Saturday, 27 October 2007

Pork & Apples

Small-scale cidermaking must surely be one of the more sustainable food and drink industries. Unlike brewing, there is no need to boil the juice prior to fermentation (which is why cider is made, not brewed by the way!). More often than not the raw materials are sourced locally, and most of the cider is likely to be sold locally too. Admittedly we currently need to buy most of our fruit from further afield, but our eventual aim is to increase the amount of local apples in our ciders, including the fruit from our garden orchard which should start cropping next year. Ideally we would like to buy a couple of acres and plant our own orchard of cider varieties so as to become totally self sufficient in fruit, though with land prices as they are, and demand so high, we're not holding our breath on this one.

One area of the cidermaking process we have been wrestling with for the last couple of years is the accumulation of spent pomace after pressing. By the time we finish pressing this year we'll have pressed almost two tons of fruit, leaving us with the problem of disposing of around a third of a ton of fairly dry, pulped apples. Traditionally, cidermakers have dealt with this problem by either 'losing' it under a field hedge, obviously not an option for us, or feeding it to their livestock. Pigs love it, and cattle are also more than happy with the temporary change of diet (though probably not dairy cows, as it could taint the milk). Sheep stomachs are apparently too delicate for more than an occasional nibble of pomace, which is a shame as there are plenty of sheep grazing in Middleton and Cottingham, but almost no cattle or pigs to my knowledge. Disposing of our pomace in an environmentally sensible way had become a bit of a headache.

We'd resigned ourselves to hiring a mini-skip, at no small cost, and hoping the skip company were true to their promise of taking the contents to the green waste recycling site. We were not particularly happy with this arrangement, but in this part of Leicestershire/Northants, the only other 'livestock' grazing the fields are the whinnying & clopping variety, so couldn't see any other realistic options.

We started our main cidermaking on Friday, and as a last treat before the week-long slog ahead I squeezed in a Thursday night visit to a few pubs in the market town of Uppingham. On my third attempt at getting served a drinkable pint of Bombadier in a pub whose name escapes me now, I happened to overhear a chap at the bar discussing his rare-breed pigs. My ears were by now in full 'pricked-up' mode. The chap turned out to be a very amiable builder named Rob, who when not building, helps out on his fathers smallholding in the picturesque village of Medbourne, a 'lick and a spit' from us in Middleton. A lucky meeting indeed, and just in the nick of time. Rob has now collected the first batch of pomace, and I trust the porkers are now enjoying their new orchard diet.

Pain Stops Play

Two days into our main cidermaking week and I've already been forced into taking a breather. The rigours of milling and pressing, with the attendant humping about of apples and pomace, takes it's toll on our sadly under-developed muscles. I usually end up with one or more areas of my back in spasm at some point, and all manner of old strains and injuries are liable to make an unwelcome return at this, the worst possible time.

Yes, the back is aching, but not debilitatingly so. My dodgy knee is holding up surprisingly well so far (looks around frantically for piece of wood!), and everything seemed to be progressing fairly well, albeit a little slower than I would have liked. But at some point during the first session, I appear to have strained a small area of my left hand, not so big as to render it useless, but it had become progressively more painful to use over the course of the second day. Such a small injury, but one in such a crucial position for lifting, washing, and shovelling apples and pomace, that I may as well have milled and pressed the bloody hand itself for all the use it is now.

I intend to rest it on Sunday, which means Karen will be cooking the roast, and driving me to the pub, and I'll have to remember to lift my Sunday lunchtime pint(s) strictly with my right hand only. Not all bad then...

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Apples Everywhere

The pressing of our local apples is done, and our focus has now shifted to the Three Counties area, famous for it's cider and perry making tradition. This weekend was spent ferrying almost 2 ton of assorted cider apples from growers in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, in readiness for the main pressing next week. The clear, sunny weather meant this was a great weekend to be in the Wye Valley, and particularly the foothills of the spectacular Malverns Hills. I managed to call in on a (very busy) cidermaking friend for a chat and a sample, and also visited a small farmers market where I was pleased to discover a cider and perry maker I hadn't heard of before (Newtowns Wines of Gloucestershire). All this, and I still managed to make it back to Leicester in time for the kick off of the Rugby World Cup final, accompanied by a few pints in The Vaults with friends and family.

