Hunting Apples

Call me a scavenger, but every autumn, whether the apple trees in my yard produce or not, I end up with bags and bags of sweet-smelling apples of many different varieties. Just a step above dumpster-diving for freebies, I case the streets of historic Bozeman, looking for lots with bumper crops of apples littering the ground, as possessed as any hunter putting up food for winter. I ask before I take, of course, as well as beg for apples from friends and watch the “free” section of the classified ads for invitations to pick.

Then my sons and I head for Rocky Creek Farm, the Gallatin Valley’s only u-pick farm, and have most of the apples pressed into cider. It’s hard to explain just how good freshly pressed apple cider tastes, but “addicting” and “hard not to swig” come to mind. I’m not sure why it is that cider tastes better than crunching a single apple—perhaps it’s the blending of varieties that makes it so incomparably tasty.

I met Pete Fay, owner of Rocky Creek Farms, a few years ago. The day was hot and there were yellow jackets swarming around the apple pulp, but the mood was upbeat. Fay was handing out samples of homemade hard cider to the grown-ups, while the kids watched the apples go through the shredder and took turns helping his employees work the press. I asked Fay some questions about how to make hard cider, and the process is fairly simple.

First he boils the cider to kill any bacteria, then adds sugar and champagne yeast. Adding two cups of sugar per gallon of cider creates 13% alcohol content; adding less sugar reduces the alcohol.

“Then you store the cider in a jug with an airlock,” explained Fay. “You’re preventing oxygen from mixing with the cider.” The cider is then stored at room temperature for three to four weeks before it’s ready, though Fay says it improves with age.

I ended up buying a hard-cider-making kit from Fay for ten dollars, along with a few pumpkins. He added up my bill, shook his head, paused, then began adding again. He stopped, giggled, then said something about the hard cider samples muddling his mathematical capabilities. I still haven’t put my hard cider kit to use because the fresh cider is invariably consumed before I ever get a chance.

In 1978 Fay lived with his family in a house with an apple tree in the yard on the corner of 3rd Avenue and Beall Street. It was a good year for apples, so he decided to build an apple cider press from a kit. He was standing in the front yard, pressing apples with his son when a minister pulled along the curb and said, “Hey, are you making cider?!” Before Fay could answer, the minister had dropped off several bags of apples for him to press, and then others stopped, asking the same question, and before he new it, his whole front yard was filled with bags of apples from people all over town. “My son and I made 330 gallons of cider in one weekend with that silly little press,” Fay recalled in a more recent conversation. “By the second weekend we bought plastic jugs and labels and started charging people.”

Rocky Creek Farm now has over 300 apple trees of nine varieties, which are never sprayed with chemicals. Fay adds new trees to the orchard every year to make up for losses due to winterkill or fire blight, the most common demise of apple trees. And although you can buy great apples from Fay, he encourages customers to plant their own trees. Learn when they reach peak ripeness by sampling from your own tree every other day.

“Don’t fight the climate,” Fay advised. “If you buy a red delicious or Granny Smith apple tree from a chain store, it won’t grow here. Pay the extra money to buy varieties that do well in Montana from a knowledgeable nursery like Cashman’s.”

Apples can be traced back to biblical times, and were definitely growing in the states by 1630, as confirmed by records from the Massachusetts Bay Company settlement. One medium-sized, 80-calorie apple contains no fat, cholesterol, or sodium, and provides more fiber than a serving of oatmeal. Still, Bozeman really hasn’t embraced an apple- growing and harvesting tradition the way many towns do.

In an informal survey Fay conducted with his ex-wife, one out of three older houses in Bozeman has at least one apple tree, while only one out of twenty newer homes have them. “For crying out loud,” said Fay. “Plant an apple tree!”

At the very least, go hunting.