October means apple cider season is here until Christmas, when Tom and Gekee Wickham close down their Cutchogue farm stand for the winter.
But for the next few brisk weeks, workers at Wickham's will be in the barn behind the farmhouse off of Route 25 on Wickhams Creek at 8:00 a.m. every day, making cider from apples and pears. According to farmer Tom Wickham, the best cider is created by just the right mixture of the juices from different types of apples blended with pears.
Wickham prefers a mixture of Gala and Macoun apples.
"We started to plant apples right after World War II," he said his farm, family run by gernerations of Wickhams.
The initial crops were small and provided the raw product for cider sold on the stand before the Wickhams expanded their apple crop considerably in the 1960's. Today, the crop is so plentiful that Wickham is supplying major cider producers like Nassau County's Jericho Cider Mill with apples.
The cider sold exclusively at Wickham's Farm Stand is made with a 110-year-old cider press. Wickham swears by his machinery.
"Vintage equipment that is well maintained and used properly lasts a long time," he said.
The press in Wickham's barn was originally owned by Irwin Billard, a fellow Cutchogue farmer. Billard's Farm was located on the Main Road on land that is now home to the King Kullen Supermarket.
"The house and barn were in the exact spot where the grocery store is now," Wickham said.
When Billard stopped making cider 55 years ago, the Wickhams bought his press and proceeded to dismantle it so the equipment could be relocated to Wickham's potato barn, where it was reassembled piece by piece.
"And we are using it right now," Wickham said.
The cider press is a clever and simple piece of farm equipment that reflects the purity of the beverage it creates. The process is straightforward. The apples and pears are pressed until a liquid is formed. Then the liquid apple juice is either pasteurized or treated with ultra violet light to make sure all bacteria and other contaminants are removed, then it is bottled and sold.
Wickham said he prefers the ultra violet light technique since, unlike the pasteurization process, it does not heat the liquid and alter the flavor of the cider.
Apples were introduced to the North Fork by its early European settlers, who were more interested in making hard cider — a light alcoholic beverage — than they were in eating an apple a day to keep the doctor away. Cider left to its own devices will ferment within a week, so Wickham guarantees his cider for seven days.
Long before our now famous North Fork wineries were drawing crowds to the area, cider was standard fare on many farms where it was a homemade product consumed by the farmers who sometimes made their own presses.
"My brother makes his cider using an automobile jack to create pressure to squeeze the apples," said Richard Wines, discussing cider from Winds Way, his South Jamesport homestead on the bay where he grows his own apples.
Although apple cider production has remained a relatively low-key operation on the North Fork, the delicious beverage plays a large part in the scheme of things out here as the "un-wine" drink of the town.
"It is a mainstay of the fall agritainment season," said Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, noting the importance of the entertainment aspects of local agricultural operations.
Gergela said that apple cider is a huge draw to the area along with pumpkin picking, corn mazes, haunted houses, and wine tasting — not only at Wickham's but at local suppliers like the Cider Mill on Route 25 in Laurel.