Apples are one of my favorite things in the world! When I was a child there was the most enormous apple tree across the street from my house. Its apples mimicked the tree in their size and girth. I often wonder if that tree is still alive. Is another child is savoring its sweet and acidic fruit or has it fallen by the wayside, only to exist as the shadow of a memory?
Cherokee Orchards: Our Apple-achian history.
It has been said that when the De Soto Expedition traveled through North Carolina in the 1540’s one of the things they brought with them were apples. The Cherokee people who lived here at this time began to plant them immediately and soon the forests were filled with a multitude of apple varieties.Evidence has suggested that the Cherokee had a complex forest management system; early descriptions from European migrants describe park like woods where a man could ride from the coast to the Mississippi without need for a road.
The Cherokee continued to develop new systems for managing their fruit trees, eventually adopting the orchard model promoted by the Europeans. Villages and cabins would be surrounded by apples for every use; fresh eating, drying apples, and juice apples. Then devastation hit. The United States Federal government decided that the Cherokee needed to be removed to “Indian Territory”. This forced march to Oklahoma left many Cherokee people dead, their way of life damaged, and their homes abandoned.
Silas McDowell and Jarvis Van Buren are two figures in the history of Cherokee apples that beguile me; are they folk heroes or are they opportunists? These men followed on the heels of the US Calvary and began removing scion wood and young trees from the now empty Cherokee villages and homesteads, they harnessed the spirit of the true old time nurserymen – part explorer, part pomologist, and part capitalist. It may be a twisted irony that many of the varieties developed by the Cherokee survive today because of these men.
The Eastern Band of the Cherokee once again have their apples growing in orchards in and around Cherokee, North Carolina. Known varieties include: Nickajack, Junalaska, Cullasaga, Alarkee, Equinetely, Cullawhee, Watauga, Tillequah, and Chestooah (which also has the fun name of Rabbithead.)
The Lost Apples of Appalachia
Wise County, in Southwest Virginia is purported to have been the top apple growing region in the United States. When the mining companies came in offering jobs many landholders found it difficult to resist the promise of financial security and handed over their orchards to the mining interests. What came next can only be categorized as the wholesale destruction of a community and the once beautiful orchards covering the mountainside.
Wise County is just one of the Appalachian communities to be hit by an extraction based business model. It has been prevalent across the region through coal mining, logging, damming, and fracking. Agrarian communities who once were able to subsist off the land have been resigned to become the people of Walmart.
Reversing the damage done in communities affected by the extraction economy is a long and difficult journey. A place to start is by planting an orchard which promises to bear fruit for the next generation.
At the Appalachian Institute for Mountain Studies we care for an orchard of over 90 heirloom apple varieties. There are other orchard keepers and fruit explorers in the mountains of North Carolina as well; searching the hills and hollers for lost varieties and returning them to the people; to plant, harvest, and preserve. Two of note are Lee Calhoun and Tom Brown. Mr. Calhoun and Mr. Brown have respectively rambled the Blue Ridge of Appalachia; investigating orchards reclaimed by the forest, single ancient trees in unsuspecting front yards, and pouring over countless nursery catalogs from yesteryear to identify the varieties.
You do not need to be an expert orchardist to help restore the lost apples of Appalachia. It takes a little training, a sharp knife, and a desire to learn. There are many options for classes on grafting and caring for fruit trees; AIMS regularly hosts apple related events such as the Everything Apples Workshop October 9th, the Buncombe Fruit and Nut Club offers pruning, grafting, and community orchard classes, many local Ag Extension offices have classes, and NAFEX is a great group that covers a wide range of fruit topics with members all over the country.
Get out into the mountains, explore your neighbors yard, and enjoy the wonder of Old Time Apples!
Hungry for an Old Timey Apple Revival!
It is no wonder that the Apple has been portrayed as the fruit of sin in many biblical images. It can be sweet, sour, acid, and tangy; the colors, sizes, and diversity seem to provide never ending temptations for their mouth watering greatness. Apples are one of the few things which have driven children to thievery – picking that low hanging apple from the neighbors tree; adults into stupor – hard cider and applejack brandy; or men to wander the world as a vagabond zealot – case in point Johnny Appleseed.
