This old-fashioned cider mill has nothing plastic about it

Enveloped in her calf-length rubber apron, tall rubber boots, windbreaker, and rugged pants, Barbara Sutch looks ready to brave a nor'easter on a commercial fishing boat. But, in fact, she is operating the cider press at Lawson's Orchards here in Lincoln.

Bright red Cortlands roll out of the bin at one end, as she picks out any bruised apples and removes clumps of grass by hand.

A hose overhead washes off the apples, then a chain raises them through a narrow wooden channel into the press on the opposite side.

The noise of the grinder drowns out any conversation, but Barbara goes about her work undistracted. She turns off the grinder and shows how the press works, smiling as she talks.

Nodding to another young colleague in the background, she says, ''Tim helps me sometimes, but this year I'm the chief cider presser.''

Lawson's is a real old-fashioned cider mill. The press itself was built 60 or 70 years ago - no one quite knows for sure - and most of it is made of wood.

As Barbara prepares to start the rack and cloth press, which is operated by a hydraulic pump, she arranges the racks, made of maple wood. The other day, she says, she saw some made of plastic.

''Basically the grinder makes applesauce,'' says John Lee, explaining how his mill works. The racks are stacked up as needed to hold the crushed fruit and are lined with lightweight nylon cloths to strain it.

When they're full, the press is slowly lowered, squeezing out the juice into a tank below and leaving the apple pulp, or pomace, behind.

''The pomace goes out the window - literally - to a dairy farmer nearby,'' Lee continues. ''It serves as fodder for his cows. The cider goes into a funnel below and is pumped through a tube into a large stainless steel tank in the next room.''

The picturesque town of Lincoln is the perfect setting for this old mill. With the crisp smell of autumn in the air, the brilliant foliage on the hillsides, and a large pile of pumpkins by the road, it attracts many visitors to Lawson's.

The orchards are on Old Concord Turnpike, otherwise known as Route 2, just beyond Route 128 but within easy reach of Boston.

Beside apples from Lee's own trees, and of course cider, the roadside stand offers seasonal produce, cheeses, jams, and jellies, home-baked breads and pastries, nuts, and other tempting fare.

In the summer Lee had pick-your-own raspberries, which proved an overwhelming success. In January and February, when cold forces the cider mill and stand to shut down, firewood is the hottest item for sale. And it's available at his house next door.

The mill operates from the last week in August until Christmas, producing 25, 000 to 30,000 gallons of cider.

Fall weekends, when there are about 20 employees, are busiest - especially in fine weather. Pressing resumes from March through May, but in smaller volume.

This winter for the first time Lee is also making cranberry cider. ''It's not my idea,'' he says, ''but nobody else does it around here.'' In addition to its pretty ruddy color, the taste is refreshing and delicious. Lee adds no sugar to his cranberry cider; in fact, he adds nothing at all to any of it.

The cider apples come partly from his own small orchard of about 150 trees. Firsts, with no blemishes, go to his stand. Seconds, those under size or with a small spot or bruise, go into cider. Most apples for pressing he buys from other orchards in the area.

''We're just finishing the McIntosh,'' he says. ''Next are the Red and Golden Delicious, Northern Spys, and Baldwins.

''We mix them as we press, quasi-scientifically. We have to make do with what there is, but try to mix high and low acid.''

Lee explains how some varieties, such as Delicious, have lots of body, but make poor cider alone because of their taste; others have good tart flavor but no body. He strives for balance.

The harder the apple, he continues, the fewer cloths you need for pressing. The unseasonably warm weather during the previous week had made the fruit softer.

''The more liquid, the less firm is the cell structure,'' he said. ''You get a higher yield of cider, but you do a lot more work.''

At the end of every day of operation, clad in her heavy-duty work clothes, Barbara spends an hour and a half cleaning the mill, since it spews pulp all over.

Any parts that touch apples are washed with water only, to avoid a soapy residue. ''It's a job,'' she says.

Repairs are made as needed, and Lee builds whatever wooden and machine parts he can. ''Anything that's sophisticated,'' he says, ''we get from orchard supply.''

