A Traditional British Apple Pressing Day at Polesden Lacey
September – apple season has arrived! Apple pressing is the traditional way to make apple cider (apple juice in the UK) by hand from freshly picked apples.
If you have never attended an apple pressing day, it celebrates an increasing crispness in the air and a taster of how the angle of the sun begins to change. It is an ancient ritual where the harvest of one of our most ancient foods (apples) results into a delicious nectar.
When I joined a Community Apple Pressing Day at Polesden Lacey on September 26, 2021, it felt like I was traveling back to a time when things were more wholesome and when a hard-working community got together for a common goal.
The Lost Art of Pressing Apples
The first time I ever saw apple cider (juice) freshly pressed by hand was at Applefest, the apple festival of Ravenswood Historic Site in Livermore, California. Ravenswood’s park rangers used a wooden apple grinder and press that would have looked quite the part in any Little House on the Prairie episode.
It was also my girls’ first experience with freshly-pressed apple juice, the start of a long love story with apples freshly plucked off the tree. That explains why each year we save a day or two for pick-your-own apple farms around London. It’s a cherished family tradition.
Apples in England
In England where I live, apple trees are quite common, as are apple-related activities of the culinary kind. Just this past week at my swimming club, home-grown apples came up three times in the course of post-swim conversations.
One made a delicious apple cake with apples from her tree in Cornwall; another brought apples from his tree in west London; and another foraged for crab apples around Hampton Court. If you’ve been here for a while, you probably know somebody who’s got an apple tree.
So when I saw on the National Trust website that Polesden Lacey, one of their historic properties in Surrey, was hosting a Community Apple Pressing Day, I wrote it down on my calendar immediately. I was ready to celebrate autumn with apples.
Train and Bicycle Journey to Polesden Lacey
On apple pressing morning, I figured that the best way for me to bring back loads of apple juice was a combo of bicycle and train. It was either that or train + walking and juice being heavy, I didn’t fancy carrying it all on my back. My bicycle paniers would be put to better use than a backpack.
I cycled to the closest train station and hopped on a train with my bicycle to Bookham, a small train station on the line to Guildford. I was glad to find that the train carriage featured a corner for wheelchairs and bicycles, with slots for wheels in front of two folding seats. It certainly beat standing an hour while holding the bike.
Yay, #sustainabletravel ! From Bookham train station, I cycled the rest of the way (2.4 miles) to Polesden Lacey. It was almost entirely uphill. Good grief, I should have read the fine print about the Surrey Hills! I was also relieved that I was doing the uphill with empty paniers.
Polesden Lacey had a selection of a dozen bicycle parking spots right out front, which was very handy.
Dorking Community Orchard
The apple pressing day was organised by Dorking Community Orchard. If like me you didn’t know that community orchards existed, you will love this. In their words:
Dorking Community Orchard was established in 2009 by Transition Dorking on the site of the neglected “Millennium Orchard” just north of the Ranmore Allotments. The site is nearly two acres in size.
We have planted over 130 new fruit trees since March 2010, but we also take care of several mature fruit and trees which were planted at the time of the Millennium. After some years of nurturing the trees, we are now selling our produce at Food Float on Dorking High Street. We are concentrating on local and heritage varieties wherever possible, and are building a picture of the numerous small orchards which formed quite an important part of the agricultural heritage of the Dorking area.Dorking Community Orchard Facebook page
In summary, this community orchard is run by the people for the people with the view to sharing apple love. Hence why they organized this apple pressing day.
Process of Apple Pressing
Initially, I could have been fooled into thinking that apple pressing started with pressing apples. However, I would missed the fine process of apple pressing where every step serves a purpose.
Apple pressing starts with…
On the previous day, volunteers from Dorking Community Orchards picked 400 kg (881 lbs) of fresh apples by hand at a local orchard. I wondered, could they tell me which varieties they picked?
Which Apple is That?
As it turned out, my question was too simple. The volunteers had picked four or five different cultivars of apples, a blend of cookers (tart) and eaters (sweet). “I can taste Bramleys,” said a woman who just tasted the juice. Bramleys are a very sour British cooking apple that turns to mush instantly when cooked. It makes the best applesauce and most certainly, there were some Bramleys in there. But beyond that?
Identifying apples is notoriously very tricky. It’s always interesting, if you have a favorite old apple tree, and you don’t know the variety, to take an apple along to an “apple day” event to see what the experts say. Alternatively if you want to try your hand at apple ID at home, this apple ID online tool (US) or this garden apple tree ID tool (UK) might help.
