The Merrybower Homestead Almanac

Merrybower Patch 2014 Illustration

Merrybower Patch Almanac 2014 Illustration

I don’t think we’ve shared this before, but this is the illustration that hangs on the kitchen wall. It came about when life became a bit too hectic, and various notes scribbled in various places, or stuck with magnets/bluetack/pins to various surfaces began to mount up or blow away, never to be seen again. So I set to work, laying everything out, so a glance could let us know what needed doing at a particular time of year.

The orchards got their plot labels – something they already had for their own records, but something only I knew! And there was also no way I could remember which variety was which, so now we can glance at the Almanac, look down the section of the month we’re in, and get a good idea which fruit are ready to harvest, or at least try and bite in to!

Then there are the season specific jobs – some with timings you need to get right, even legally. Hedgerows shouldn’t be cut from March to August, inclusive, if there are nesting birds present. Now we can safely assume that somewhere in the 800ft of hedgerow surrounding the Patch, there will be at least one bundle of fluff, cosied up in their nest, so we add it to the Almanac. Likewise, there are things beyond our borders that it’s good to be aware of – hedgerow fruit picking time is one good example, when to pick hazlenuts, when to even look for them! We can also track animal movements – moving them from pasture to pasture to clean the ground and prevent disease build up.

Of course, things change, plants die, animal numbers change, we come back with waif and stray ducks that need a home, we squeeze another fruit tree in somewhere. So the Almanac will be updated – this is the 2014 version, and it has changed since then, but we’ll keep it updated somewhere on the website – possibly on its own page.

Year 2 – Cider Making

2015 Cider Making 1What a gorgeous morning to start cider making (hard cider to our friends in the US)! I’d booked the scratter and press from Melbourne Area Transition a few weeks ago, giving us time to pick the apples that were ready to crush, and leave them outside for three weeks to ‘sweat’ – if the weather had been wetter then we’d been advised to move them under cover as heat and wet can spoil them.

2015 Cider Making 2The press was a 20 litre cross beam press – a bit larger than our 5 litre spindle press, which really isn’t useful for any quantity of cider, but probably more suited for crushing soft fruits for juice.

2015 Cider Making 4The scratter could take around six whole average-sized apples in one go, or you could fill the hopper with cut apples. I chose the first method as it was easier with only one person, but it was a doddle!

2015 Cider Making 3The apples we used were roughly 60% dessert, 30% culinary and 10% cider. I had grand ideas of a ‘mix’ of certain types, but when it came down to it I took what we could get – around a third came from our lovely neighbours at number 1, the rest we scrounged from our trees – there were definitely Warner’s King, Elton Beauty and Catshead – the rest I really can’t remember, or I don’t know – hopefully next year I’ll be more organised!

2015 Cider Making 5The cider making method was simple – apples began in the green cart, a half bucket loaded into the white bucket, hosed down, washed around and inspected by Penny, who would have jumped in the bucket if there had been the slightest chance she’d fit! Then six at a time were dropped in to the scratter and munched into tiny pieces. It took about one full washing bucket to fill the smaller 2 gallon bucket which sat under the scratter. Two of the 2 gallon buckets of pomace filled the 20 litre press (don’t you love mixing imperial with metric?), so basically 2015 Cider Making 6two stints on the scratter for every stint on the press, and the press gave between 4 and 5 litres per pressing (that’s the white pouring jug under the press). The pomace left over after pressing didn’t feel as dry as that from the spindle press last year, but the pieces of apple seemed a bit chunkier than last year, so maybe that had something to do with it? Or maybe because we’d let the apples sweat some of their juice out – who knows!

Anyway – it took me about 6 presses to fill my 7 gallon fermentation bin, and about three hours in total, maybe a bit more. Assuming it works, that’s around 55 pints (assume one lost to keeving later into another vessel) – not bad for three hours’ (enjoyable) work! Last year was heart-breakingly slow, with our tiny press, and I expected this year to feel as bad – in terms of the effort-to-produce ratio.

2015 Cider Making 7But this cider making experience was a whole different ball game! To see the juice pouring from the press was a beautiful sight – and makes me realise that we need at least a 40 litre press. We really do need to decide in which direction to take this, once we have some experience under our belt? Do we stay as hobbiests, making our own product for friends and family to enjoy, or do we expand the idea to create a mini business that can self-fund? We’ll have plenty of apples to play with, there’s no doubting that! Plenty of time to worry about that, and for now it’s great that people like Melbourne Transition rent out kit that can suit a serious hobbiest.

A quick reading of the Specific Gravity showed 1.046, at a room temperature of around 19 degrees, which is fine. Again, as last year, I’ve decided not to sulphite, to rid the juice of wild yeast. That would mean adding a known yeast back into the cider, but I quite like the idea of seeing if natural yeast, present in the air and on the apple and pressing equipment, can do the job for us. Health-wise – sulphites can cause problems with people suffering from asthma, or people with allergies to sulphites themselves.

