Bottling

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I bottled the plum wine last night. The airlock on the carboy had stopped bubbling over the last couple of weeks, so the yeast had clearly eaten up all the sugars and I decided it was ready to bottle.

I’ve been saving screw-cap wine bottles for some time, and I had one gallon Carlo Rossi bottle that had been gathering dust in the back bedroom (who drank a gallon of Carlo Rossi?). I soaked them all in sanitizer water and scraped off their labels, which took far longer than expected. My one-year-old was on my back in the Ergo carrier all the while.

Syphoning would have been easier with a second adult present. I struggled to keep the carboy end of the tube below the surface and above the sediment while watching the bottle end to prevent it from over-filling. But I pulled it off with limited spills, and was swimming with self-satisfaction and a startlingly solid buzz at the end of it– I had to sample my product, after all.

My little experiment yielded 1 case plus 1 gallon (plus 1 glass).

I’m sure it will benefit from a couple of months in the bottles, but as of now, I’m pleased to report that the wine is golden, quite clear, and pleasant tasting. The alcohol is not bashful in the scent, but it’s not biting. Rather, it seems effervescent, like champagne bubbles that tickle your nose as you sip. The flavor is mildly sweet and slightly tart, like a granny smith apple.

I didn’t measure the brix before fermenting, so I do not know the alcohol content, but I would judge it is, perhaps substantially, above standard grape wines.

Overall, I’m exceedingly pleased. Next, tomorrow: rosehip wine.

This week I canned several quarts of apple sauce and apple chutney from the bags of apples I made everyone pick on my daughter’s birthday at my mom’s in Sebastopol. I also made several bottles of fiery hot sauce from peppers we picked at a local garden.

And most excitingly, I caught the rooster. The one I’ve had it out for since last year. The last of the clutch of tyrants. My knees look like an eight-year-old’s, with scrapes and bruises, but it was worth it.

Work has been intense lately, but my projects at home have felt good. Which helps.

Bird By Bird

I am rereading Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott in ten-minute windows, mostly in the bathroom in the morning. It’s the perfect material to read these days because I feel like when I’m reading– and not writing– I’m still working. It’s immensely inspiring and encouraging.

I was given two copies by different people years ago, which I take as a compliment. Not like when I went through a devastating breakup in high school and three people gave me the book He’s Just Not That Into You. They all had some qualifier when they handed it over, like it would soften the blow. It didn’t. Not a compliment.

Writing in the Shower

I’ve been writing a lot. Not blogging much, obviously, but the long kind of writing. The kind you’re not supposed to call what it’s going to be until it is what it will become.

There’s only so much creative energy, and time (oh, time) to go around.

At any rate, it feels slow-going, because it’s a piecemeal process. Most it goes like this: I set my alarm for 5. Sometimes I’m already awake nursing the baby. Other times she wakes up to my alarm or when I try to get up, and then I have to stay in bed and nurse her. Her sleep has become more touch-and-go as she teeths or when she went to bed earlier, like she has been.

I sneak into the kitchen, make coffee as quickly as possible, leaving the bag of beans open and the grinder plugged in, because every second is a second that I can be writing before the baby is awake.

Then I sit on the couch and write, pausing to tiptoe into the bedroom when she stirs, trying to keep her down.

Mornings like today, she just won’t quit, and I let her lay on my lap to nurse while I type with one hand. This keeps her drowsy, and I made remarkable progress despite my contorted back and neck. A small price to pay. Of course, by the time I need to start getting ready for work, she’s back down for real, dead asleep, and I lay her in the Rock N’ Play.

With any momentum of train of thought, I keep writing in the shower, mentally noting outline ideas, robust sentences, and race to the computer naked to type them out.

Other mornings, of course, she stays out like a light and I can’t squeeze a single inspired word from my keyboard.

Weekends have been mostly canning peach-bourbon preserves, roasting a goose, dressing rabbits and chickens and starting rose hip wine (that’s next).  And this weekend will be fruitless in the writing department because it’s my daughters first birthday, which means a trip to Nunu’s and a big party. My husband and I will spend all day Saturday preparing carnitas and enchiladas and salsas and refried beans. Sunday will be a riot, full of friends and family and frosting-faced photo-ops. It will be awesome.

