooms include 17 huge refrigerators, freezers and
dry areas. Fresh products are loaded every 7 days, while dry and
frozen goods come on board every 12 to 14 days, depending on the
ships schedule. All this food is prepared in 12 galleys spread
around the ship, which operate 24 hours a day in shifts, Schaap
said. He and Executive Chef Klaus Kremer supervise a staff of seven
chefs de cuisine, including an executive pastry chef and a chief
butcher, 140 under chefs and 68 cleaners.

We entered the kitchen
through a large stainless steel revolving door. Staff enter through
one of these doors, drop off dirty plates and linen etc. then clean
their hands before proceeding into the inner sanctum. They exit
with new dishes through another door.

It’s all quite industrial
looking. Lots of stainless steel, white-tiled floor and labels at
each station, although the labels might have been added today just
for us. We passed through a beverage area, with machines for tea,
lemonade etc., and on into what looked like a long alley between
cooking stations. Each side was stacked with white plastic
individual dish covers. Each menu item for a main course has its
own prep and cooking area. Chefs on one side cook items, hand them
off to chefs on another who plate them and put them on a rack for
waiters, who have to line up for their orders. The waiters put on
the plastic dish covers.

On the pastry side, chefs were running two
Hobart mixers the size my dishwasher, and unloading silpat muffin
flats containing what looked like 24 chilled chocolate soufflés per
dish. Cold items are prepared in an area of the galley called the
cold larder. The chef in charge will put together a sample plate of
the daily dishes which are then reproduced by his sous chefs. This
same method is used for other dishes, as well.

Kremer, a native of
Germany, who has been cooking on Cunard Line vessels for 25 years,
said Cunard does not have shore-side test kitchens. New dishes are
prepared on board and then tested. Menu items are prepared based in
the demographics of the passengers on any given voyage, according
to Chef de Cuisine Prasad Haldankarr who supervises one of the
largest restaurants on board, the Britannia, which serves as many
as 878 people in a seating. People from different countries tend to
prefer different foods and Cunard keeps track on its computers.
Each order at any given sit-down meal is entered in to a computer
as soon as the waiter gets out to the kitchen, so the company can
track trends. I took a photo of the Sous Chef at his computer,
which is where he spends a fair amount of time. He shares a
glassed-in office with the executive chef in the center of the main
galley where they can easily see the various stations around them.

I was surprised at how few people showed up for the galley tour,
only about 75 of so. Many were worried that our passage through the
clean cooking area might contaminate the food. Not to worry, said
Kremer, the 68 cleaners have it under control. “They do all the
work that we don’t want to do,” he said. Not only does the kitchen
have the capacity to wash and disinfect dishes in about 2 minutes,
it also has really strict sanitation controls.

So where does all
the waste go? Leftover food is pulped and thrown overboard when the
ship is far enough offshore. Plastic and papers are incinerated.
Glass and metals are crushed and taken ashore for recycling. The
most consumed item on this ship, no matter what the demographic is
water. And there is no way, the vessel could have enough room to
store water for a full voyage. The Queen Elizabeth has 2 large salt
water evaporators which process about 45,200 gallons of water a
day, which is about the daily usage onboard. That water then is
treated with chemicals and filtered to make even tap water in the
cabins potable.

It’s almost time for dinner. I think dessert might
be chocolate soufflés.

I did not get a tour of the bridge or the
engine room because Mom and I were too cheap to pay for that
privilege. Oh well. We can do it on our next trip.

Photos: the
Executive Chef The Executive Sous Chef scenes in the kitchen all
the top chefs introduce themselves








Pulling the plug

Today I made my last half gallon of maple syrup and am going out to the woods to pull all 15 of my spiles. The recent run of cold nights and gorgeous warm days have set the sap running hard. I hate stopping production of what could be a banner harvest. but I leave Friday for 3 weeks of travelling.
This year I collected about 90 gallons of sap and made about 2 1/2 half gallons of syrup. All in all a nice harvest and more than enough to get us through the next year.