We came back with quite a wide range of cider apples, including the 'vintage' bittersweet varieties Dabinett, Tremlett's Bitter, and Yarlington Mill; plus a few precious bags of the sharp, aromatic Brown's Apple (pictured above) which will help give the cider a good balance of tannin and acidity. Some of the apples came from a batch of mixed cider fruit, amongst which we recognised the scabby green/yellow of Bulmer's Norman, and some Sweet Coppin's which should help to moderate the hard tannin of the Norman's. We're very pleased with the varieties we got, and the quality of the fruit seems to be better than last years batch, which needed a lot of hard work to weed out the rotten and heavily bruised specimens.

When dealing with known varieties of high quality cider apples, it's often tempting to press and ferment the different varieties separately, with the potential to give you a more interesting range of 'Single Variety' ciders. I've always believed that the very best ciders are made from a good blend of apple varieties, and though single variety ciders can be quite interesting (and also make good commercial sense), they often taste a bit one-dimensional to me. We'll be blending the different varieties as we press, with the aim of achieving a single batch of well balanced cider. This is why we take great care in selecting as good a range of apple varieties as possible, though the vagaries of apple growing and supply, mean that the blend is always likely to change slightly from one season to the next.

Looking at the bags of apples now, the task in hand does look a little daunting for a hobby-size mill and press, but we've given ourselves the whole week to get this lot pressed, and the only thing we can do now is clean and sterilise everything in sight, and pray for the good weather to continue into next week.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Cooking Apple Conundrum

This weekend we pressed another load of the big, boxy cookers from the village orchard, plus a few more kindly donated by our neighbours and a few unknown 'fizzy-sharp', russeted apples from Rockingham. All things considered, a pretty sharp bunch of customers, and far too high in acidity to make a palatable cider on their own (although Richard Keeble of the Stamford Juice Co manages to makes a very good Bramley apple cider, so it can be done!). This is a shame, as they are some of the juiciest apples we get to press, far more giving of their juice than any of the cider apples we use, with the possible exception of the sharp, aromatic Browns apple.

These large cooking apples are pretty common around here. The number of trees dotted around Middleton & Cottingham suggest there was once a substantial orchard, probably associated with the 'Big House' at Cottingham. Unfortunately we don't know what variety they are, although at first glance I'd say they appear most likely to be Bramley's Seedling.

I was gathering these 'Bramleys' from the village orchard earlier this week, when a pick-up van pulled up, and a smiling couple joined me in the orchard, and began filling carrier bags with these ripe culinary freebies. They were gathering the apples for pies and such-like, and were pretty convinced they were not Bramleys, but couldn't put a name to them. It would certainly be nice to think we were making cider from a variety of apple with a more local provenance, but it doesn't look as if we will find the time this weekend to visit another Apple Day event with experts on hand to identify these apples.

One of the main reasons we spent a day pressing this high acid mix of apples, is to supply us with a 'Malic Acid Stock' ready for the main pressing at the end of the month. We usually press a range of cider apples, mostly bittersweets (high in sugar and tannin), but also a reasonable amount of sharps (high in Malic acid) or bittersharps (high in tannin and acid). Tannin is the essential ingredient which gives 'West Country' ciders (and also our own Rockingham Forest Cider) it's distinctive rich flavour, but without a reasonable amount of 'sharp' acidity in the mix, the cider can lack balance, and the all important 'drinkability'. We try to derive as much of our acidity from sharp or bittersharp cider apples, such as Browns, Kingston Black, or Stoke Red. These sharp varieties also have very good flavour and aromatic properties, and bring much more to a blend than using relatively bland culinary fruit. Unfortunately, these 'vintage' sharp cider apples are often in short supply, so we like to have a ready made stock of mouth-puckeringly sharp cider to hand, just in case we need it.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Apple Day - Stamford

Apple day is the big-day-out for enthusiasts of orchards, apples, and to a lesser degree, cider. Initiated by Common Ground in 1990, the number of events which take place on or around 'Apple Day' (21st October), grows year on year.

By a strange quirk of fate, I have never actually been to an Apple Day event, though certainly not by design. This year I determined to go to at least one of our local events, Stamford being one of the nearest.

One of the main motivators behind the Stamford Apple Day is the Stamford Community Orchard Group, which is dedicated to preserving Stamford heritage apple varieties (of which there are many, though most are currently designated as 'lost'), and establishing a community orchard for the benefit of all Stamford folk. They are ably assisted by the East of England Apples & Orchards Project, an umbrella organisation which covers voluntary groups throughout the Eastern Counties area.

The Stamford Apple Day event takes place at the Arts Centre in the town centre, with participants including Beekeepers, apple produce from Stamford New College, excellent local apple juices from the Stamford Juice Co (who also make a drop of fine cider), and a host of other interesting stalls with wide family appeal.