But then Monday comes and no matter how much food and fun memories I have to look back on, I tend to have a bit of anxiety that I’m somehow behind. When my only writing has been the shower, not penned out afterward, lost down the drain.

Plum Wine: An Adventure in Country Booze-making

I’ve been reading various books about making country wines and other boozy projects. A little known secret I’ve unearthed is that you can make “wine” from pretty much any fruit or vegetable matter, from peaches to rhubarb, parsnips to zucchini, even nettles and flowers. And contrary to standard grape winemaking practices, the basics are, well, very basic.

Essentially: Prepare fruit or whatever you’re using; add sugar, yeast and (sometimes) water; ferment once; strain; ferment some more.

There are other varying steps of straining or racking , boiling the fruit, and so on, depending on what your basis is, but for the most part, that’s the process. Not too scientific. And, as it turns out, the most involved parts can be done during baby’s naptimes on a solo weekend with my husband out of town (read: not difficult or time-consuming).

After I’d been casually reading and giving some consideration to attempting some sort of home beverage brewing– we have made beer and wonderful pinot noir before according to all the official, proper methods, but I had something simpler, more old-school homesteady, in mind– I’d also been keeping an impatient eye on our lousy drought-stricken plum tree. Last weekend it became abundantly obvious that the fruit would never ripen. Rather, the ripest of them were still tiny and greenish, like good-sized olives, many beginning to shrivel.

Clearly the drought had claimed the year’s plums. But over my husband’s eye-rolls, I picked the tree clean and hauled my pathetic bounty into the kitchen. They amounted to six quarts.

Since  I gave absolutely zero consideration to peeling and pitting the plums, I rinsed them and removed the stems, then dumped them into our 20-quart stainless pot. I poured in 14 quarts of water, then boiled them until they had plumped up like about-to-burst cranberries. I scooped many against the side to squeeze out the flesh, but didn’t bother with most. Surprisingly, the sorry-looking fruit was smelling quite nice (though I couldn’t say the same of their appearance).

I then waited a few hours, enough time to pop (start) the packet of liquid yeast that had been sitting in our fridge and also have my husband purchase an enormous bag of white sugar. By then the plum mixture had cooled to room temperature, and I measured in 11 cups of white sugar and stirred it well to dissolve and aerate. Then I dumped in the yeast, stirred some more, covered it loosely, and set the pot on a large baking tray in an out-of-the-way place (a good choice, since it overflowed in a sticky mess as it fermented wildly).

I’d been worried that the yeast was too old to work properly, but after a day, the concoction came to life with frothy, foaming activity. It smelled lovely, and looked like this before each stirring, which I did twice a day:

(Yikes, I know.) After stirring,  white foam fizzed over the top.

The following Friday, five days later, the fermentation had slowed down slightly and I was excited to move along when my daughter went down for her afternoon nap. I filled a six-gallon beer-brewing tub with no-rinse sterilizer solution– I can’t resist rinsing most items, anyway, with all that chemical froth– and dropped in my stirring implements, strainers and syphoning hose. Then I syphoned the solution into my 5-gallon carboy.

Next, I scooped my plum must through a medium mesh strainer into the tub, pressing out liquid and depositing the solids into the chicken bowl (meanwhile wondering if the chickens would be staggering around with a buzz). I let that sit overnight, covered.

In the morning, the surface looked like a freshly baked cookie.

At morning naptime, I again scooped the concoction through a strainer, our finer mesh conical style, and agitated it as the liquid slowly drained through leaving a saucy deposit that again went to the chickens. Then I added 10 more cups of sugar, the remainder of the 10-pound bag. I stirred it up and let that settle until afternoon naptime.

Finally, that afternoon, I syphoned the mix, keeping the hose below the surface but above the level of sediment at the bottom, into the carboy. I found little sediment dropped out; the wine has remained highly opaque even after days of secondary fermentation, much like unfiltered cider.

