Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Winter Wassail

With this last post of 2008 I'd like to thank everyone who's followed our modest Rockingham Forest Cider Blog throughout the year, I hope it's been of some interest, I've certainly enjoyed writing it. In particular I'd like to thank all those who helped out with this season's cidermaking, and all the licensees and festival organisers who've helped to keep the cider flowing during difficult times for the licenced trade. If you had a drop of our cider this year, thanks also to you, and do try some more in 2009.

The new year is Wassail time, an ancient folk tradition which marks the start of the agricultural year in much the same way that the Harvest Festival mark it's end. A Wassail is a warm social gathering in the chilly depth of Winter, usually in an orchard, and often accompanied by singing, dancing, and maybe a glass or two of cider. Some Wassails are quite grand, well supported by locals and visitors alike. The Broome Farm Wassail is one such event, and many cider farms have revived the tradition in recent years not only in the traditional cidermaking areas, but even as far north as Louth in Lincolnshire where the Skidbrooke Cyder Co hold a successful Wassail in their own orchard.

Northamptonshire has it's own Wassail, a small and intimate affair organised by South Court Environmental in the old Bramley Apple orchards of Wilsons' Orchard:

Saturday 3rd January 2008 - Wassailing the Apple Trees at Wilsons' Orchard. 4.00-6.00pm

Apple Cause event: Celebrate old Christmas Day by Wassailing the Apple Trees. This old magic makes sure they bear well in 2009. Eat potatoes hot from the bonfire and drink spicy punch. Wrap up against the weather, including suitable footwear. Oh – and bring a torch.

A list of some other Wassail's can be found on the Common Ground website: 2009 Wassails

Monday, 29 December 2008

Grape Expectations

Our first faltering steps into the world of hobby winemaking have yet to reach fruition, but in anticipation of some measure of success I've been attempting to hack-and-slash the grape vines into shape this weekend in readiness of next year's (hopefully sun-drenched) vintage.

Grape vines need to be treated quite meanly in order to keep them cropping keenly. Too big a harvest can result in lots of tiny unripe grapes, not great for winemaking or anything else for that matter, although the birds don't seem to mind. To achieve this I prune our vines very hard in the Winter, using the easy to understand, but hard to pronounce Double Guyot system.

In this system all but two canes of the previous seasons growth are cut back to the main stem (Stock), these two remaining canes are then bent down onto a horizontal wire and trimmed to restrict the number of fruiting buds to (in our case) around 12. These buds should then produce new growth in the Spring, growing upwards throughout the Summer and bearing bunches of grapes low down on the canes.

It's very satisfying work, and if done correctly should result in a neat set of vines trained against the wall, and a large tangle of cuttings on the ground. The Rockingham Forest Cider Hens kept a watchful eye on proceedings, ever hopeful that a few juicy grapes may have escaped the September harvest. Sadly their patience went unrewarded, though a few unexpected caterpillars sheltering in the prunings kept them happy enough.

This year I'm attempting to propagate new vines from these plentiful cuttings. The varieties we have are Rondo and Regent, both developed to ripen reasonably easily in cooler climates, and capable of producing a very decent red wine in better years (which sadly this year wasn't!). It's illegal to sell these particular varieties of grape vine unless a royalty is payed to the people that developed them, so I'll be giving away whatever we don't use ourselves.

After studying a few books on propagation I decided to try two fairly similar methods, one involving lengths of cane with three buds, and one where the pieces of vine have just one bud with a little over an inch of cane for rooting. The latter method looked a little neater, and to me seemed the more likely to succeed, but what do I know!

Both methods of propagating are easy enough in practice, the dormant bud will hopefully break to produce the new growth in Spring, and by cutting a shallow strip off the bark and dipping this end in a rooting hormone, roots are encouraged to form in a free-draining compost. If I keep the compost moist, but not so wet as to encourage rot, I'll hopefully have a whole vineyard worth of new vines ready to plant out in the early Summer.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Christmas Greetings

Please note: No fowl were intoxicated in the making of this image

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

A Glut of Apples in Huntingdon

Huntingdon sounds like a nice enough place to visit. It's got a little bit of market town charm for sure, and the monthly Farmers Market is certainly one of the better ones I've been to. It's one of those smallish towns which seem to have a little bit of everything, but not much that really stands out from the crowd.

There is however one gem of a shop on the pedestrian High Street which has few peers countrywide, never mind locally. The Flower Patch is a florist with a bit of a difference, and that difference is the best range of locally grown apples you're likely to find on a high street. I always make a bee-line to the Flower Patch whenever I'm in Huntingdon during the apple season. The all-too-brief English apple season has to be taken advantage of whenever the occasion arises, particularly as our supermarkets seem to think the season begins with unripe Discovery's and ends with equally unripe Cox's, with little of interest in between.

Today at The Flower Patch I counted 20 different varieties of apple, including some slightly rarer than others such as John Standish (Berks), and the reasonably local varieties Allington Pippin (Lincs), and Lord Lambourne (Bedfs). They are all grown at an orchard in nearby Somersham, a village I may have to pay a visit to sometime soon. I came away with a couple of varieties, great value at £1.50/bag, and urge anyone who may find themselves in the area to do the same.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Oundle Town Beer Festival

Since the expansion of Ashley Herb Farm into an excellent local farmshop, we don't tend to visit Farmers Markets that often. Sue and her team at Ashley provide for almost all of our culinary needs, what we can't get from the Herb Farm probably isn't worth eating.

