Three years ago, David and I became the proud owners of an apple orchard on Vancouver Island. It was August and ten, old trees stood before us in three, neat rows above a carpet of burnt, golden grass. The hot, Cowichan Valley sun beat down on our Torontonian brows as we gazed up, knowing nothing, surveying our orchard’s branches.
I pulled the closest apple off a tree and opened my mouth.
“What are you doing?” David asked, incredulous.
I bit off a big chunk and chewed, holding his gaze. I continued to chew, hoping that somehow the taste and texture would improve.
But it didn’t.
I spat it out and recognized the first unripe flavour of my new occupation.
Beside the orchard was a long, gravel driveway up to the house, guest house and barn. It was lined with plum trees, all of them heavy with yellow, orange and red plums each no bigger than a cherry tomato. They hung like grape clusters and beckoned sampling. I started with a demure, meek sampling that turned into rapid gobbling followed by voracious hoarding.
David’s watching eyes bugged.
Each plum was sweet, juicy and too plentiful for the pouch I’d fashioned in my t-shirt, now fully stained and attracting a buzz of nearby wasps.
David, my apple farming husband, is still incredulous three years later as he lugs 15 boxes full of apples into the back of the SUV. It’s our third annual harvest and the first to go to McBarley’s juice and fermentation facility in Duncan. It’s not even the fall and we have harvested and boxed all of Number Two and Three trees. (These round, red and green apples the size of a fist resemble McIntosh apples – but doesn’t every Ontarian call apples that?)
Never before have we nabbed the apples from Two and Three before the ravens execute their robbery. But here on the West Coast, David and I often wait for the wildlife to inform us. Their radar goes off like a living, breathing Brix meter. This year, all it took was a murder in the orchard for me to get out there and taste our wares.
“It’s really good,” I say to David, mouth full of apple. “Try it.”
“Sweet!” is his reply.
We’re both incredulous.
The brown, dry grass below the trees is littered with scat. We argue over their provenance. Is it bear, deer, rabbit or the neighbor’s lab? We know elk don’t venture in these parts, but then again, we never know what can happen here. Just a few months ago, six gargantuan black steer (set loose from a neighbouring field) sauntered past our windows at dawn, way before our caffeine had kicked in and we had the wherewithal to run outside and follow them.
But I digress. The apple harvest. With tall, old trees like ours, it has to happen with ladders, a tool David was thrilled to purchase at Adam’s Tool and Tarp in Duncan and load into his brother’s pickup. He bought an eight and 10-foot pair, neither which is easy to lug across the orchard let alone manoeuvre around our tall, leafy apples trees with their outstretched, unruly boughs.
“It must be stable,” said our arborist Gordon McKay in his thick Scottish brogue, as I climbed up the rungs one wet, bone-chilling March morning several years ago. It was the only piece of instruction he’d given me in the past half hour that had made total sense.
McKay had started with the buds, pointing out their difference, which I could not discern.
Then he spoke about cutting angles, which I quickly confused.
Finally, he spoke about “last year, this year and next year’s growth”, at which point I was terminally lost, yet climbing up an eight-foot ladder.
Just clip and hope for the best, I told my shivering self, dressed in two layers of long underwear and holding Japanese cutting shears in my right hand. My tree mentor’s instructions had floated right over my baseball cap into that gleeful empty field I call my memory. Luckily, the arborist was nearby on the other ladder, up another tree, clipping away expertly at breakneck speed. I faked a good hour of pruning until I snuck away, sighting urgent bathroom needs. Both McKay and I knew – there and then – that I didn’t have what it took to prune, but I might have some talent in the harvesting department.
Fast forward to August 2019. My baseball cap and pony tail are stuck in a branch and I can’t move my head. An inch. I’m up on the top rung of an eight-foot ladder. All I can see is apple leaves, spider webs, branches and one fat, out-of-reach 2-pound honker of an apple. But if I move too far to the right or left, it will be suicide, by hanging. A professional (i.e. Lee Valley) apple harvester’s bag is slung across my chest. It probably weighs 15 lbs and despite weight-lifting at my Mill Bay Pilates classes, I know I’m a goner. So I do something unusual for me: I wait. I breath. I listen to the jungle call of a nearby Pileated Woodpecker and thank my lucky stars that I get to be an apple farmer stuck in a tree overlooking Herd Road lake.
David and I are killing this year’s harvest. Four or five full apple boxes are at the base of Number 8, the only tree we sort of know the varietal name for, due to its rusty, russet skin. Because we’re professionals, we don’t pretend to know the true varietal names of any of our ten trees but we are carefully recording their appearance, taste and botanical behaviour like the untrained scientists that we are.