Those six quarts of plums yielded four gallons of wine-to-be. I popped an airlock in the top of the carboy and placed it out of the way where it can bubble away for the next few months.

The dregs that I withheld from the carboy were lovely and plummy, sweet and effervescent, and the alcohol was already substantially present.

Certainly my process was imperfect and leaves much to improvement and tweaking. Some recipes and articles warn that pits impart a bitter off-taste, as can the natural yeasts present on the plums’ skin in the initial fermentation. My sterilization practices were imperfect, but not ignored.

The bottom line for my first country winemaking endeavor: if the result is alcoholic and the least bit palatable, I will call it a triumph. And I look forward to future experimentation with whatever fruit I can get my hands on.

Cantaloupe Salvation

You’ve just sliced open a lovely, weighty melon. You’re imagining the sweet juice running down your chin when you bite into a slice. You sink your teeth into it and achieve only utter disappointment.

This, for me, is the majority of cantaloupe encounters, such that I never, ever buy them, regardless of how deeply I adore a ripe, tender honeydew or nearly any other variety.

The way we ended up with the bland, pithy fruit sitting rejected on our cutting board was a different one: our trailing melon vines in the yard had yielded a number of totally unrecognizable, volleyball-sized fruits, vaguely lemon-shaped with a dark green rind. Between us we had no recollection of what the heck we had planted, other than “melon,” and they seemed to have reached a stagnant point of growth and maturation.

So, last night my husband picked the oldest one, and this morning, plunged a knife through it. Even our baby, with the easiest-to-please palate around, wrinkled her nose. The flavor was rather like a cucumber, not unpleasant but not succulent or sweet.

Fortunately, unripe melon, it turns out, makes a spectacular summer salad.

I cubed the melon into bite-sized pieces and put them in a medium-sized bowl. Then I sliced a handful of basil leaves and mint leaves– a mix of grapefruit and apple mint were perfect for this use, though I’m sure most varieties would work wonderfully. I squeezed half a lemon over, drizzled in about half a tablespoon of delicious local honey, and added a teaspoon or two each of red wine vinegar and olive oil. I tossed in about a third of a very small, thinly sliced sweet onion (amounting to perhaps a loosely packed quarter cup), and crumbled over about a quarter cup of bleu cheese (feta would be great, too). Finally, I seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper. After I good stir, I covered the salad and let it sit in the fridge for a bit.

The flavors married marvelously, and I must say, I will be slower to lament my next under-ripe melon. We ate it with cold chicken, and our daughter gave her mark of approval. Perfect for yet another 108-degree afternoon.

Recently

Time seems to be racing by beneath me. It can be difficult to get a foothold. Even the most productive days add up to weeks and months insufficiently utilized.

Recent days have included horned tomato worms: enormous, beautiful monsters wreaking havoc on every tomato in our yard. They have to be hunted and removed one by one. I have one in a jar on my desk at work grazing on weeds, just for kicks.

Recent days have included an anniversary– our third, which I can hardly let escape my mouth before adding that we’ve been together eight years, only married three. The day-to-day life with an infant makes a couple of hours together, enjoying good beer and pupusas  and carnitas tacos, so much greater than the sum of its parts. A year ago, this anniversary date might have seemed anticlimactic. Instead, it was blissfully perfect.

Recent days also included a trip to a near-empty lake, where the annual Fourth of July regatta was cancelled for the first time in six decades. The trek to the water’s edge was desert-like, the only shade beneath exposed tree stumps. The air was dusty, but time with family good.

Recent days have included new teeth, a hard-earned prize in exchange for sleepless nights, sleepless days, low-range fever, and general malaise. But there’s a gap in the middle and she’s cuter than ever.

Coming days will include property-hunting, a visit from Grandma, rabbit and chicken harvest, horned tomato worm hunting, and more 105-degree afternoons. Before we know it, July will be gone.

Highs and lows from life on and off our baby-brightened homestead

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