November 30, 2010

a coffee break at the orchard

Dear Friends,

Is it just me or am I turning this little food blog of mine into Letters from an Apple Orchard or what?  Apologies for the absence of other topics (or regular posting in general), but as I have kept saying that our fuji apples were almost ready for picking, I thought I'd write about it (or at least bits of it) now that we have actually picked (most of) them.

We started off on a sunny, unusually warm day over one late November weekend...

We had a few of our friends and families over to help us.  Some picked fruits as others collected them, and yet others sorted them.  It may sound simple, but the tasks can (and are) often daunting when there are only two elderly folks that do all the work between them.

They have a relatively small acreage in this area full of apple orchards, but they still have a lot of work to do to take care of their trees, and indeed a lot of fruits to pick even after all the extensive thinning.

Other than having lunch at about noon, it's an all-day work on the field until dark, but we'd take a short break in mid afternoon to sit down, and that's where some of us apple pickers (including myself) would play our other roles: coffee servers!

All set?

Fire it up!

One of us brought this strange-looking thing (a type of pellet cooker, I was told).   "I wanted to have freshly brewed coffee out here!" he explained, and set up his brand-new cooker as we all curiously looked (and helped). 

As soon as the fire was up, the cooker got really warm and we all sat around it and waited for the kettle of water to boil, snacking on apples off the tree and sipping some hot tea that we'd  brought in a thermos. (And oh, we had some hand-made oyaki someone had given us, too! Lots of food...)

It was an unusually warm day for this upland town, but it was still around 50F and the wind was chilly.  And once the sun started going down and putting the fields in the shade, the temperatures seemed to drop sharply, making the warmth the cooker provided even more welcoming.

Now water's ready...

(... and he brought the kettle, portable coffee maker and beans, too.  And I, a grinder, mugs, and milk and sugar.   Did we come here to work, or to take a break between the work?  Considering how little I did the actual work myself, I had to wonder...)

And here was my bit of contribution to our coffee-break-at-the-orchard experience: brownies.  Slightly overbaked - okay, burnt - I know, but they were reasonably soft and light (but not gooey or crumbly as they were meant to be easy to snack on by hand in the field), and decently good with some sweetened chestnuts in them.  Worked nice with coffee, for sure.

Freshly-brewed coffee and home-baked cakes were nice, sure, but there was something immensely satisfying about all of us gathering around the fire (cooker) between the hard work in the chilly field.

We sat there, eating and drinking and chatting for half an hour or so, then got to our feet back to work, still warm from the fire and coffee.

The sun was now really sinking and it was getting darker by the minute.  Some farmers have lamps in their orchards and would continue working even after dark, but we don't have them and we'd have to stop before it is completely dark.

So when the sun was almost gone and the white moon was shining in the purple sky, we wrapped up for the day, packing up and cleaning up a bit. 

Then we headed off to a local onsen (hot springs), washing away the day's sweat and dust, nursing the sore muscle, and soaked in the hot water to refresh the mind and body before eating dinner together.   We drank a bit, too, but didn't party too hard or too late in the evening - we had another day out at work on the following day, see.

This was how a day of picking apples at the family orchard went like.   It is (and was) certainly a big day for commercial apple growers, but not the last day of work for them; they'd still have to painstakingly re-sort all the fruits according to the size and grades and packing them for shipping, which by itself is quite a daunting work, even for small farmers with a relatively small amount of produce to handle.  But in some years when they can't find anyone to help them, they'd have to spend days and weeks to go through all the trees before getting to sorting and packing.

So I know a few helpers really do mean a lot to them at the orchard, and sharing something little to drink and eat with them between the work is a lot more fun than it would be when there are only two of them (or one, even).  So thanks to the friends and families who came over to help us this year (and those who have had previously, too).   Our work this year isn't done yet, but we're hoping for good fruits next year, too. 

- lots of love, cx

November 5, 2010

orchards in the morning clouds

It feels as if autumn never really came this year. It did, yes, but ever so fleetingly; until the end of September it was still quite warm, and it got suddenly cold at the end of October. And now I'm back in Nagano, up in a mountainous area about half a mile above sea level, it now feels like winter rather than autumn, especially with the freezing mornings and evenings.

We had cold rain lingering on and off at the end of October, and it was one of the first mornings that showed a promise of sunshine and blue sky when I looked outside through the window and saw rays of the sun diffused in the thick mist.

It was past six thirty in the morning, and I had stayed up for most of the night and was about to go to sleep. But I decided to go out for a bit of walk with my camera, with an extra layer on.

Outside, the sun was going up and the sky was turning clear blue - except the vast majority was clouded with thin layers of mist.

Probably I was in the middle of the clouds hovering around the mountains, I thought, as I looked down to see everything covered with frost.

Together, the mist and frost graced the whole scenery with the silver grey veil.

I was mesmerized as I walked up the hills towards the family apple orchards, and all the while I couldn't stop snapping away, hoping to catch some of these mystical moments before the magic evaporates away along with the mist and frost.

Below are a few of the photos from that magical half an hour - hope you'll enjoy!

P.S. - See the apples covered with frost? These are fuji apples and they are to be harvested soon, and now at the final stage of packing on sweetness. So while dropping temperatures mean harsher work conditions for the farmers, apple growers are earnestly praying for more cold nights; I really do hope the fruits of their labors will reward them right.

(Oh, and fujis are already tasting pretty good as we have tried a few; can't wait to have the fully ripe sweetness very soon!)