So here I was, looking at a small flatbed trailer filled with what remained of 400 kg of apples. Washed down with a water hose, they were ready for use.
First comes the crushing. Standing by the trailer, the volunteers fed the apples through the funnel of an electric mill. Watching the apples being dropped and turned into a beige-brown apple pulp or mush within seconds was very exciting for all spectators, starting with the many young children who were fantasizing about juicing the apples themselves.
Stacking Apple Pulp
Next came the stacking. As you can see below, the hand-cranked apple press was a “rack and cloth” model, the type where you stack layers of apple pulp wrapped in cloth on square wooden racks, add another rack, stack and repeat until you’ve reached five or six layers of apple pulp.
As they were stacking up apple pulp, the volunteers were discussing apple trees. What else?
“Best tree surgeon in the country, you wouldn’t know it,” commented one of the men to his colleague, followed by a lively conversation on the unassuming ninja of tree surgeons.
Pressing Apple Pulp into Apple Juice
Next came juicing. “This is when the magic happens,” said one of the guys ready to start pressing down on the apples with a giant screw.
The apple press manufacturer‘s website explains that “the screw is fitted with a ratchet mechanism for ease of use and the press applies up to 12 tonnes of pressure.” That extra pressure helps get the best yield out of the apples.
If you are into numbers, here are a few that Nick, one of the volunteers, shared with me:
- Total apple weight to be pressed: 400 kg
- Juice return by weight: 60%
- In reality: 200 kg of apple juice were pressed that day (instead of 240 kg which would have been 60%)
- One third of the total apple juice is set aside to get made into cider (that’s hard cider, the alcoholic kind, for US folk)
- Some of that apple cider is later made into an apple and honey mead called cyser
As the brown apple juice flowed freely into a giant bucket, how did the kids react?
Most girls and boys were straight-forward Bob the Builder types who wanted to make apple juice themselves. “Mum, can I do it?”, asked several.
Respect. That be a big press for small hands. Obviously, health & safety dictated that only grown-ups could have apple pressing fun.
Others, Violet Beauregarde types, purely wanted to taste the juice. Now. Practical and easy. Fortunately, volunteers were passing around taster cups with freshly pressed juice.
Last, one little girl totally cracked me up with an alternative strategy.
“We could dive into a bucket of apple juice and… swim in apple juice … because apple juice is delicious…”
… and she didn’t have the time to finish her train of thought as her parents were in a hurry and whisked her off, but it all sounded very promising.
One last step remained before the apple juice could be bottled.
Straining Apple Juice
Once the bucket was full, two volunteers lifted the bucket above a funnel lined with a cheese cloth to strain the fine particles. And so the juice was ready.
Now in the US, there is a fine straining line separating apple cider from apple juice. Apparently, apple cider isn’t strained and apple juice is both strained and pasteurized. Which leaves strained and unpasteurized apple juice in a grey zone.
After pressing, the remaining apple pulp was shoved into buckets.
What Happens to the Pulp?
As part of a full agricultural cycle, all of the remaining apple pulp ended up as feed for a local pig farm.
No apple parts went to waste, which is how things should be.
Wandering Around Polesden Lacey
As for me, I purchased 12l (2.6 gallons) of apple juice in 1l plastic bottles, stuffed them in my backpack and carrier bag, and went for a little wander around Polesden Lacey. The wall separating the courtyard from the house area let visitors in through a gargoyled opening.
The Edwardian house was, as a friend put it, “of good proportions”, neither too grand nor too small.
Fine, it was rather grand when you stepped back and looked at it across the lawn. I quickly toured the house and fell in love with the reception areas. Being on top of a hill, Polesden Lacey enjoys gorgeous views on the surrounding countryside. What I wouldn’t have given to travel back to 1920 and sip a glass of champagne in the glittering gold Saloon as the sun set on the hills.
Outside the house, a walled garden housed a magnificent collection of roses.
Slightly further afield, a woodland with beech trees welcomed visitors, inviting outdoor play. Oversized chess, large wooden swings, table tennis under the trees — it was all open to everyone.
Last but not least, I spent some time at an outdoor café and ice cream van. Lovely onion and cheese pasty with tea!
I returned to the train station the same way I came and I can guarantee that with my 12l load of apple juice, I was flying down the hill!
If you would like to attend future apple pressing events:
- Dorking Community Orchard is organizing an apple pressing day at Dorking’s artisan market on October 10th, 2021 and an apple day at Denbies Wine Estate on October 23rd, 2021.
- Watch the National Trust website for apple related events.
- Find your local apple orchards and ask around.
Remember: an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Each liter of apple juice contains 20 to 27 apples. Just sayin’.