2015 Cider Making 8As it was, Jay and Smiler came back from school just as I’d finished – impeccable timing! Seeing the press, the dived right in and pressed out another 4 litres of apple juice from the Forfar tree – a light and slightly acidic juice, but then we may have been a bit early picking them. It only seems fair to press something they can also enjoy.

Despite that being the end of our first cider making day, we’re not done yet – we have some later maturing varieties on the trees still, so hopefully we’ll do another pressing come late November, early December 🙂

First Walnut!

2015 First Broadview WalnutCrikey! It’s been almost four years since we planted our Broadview Walnut, in December 2011, and today it gave us our first walnut!! I’ve been watching it all summer, and couldn’t see anything – nor did I expect to. But today, whilst we were cleaning the animals, Penny sat under the walnut tree, chewing something around her mouth. As ever, when we’re not sure what she’s tucking in to, Suz told her to spit it out, and promptly doing so, there lay our first walnut at our feet! A closer inspection of the tree showed a burst nut pod, which must have only recently dropped the nut, as we’d mowed under the tree the weekend before!

Fantastic! So this proves you don’t have to wait 20-odd years to see a walnut 😀

Appelcake (Dutch Apple Cake)

Again, another recipe for the apple season, and this one is gorgeous – moist and appley, but firm with it – something to really sink your teeth in to, cosied up around the fire. Jay made this Appelcake for us, and it’s definitely a firm family favourite now!2015 Apple Cake

3 medium cooking apples – peeled and cut into slices
fruit sugar – 1 1/2 cups + 1 tablespoon
1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
2/3 cup of butter
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
2 cups of plain flour

In a bowl combine the apples, tablespoon of fruit sugar and cinammon. Cover, allow to stand for an hour.

In another bowl whisk the butter and 1 1/2 cups of fruit sugar. Add eggs, one at a time (beat each one in). Add vanilla. Gradually add flour to this mixture and beat until smooth.

Transfer to a greased loaf pan – better if lined with greaseproof paper. Push the apple slices into the mixture – vertically if possible.

Based at 140o fan oven, for 1 1/2 hours or until golden brown and a knife comes out clean when inserted.

Cool on a wire rack.

Winter Squash Harvest

2015 Winter SquashWith the first grass frosts expected any day, it seemed judicious to harvest the various winter squash and secrete them away in a dark place to wait the winter out, until we needed them.

Tonda Padana

It hasn’t been a bad harvest – the Tonda Padana, as ever, have done amazingly well – they’re the dark/light green stripey one with the light green stripes being raised quite proud (they’re mostly on the left). These are most definitely our favourite winter squash – we haven’t had a bad year yet, despite having extremes in weather over the years – from dry to wet, warm to cold.

Berrettina Piacentina

The Berrettina Piacentina weren’t quite so good – they’re the dusky green and orange striped at the back on the right. I think we may only have had one of them, and three Tondas – I know there was some argy bargy going on with planting stations when some failed to germinate!

Custard Whites

And then we have the Custard Whites – or UFOs as we like to call them. We still haven’t eaten one yet, but they look so funky I’d be happy to grow them purely for the fact they look like a happy winter squash (big, juicy and healthy!).

Butternut Rugosa

The big disaster was the Butternut Squash – Butternut Rugosa. We had absolutely nothing from them, any that had started to grow simply stopped developing and went moldy on the plant. The only thing I can put it down to was the three weekends we were away – but I’ll have to look into it.

Eierkoeken (Egg Cakes)

One of the recipes Suz brought back from her time in the Netherlands, it’s become a firm favourite here and conjures up memories of autumn days and warm homely cooking! Dutch egg cakes – eat straight from the oven, or serve topped with low-fat creme fraiche and fruit in a bowl.

5 large eggs
1 cup of sugar (or half a cup of fruit sugar)
2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
2 cups of plain flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon of salt
You can add cinnamon or mixed spice for a slightly different flavour.

Combine eggs, sugar and vanilla in a bowl (whisk).
In a different bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt (at this point other flavouring if required).
Pour the ingredients from the 2nd bowl into the first bowl and mix thoroughly. I use a hand-held whisk.
The mixture is quite stiff.
Line a couple of baking trays with greaseproof paper.
Spoon large dollops of the mixtures onto the baking trays – leave space around the dollops as they spread!
Bake in fan oven 160 Celsius for 10 to 15 minutes. This results in a very firm slightly domed ‘eggy’ flavour sponge – best eaten warm!

Apples Picked and Ready to Go!

2015 ApplesOur first two batches of apples, ready for cider making! The barrow in the foreground is two thirds dessert (eaters) apples from our lovely neighbours at No.1 – types unknown (apples – not neighbours!), and one third culinary (cookers) from our orchard – type I really should remember but I don’t!

The trolley behind is using Tremlett’s Bitter, Slack Ma Girdle and a cooker, again, not entirely sure which. It should have been Catshead, and next year it will be, but we ate them all as they fell! Talk about organised 😀

We’ll leave them outside for three weeks to “sweat” – to give the starch a chance to turn to sugar. We’ll do an iodine test then, to make sure all is ticketyboo, and then hopefully get on with it!