One of the most interesting aspects of an Apple Day event is the chance to have unknown varieties of apple from your own orchard/garden identified by experts in this field. I took along a couple of specimens from the several varieties we used in our recent cidermaking, hoping to put a name to a face as it were. Some small dessert apples from our own orchard proved difficult to pin down, not helped by the size of the fruit. We really should have thinned out the bumper crop on this tree, leading to better size apples, but as anyone who grows-to-press is likely to understand, removing healthy fruitlettes from a tree groaning with appley potential somehow goes against the grain. We'll know differently next year.

Another dessert apple, which we picked from the lovely Welland Valley village of Rockingham, was quickly identified as a Worcester Permain. In retrospect, and having now looked, and tasted these apples, the rich, sweet flavour and appearance is classic Worcester, but identifying unknown apples is notoriously difficult, even for the experts, so it's nice to have a really positive ID, rather than guesswork.

The image at the start of this Blog is of one of the many trays of apples laid out to help the 'identifiers', which also made a wonderful display of our rich orchard heritage.

We aim to go to at least one other local Apple Day event this year, possibly Wilson's Orchard in Northampton, and would seriously recommend you support Apple Day at an event near you.

Monday, 1 October 2007

When Apple Juice becomes Cider

There are a number of different routes that can be taken once your hard-pressed apple juice is safely transferred to the fermenters. In previous years we have simply taken a reading of the Original Gravity (OG), neccesary for calculating the alcohol level of the finished cider, then pitched in a general-purpose wine yeast. Last year we added a carefully measured dose of Sodium Metabisulphite prior to adding the yeast, in the hope of giving us a little more control over the fermentation. Many people swear by the addition of a little sulphite, and I personally have no problem with this, but I'm still very much on the fence regarding the use of sulphites in our cider.

The apples we use for much of our cider come from old orchards which have rarely if ever received a feed, organic or otherwise. This can result in fruit which has a very low nutrient level, such that the yeast may find it a struggle to get going. On the one occasion when we added Sodium Metabisulphite at slightly below the recommended level, there was a long, worrying wait before any yeast activity could be seen, and subsequently the yeast became stressed resulting in the (temporary) production of Hydrogen Sulphide. Whilst this unpleasant aroma is apparently fairly common in the early stages of fermentation, I can't help feeling that a combination of the low nutrient levels, with the addition of yeast supressing Sulphite, contributed to this potential problem. It could also have been the result of being a little stingy with the yeast!

This year I was also concerned that the poor Summer we've had would lead to low sugar levels in the fruit, particularly for this relatively early pressing. Many trees have had bumper crops this year, but the wet weather and lack of sunshine would surely affect the ripeness of orchard fruit. It seems however, that the little bit of good weather we did finally enjoy at the end of the Summer has turned things around just in time. The OG of this batch of cider is 1049, which is better than the fruit we pressed last year at the same time. This should give an alcohol level of around 6.5%, which we're quite happy with.

The other factor we like to check at this stage is the pH of the juice. A low pH (high acidity) can result in a cider which is too 'sharp', but the big advantage is that a high acid cider is less prone to problems during fermentation and storage. This juice has a pH of around 3.0, which is pretty low. I therefore decided to forgoe any addition of Sulphite, and pitch in a good yeast.

There are many people who also swear that the best ciders are made without the use of cultured yeasts, relying purely on 'wild' yeasts to ferment the juice. I'm sure this is true in cases where there is likely to be a good supply of these wild yeasts, such as an old cider house or barn which has seen decades of cidermaking. Unfortunately, we live in the East Midlands, an area not noted for it's cider tradition, and with this being only our third season making cider in Middleton, we choose to add yeast from a packet rather than hoping for a strong wind to blow some of this rare fungus in from the West Country.

This year we are using a specialist yeast ideal for cidermaking , Uvaferm BC, which is available from Vigo. I dosed the juice shortly after pressing, and had a nosy in the fermenter the next day not expecting to see much. What a pleasant surprise to see the tell-tale ring of activity on the surface, and within 36 hours there was a thick head of yeast, and the airlocks were bubbling merrily. Every year we learn a bit more about the magic of cidermaking, and this year our first lesson has been: Don't mess around with off-the-peg wine yeasts. This made-to-measure cider yeast is the business.

The Ciderhouse (otherwise known as The Garage) is located directly below our bedroom, which means that for the next few months we will be lulled to sleep by the steady 'glop' of CO2 escaping through airlocks. Much better than counting sheep in my experience.