One summer, we took samples from each of our ten trees to the BC Tree Testers at the Cobble Hill Fair. Despite the combined wisdom of three experts riffling through onsite reference books, slicing, tasting and considering… they came up empty, sighting the more than 10,000 different apple varieties and their unfamiliarity with our mysterious ten. Thus, we can only be certain all ten trees are different varieties, likely planted around the time David and I were born. We fondly refer to our apple family as Tree One through Ten, a habit that seems scientific but at the same time, really appeals to my Chinese sensibilities.
A perennial Food Mama, I cannot let the offspring of my offspring go to waste. Thus the harvest, the ladders, the collapsible boxes, the shears and bags all spring into action once the ravens descend on the orchard. They huddle like dark shadows at the base of our trees and diffuse in a tactical squad when we walk or drive by. Once I’ve pulled all the easy to reach apples from the low hanging branches and dump that first bag of hard red orbs into a box, the ravens have returned to the perimeters, invisible in the high branches of our pines and firs emitting an intermittent “scaaaw”, a staccato, almost digital “blonk” or my favourite, a continuous stream of gurgling water.
At McBarley’s, there are no ravens. Just barrels and barrels of fruit waiting to be crushed and squeezed into juice. Much of it is fermented and bottled into hard cider or wine. One of the staff points to a binder and encourages us to flip through its pages of bubbly possibilities, be it rhubarb wine, pear sherry or blackberry aperitif. Our inner wine snobs snort at these suggestions. We opt for off-dry, 8 percent alcohol for our apples and toy with putting a raven on our cider label.
Timing is tricky. Really tricky. Mother nature doesn’t give a hoot about any of the dates I’ve put into GoogleCal but booking an apple squeeze is imperative. We know our trees don’t all ripen at the same time. Rather, they ripen up the line from Number One (ready in mid-August) to Ten (done in early October).
But it took us three years to learn to stagger one year’s harvest into three drop-offs at McBarley’s.
Our newbie harvest of ‘16 was crushed in Courtney, a 3-hour drive away. Pressing Matters have a $300,000 German-made mobile apple juice maker that travels across the island and even ferries to many of the Gulf Island apple farms during the season. Yet this year, it was grounded.
“Why?” I asked, making my first apple farmer business call.
“Cause nobody has apples this year,” laughed the gruff farmer on the other end of the line. “You bring ‘em here and wait for us to juice them.”
David and I were the fourth truck full of apples to pass through Pressing Matters farm gate early one October morning. We unloaded, adding our harvest to a ramshackle sea of cardboard boxes filled with pockmarked apples of every size and variety. Many hours later, we left with 5L boxes full of hot pasteurized juice packaged into vacuumed plastic bags. Just like boxed wine, this juice comes out of a tap and is shelf-stable for 6 months without refrigeration.
Next year, Pressing Matters went mobile and we found them at a small farm in Cedar, an easier 45-minute drive away. The truck in the lineup ahead of us had three times as many apples as we did.
We waited most of that cold dreary day for our apples to move up the que, David lifting each of our 30-pound boxes off the ground and over to the washing bin, where they tumbled like rocks, washed of their debris and dirt before climbing up a conveyer to be cut and sliced into a coarse wet mash. A young woman wearing goggles, ear muffs and water-proof overalls turned a huge hose on and off, belching a controlled torrent of apple mash into half a dozen mesh-lined trays stacked one upon the other. Then came the press.
Weight bore down on the stack and juice oozed out as viscous and sweet as honey, coursing into the pasteurizer where the juice swirls and heats up to sanitary highs then flows into strong, 5L plastic bags, all manipulated and vacuum sealed by a smiling young woman from Quebec who stands at the end of this small factory’s line.
A mobile pressing machine like this requires four or five to operate and at McBarley’s they run the unit outside in their parking lot. Customers like us just drop off our apples, watch them get weighed and sign up for pasteurized juice, hard cider, or both.
It sounds simple but the rub is in the timing. Ask any farmer and she’ll tell you to check that almanac, or your horoscope or better still, the waxing moon to know best harvest times. Yet to run a facility like McBarley’s, it’s all about scheduled dropoffs and pickups for hundreds of folks like us avec les pommes. We opted for a three-stage harvest this year hoping 2019 will translate into the sweetest juice and best bubbly vintage, ever.
I know Number One through Ten will drink to that.