Why grow apples? This is not a trick question, it’s one I ask myself every year about this time, when I start to wonder what in the hell we’re going do with tons and tons of them. Ours are dry farmed on a remote ridge far from any marketplace. Organize picking, transport, press, I think. Then what.
Because even after you’ve learned how to extend an apple’s life into juice, jam, cider, vinegar, syrup, and balsamic; after you’ve built dining rooms that produce beautiful salads, glorious tarts, elegant cocktails; long after you’ve fed the bears and fed your neighbors, and fed yourself, the question is still not rhetorical.
You don’t do it for the money, though shame on that. It just doesn’t work with a farm as small as ours. We’ve done the math.
The very first time I faced this quandary I bribed laborers away from the vineyards to pick, rented a U haul and drove south to my food co-op in Santa Monica where thanks to well earned nepotism, I was paid top price for them. I lost money. The next year I set up shop in the old barn and made jams and apple butter, listening to Puccini (etymology of the name Barndiva) drinking til dawn, designing labels, cajoling boutique food shops to sell them at a (then) astronomical price. I made just enough money to cover our groundsman Vidal’s salary. So frustrating was this yearly rebuke I was in fact relieved when we moved to England and I had no choice but to let the apples fall. Relieved but miserable. We had luckily handed off the nuts and figs to a dear friend and my goddaughter, but every fall I could hear my apple orchards lowing.
Challenges abound with farming: they are non-stop. But there are quiet moments that stretch across a lifetime. When you look over the orchards in the full bloom of spring, or at the end of summer when fruit hangs heavy on the boughs you just feel good about life. Proud of this beautiful organic product you produce, content you are doing your small part in keeping traditions (in our case over 100 years of them) alive. Farming introduces you to the best people - mentors, employees, and neighbors, who in our case became life long friends. People as crazy as we are.
So it was on the last Tuesday of September that Geoffrey, Lukka, Daniel, Isabel and I met at the lower barn where Vidal (still with us, thankfully) had stored our apples. We loaded up and headed down the hill to the Apple Farm where Rita, Jerzy and Mark waited to help us press this year's batch of cider vinegar. They had been hard at it all morning, still in incredibly good spirits. The fragrance of fresh juice mingled in the crisp Fall air with the heavier scent of apple syrup bubbling away in the cooker. The old press sits on a lovely old deck overlooking the Navarro River. Standing there inhaling, the only thing closer to bittersweet heaven is the perfume of our orchards a few weeks after harvest, late afternoon, when the sweet rot of sun soaked fruit shimmers up from the ground in a lazy bee chorus.
On Tuesday we laughed about our combined blue ribbons from the fair, smiled up into leaves turning red to gold, sipped cider, yelled at the dogs to get out of the way of cars coming and going to the fruit stand. Then we got down to work. A few hours later we had this year's batch of juice which will rest alongside the eight barrels of vinegar already aging in the lower barn.
Last year's apple syrup figures in Barndiva menus and cocktails. It will have a special place on this week's Bistro Sunday Supper menu.