Tough economic times call for ingenuity, thrift, and more than a little optimism. So when life handed urbanites Giordana Mecagni and her husband, Peter Chipman, fruit, they decided to make juice.
The couple has been churning out hard cider for the past few months, using apples they've found in trees growing in an unlikely place: East Boston.
Chipman and Mecagni, who moved from Union Square in Somerville three years ago, like to call themselves "urban homesteaders." They have solar panels to help power the hot water heater in their condo, they're avid recyclers, and Chipman likes to dabble in home brewing.
Mecagni said they first got the idea to gather fruit found in public places after seeing countless grape arbors over driveways, including their own, in their old Somerville neighborhood. The ripened fruit would simply hang there until it dropped on to the pavement, she said.
Not wanting the fruit to go to waste, they had been making their own crushed grape drink, "I Love Lucy" style, for some time using Concord grapes picked from anywhere they could find them, said Mecagni. But after one unsuccessful fruit-picking excursion, they decided to switch gears and give hard apple cider a try.
Buying apples at a supermarket or farm stand was expensive. So the pair began walking around the neighborhood by Shay's Beach, Piers Park, and the Belle Isle marshes and, in no time, hit pay dirt.
"On our way home, I suggested that we stop by at an apple tree we had seen walking around the neighborhood - in the Shay's Beach area," said Mecagni in an e-mail. "We cleaned the tree, and got to work, washing, quartering, grinding, pressing, and brewing. A few days later we noticed some more ungleaned trees over by Piers Park . . . and picked those as well."
The couple cashed in their economic stimulus check last spring to buy a grinder and press. They also bought an apple picker, a long wooden pole with a wire basket at one end - to make collecting a little easier.
"I guess once you start noticing abandoned trees, or grape vines for that matter, you notice them all over the place - a pear tree in the abandoned railroad bed near Bennington Street, a few trees down by Belle Isle Marsh, in a church yard on Brooks Street, an apricot tree in a friend's yard," said Mecagni.
Though this is the first time they've tried making hard cider, Chipman used to work on an apple farm and the couple got advice from a friend who owns an apple orchard in Maine.
Mecagni, 34, works as an archivist at Harvard Medical School and performs in the Boston Typewriter Orchestra. Chipman, 38, is a lexicographer for the American Heritage Dictionary at Houghton Mifflin.
Brewing your own hard cider is a fairly messy and time-consuming hobby, they say. Before pressing, apples have to be washed and examined for worms and other significant defects. Surprisingly, the ugliest, mealiest apples make for the best-tasting cider, said Chipman.
"Both of us are very involved in recycling and old-timey things, so we understand that doing things from scratch takes time," said Mecagni. "I don't think we realized how long . . .," she added with a laugh.
Once the fruit is pressed, some wine or champagne yeast is added and the mixture is stored in a 5-gallon plastic jug to ferment for about four weeks, said Chipman. Finally they put the cider in old Corona beer bottles they collect on trash day and sterilize.
Besides fermented cider, the pair enjoy brewing their own beer, a fizzy, ginger-honey mead and an aged concoction they call "grape juice+" made from grapes they pick at Wompatuck State Park in Hingham.
The drink, whose name they took from a beverage served in "Escape From the Planet of the Apes," is not as smooth and complex as wine.
Lightly carbonated, it's slightly sweet and fruity, reminiscent of sangria. The pair even served some to family and friends at their wedding reception two years ago.