Like the proverbial snake in the Garden of Eden; we are not one to miss the chance to temp a soul with the intoxicating flavors of Old Time Apples.
Apple Stack Cake
Apple Stack Cake is a mountain dream. Layers of cake and layers of apple… how could you go wrong? As I do not have my own Apple Stack Cake recipe (only one I borrowed from someones grandma) in keeping on the good road, I am including a link to an article from the Mountain Xpress on our great friends at the Appalachian Food Storybank and the Owl Bakery. Preserving tradition: Appalachian Food Storybank collects tales of mountain meals. This article features a delectable recipe adapted by the talented Susannah Gebhart. Enjoy!
Homebrew Apple Cider Vinegar
Making your own apple cider vinegar is one of the best feelings in the world. You can capture the terrior or the flavor of your environment through the introduction of native bacteria or use a culture from your favorite store bought unpasteurized raw vinegar. There are many ways to do it, either with complicated systems or even simple no frill processes like filling a jar with apple scraps, sugar, and water and letting it sit on a counter (this is called scrap vinegar not true apple cider vinegar). We are going to present the best method we know…
1 gallon home brewed pure hard cider (don’t even bother with the store bought stuff it’s not worth it.)
1 store bought vinegar mother, wild vinegar mother, or 10% raw vinegar by volume (about 12 oz per gal)
5 gallon food grade bucket or shallow 3 gallon glass container
Enough cheesecloth or fine nylon netting to cover the bucket or container
First – if you want to have an all local, flavor of the land vinegar read this article from Eat the Weeds.
Sterilize bucket or container and the mouth of your fermentation vessel.
Pour the fermented cider into your bucket or container. The goal is to have a lot of surface area exposed to air to ensure the oxygen loving bacteria can breath.
Either add your vinegar mother or raw vinegar
Cover it up and wait 4 – 6 weeks, If your vinegar smells alcoholic after fermenting let it keep fermenting another couple weeks. Times may vary depending on ambient room temperatures and the strength of your mother and cider.
Once your vinegar has fully fermented to a flavor you enjoy; strain out the mother and any solids, bottle in narrow necked bottles, and use.
A note on food preservation: In a previous post I talked about using homemade vinegar in pickling. For preservation, vinegar must have a minimum of 5% acetic acid present. If you plan on using your home brew vinegar for preservation, purchase an acid tritation kit to ensure proper acid levels.
Applejack was once a form of currency in the United States. It dates back to colonial times and was made in the winter when outside temperatures would freeze the water in a batch of hard cider while leaving the alcohol behind. This process is known as freeze distillation or in colonial parlance as “jacking.” Sometimes the applejack would be charcoal filtered to remove impurities and aged like whiskey in oak barrels.
A word of caution: Freeze distillation has been known to concentrate not only the ethanol we drink but also methanol and fusel alcohols created during the cider brewing process. This recipe is meant to be for entertainment and historical reference – drink at your own risk.
1 gallon or more of Hard Cider (I prefer to make it myself)
Food grade plastic container (to hold the cider)
Freezer or winter with freezing temperatures
Proofing Hydrometer (if you want to check your alcohol content)
Make sure all equipment is sterilized. Siphon your hard cider from your primary fermentation into your food grade plastic container leaving enough headroom for the liquid to expand as it freezes. Make sure to avoid sucking up any solids when you siphon as this can cause problems with the freezing process.
Place your container in the freezer or outside in the freezing weather. Check it once a day and remove any ice chunks that have formed either by siphoning the liquid into a new clean container or trying to remove the ice by hand. More freezing.
When the liquid stops freezing all that is left is pure alcohol. Depending on your preference you may want to leave some of the ice in to have a lower alcohol percentage.
Throughout the process you can bring the liquid up to room temperature, if you are in a room which is sixty degrees or warmer, and check the alcohol level with your hydrometer. Here is a funny link that may help. Measuring the alcohol in your moonshine.
Once you feel like you have completed your distillation process you can choose to filter it or age it with oak chips or apple wood.
In closing; fill up yer mason jars and don’t go blind!