Asked how he got into the cider business, Lee says, laconically, ''I sort of backed into it. There was an opportunity and I took it.''

He grew up in Vermont on his father's dairy farm.

''We had a small orchard just for our own use,'' he says. ''For as long as I can remember we've made cider.''

Now he often shows schoolchildren how to press cider on two small hand presses, which they can operate with his help.

He climbs onto a forklift to load another bin of 15 bushels into the mill so that Barbara can continue making cider. Any modernizing he does is to make the machine easier to operate. He points out the rollers he added recently so that she could load it by herself.

''I like being both the operator and the entrepreneur of my business,'' he adds. He jokes that if the competition from big cider mills ever gets bad he can sell his cider as ''pressed in wood'' rather than ''pressed in plastic,'' but John Lee seems confident of the future. ''I don't ever want to get that big. I like being small.''

John Lee is happy to arrange tours by appointment. Call him or his wife Lee at (617) 259-8777 for more information.

Here is Lawson's recipe for mulled cider. Those following were inspired by a visit to the orchards. Lawson's Orchards' Old-Fashioned Mulled Cider 1 teaspoon whole allspice 1 teaspoon whole cloves 1 3-inch stick cinnamon 1/2 lemon, thinly sliced 1 gallon cider 1/2 to 1 cup sugar

Tie spices and lemon in cheesecloth bag. Place in pot with cider. Add sugar to taste. Boil 10 minutes. Remove bag and strain. Serve warm. Apple Crepes with Cider Sauce 2 cups cider 1 1/2 ounces raisins 2 ounces sweet butter (1/2 stick) 4 cups cooking apples, peeled, cored, and diced 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1 ounce sugar 12 crepes (recipe follows)

Heat 1/2 cup cider until boiling, pour over raisins, and allow to steep at least 30 minutes to plump them.

Melt half the butter in a large pan and saute diced apples about 5 minutes, stirring often. Do not let them brown. Add raisins, cinnamon, sugar, and remaining cider. Simmer 10 minutes uncovered, until apples are soft but not mushy.

Using slotted spoon, transfer apples and raisins into a warm bowl, leaving liquid. Put some fruit on edge of each crepe and roll up. Place seam side down on serving dish or plates, 2 for each serving. Keep warm.

Over high heat, boil liquid left in pan until reduced to a thick, syrupy glaze. Swirl in remaining butter until absorbed. Immediately spoon sauce over crepes and serve. If you like, serve with a dish of lightly sweetened whipped cream dusted with cinnamon. Serves 6. Crepes 1 cup flour Pinch salt 1 tablespoon sugar 3 eggs, at room temperature 1 cup milk, at room temperature 1/2 cup lukewarm water 1 ounce butter, melted and cooled to room temperature

Mix dry ingredients together in bowl. Make a well in center for eggs and beat them together until combined, then gradually mix in flour, keeping batter smooth. Slowly mix in milk and water, then butter. If you prefer, combine ingredients in blender or food processor for a quick, lumpless batter. Either way, allow batter to sit 30 minutes before cooking.

Heat 5-inch frying or crepe pan with a little oil. When hot, pour in a spoonful of batter and immediately tilt pan to cover entire bottom, the thinner the better. Cook until bottom of crepe turns light brown, then turn and cook other side briefly.

Adjust heat for a good, steady temperature and grease pan only as needed as you continue to cook rest of crepes. Unless using immediately, allow to cool before wrapping to refrigerate. Makes about 20 crepes. Apple Cranberry Sauce With Cider 1 1/2 pounds cooking apples, cored and coarsely chopped, not peeled 1/2 pound cranberries, picked over 3 cups cider 1/3 cup sugar, or to taste

Combine apples, cranberries, and cider in pot. Bring to boil; stir and simmer about 10 minutes, until cranberries have popped and apples are soft.

When cool, push fruit pulp through a sieve with back of a large spoon, discarding skins. Simmer pulp and juice over low heat, uncovered, to reduce puree to desired thickness. Sweeten to taste. Makes about 2 1/2 cups. For larger amount, quantities may easily be doubled.

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