The only exception to this is the Farmers Market at Oundle (2nd Saturday of the month). The range of stalls at this market is well above average, and well worth the slightly bleak drive through the heart of the Rockingham Forest to get there. We usually round the day off with a visit to the Ship Inn, or the nearby Chequered Skipper at Ashton, both of which offer an excellent range of real ales, but today we had the unexpected bonus of a beer festival in the town.

The very first Oundle Town Beer Festival is a fund-raising event in aid of the town's Queen Victoria Hall. The festival itself is held in the hall, a fine turn of the century building in need of a little TLC, and hence the need to raise funds. I was happy to make my contribution to the cause, and was delighted to find amongst the 30 real ales, many from local breweries, a good range of traditional ciders.

Burrow Hill Dry is one of my top-ten ciders, a seriously dry, tannic Somerset cider from the makers of Somerset Cider Brandy, and a rare treat in this neck of the woods. The Sam's Medium is a cleaner, more approachable cider from Devon's Winkleigh Cider Company, perhaps a little too sweet for my taste but very good nevertheless. There were also ciders from Westons of Herefordshire, and Thatchers of Somerset.

Whilst Karen shopped on, I continued with the charitable work. I also got to chatting with the festival organisers and discovered that the cider order had been a little over enthusiastic. By a happy coincidence our village local the Red Lion has been looking for a traditional cider to offer in the absence of our own Rockingham Forest Cider. A barrel of the Sam's Medium has been procured, and should be available in the Red Lion, Middleton from later this week. Get it while you can.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

A Somerset Cider Delivery

Thanks to a dreadful oversight on my part, we have none of our own cider left for Christmas drinking. Which is a shame as we like to have a bit of cider in over the festive season, for our own pleasure as well as that of visitors.

Luckily some cidermakers are a little more far-sighted than us, and keep a bit back for just such occasions. They will even deliver their pride and joy for a price, which is just as well as we haven't the time for a trip to the West-Country. After much deliberation, we opted for a tried and tested cider from Rich's of Somerset. We've visited Rich's many times over the years, and are well acquainted with their excellent, easy-drinking ciders.

Ordered online on Monday, the extremely well packaged box of Traditional Farmhouse Cider arrived by courier today. This does of course means that we're never more than two days away from real draught cider, though if we'd thought to save any of our own, this figure could have been cut to around two minutes at the outside. Ho-hum!

There are an increasing number of cider producers who will courier a box of their cider to you at all times of the year. A listing of some of these can be found on the ever-expanding ukcider wiki here: Mail Order Cider & Perry

Cider Jar of the Month - Hills

The jolly, scrumpy-swigging yokel is an enduring West-Country image, one which crops up all too often on another West-Country perennial, the stoneware cider jar.

It's hard to say where this rather cliched image would have originated from. I've seen literally hundreds of images of cidermaking from throughout the 1900's, and can't say that I've come across a single example of these bucolic, bearded cider cider folk. Even the Wurzels didn't wear smocks!

The West-Country yokel was of course a useful marketing tool for the nascent cider industry, particularly during the post-war years when there would have been an influx of thirsty holidaymakers to the West-Country. The yokel image tells a story of good old fashioned farm labour and wholesome country produce. Buying a flagon of farmhouse cider with one of these jolly figures on the label put a smile on your face, hopefully a foretaste of the pleasures to come, or maybe a distraction from the sour, vinegary contents within!

This jar of Hills Devon Farm Scrumpy Cider is a fine example of the style, the yokel is almost identical to those on jars from many other West-Country producers. Perhaps it was Pearson's of Chesterfield, the manufacture of these stoneware jars, which created the logos and imagery, the yokel figure being as generic to West-Country cider as the image of an apple!

The original cider business of FC Hill & Son was a huge regional cidermaker occupying a four acre site near Totnes in south Devon. They sold out the business to the even bigger concern of Whiteways Cyder in 1935, before setting up a new business at Barkingdon Manor, Staverton which thrived, servicing local pubs and the tourist trade until 1987 when ill health contributed to the business finally being wound up.

So has the yokel image endured? Perhaps surprisingly I couldn't find a single example on a trawl of Devon and Somerset cidermakers websites. Not necessarily a bad thing in my opinion, cider's image has come a long way since the bad old days of farmyard rocket fuel, and it's probably high time we left these rustic images behind. The predominant image of modern cidermaking is the apple, a consensus we at Rockingham Forest Cider heartily subscribe to.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Winter Baubles

In the absence of much activity in the ciderhouse, here's a few wintry scenes from the garden and village. It was a very hard frost this morning, but even so there are still quite a few leaves clinging on to the trees in the orchard. It'll be a few weeks yet before I can dust off the Felco's and start the Winter pruning. I'm eager to get started with the pruning this year as I've got half a dozen rootstock on order, and hope to use some of the prunings to propagate some new trees by grafting.

Winter has well and truly set in now. The vibrant reds, golds and browns of Autumn have given way to a starker, duller colour scheme though on days like this the contrast has been turned all the way up. Some apple trees hang on to their fruit long after the last leaves have fallen. I think they look quite christmasy, a natural display of multi-coloured fruity baubles.

My Oxford Dictionary gives the meaning of Bauble as: Valueless Ornament, which is about right for this blog entry!

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Making & Baking

Today was designated 'Homecraft Sunday', a day for baking our new-season Christmas cakes, and a chance to make a small impression on the troublesome 'Welland Valley Bramley Apple Mountain' (visible from space apparently!). Bramley Apples have very high levels of Malic Acid, and are therefore very difficult to make really good cider from, so we prefer to use them in pies, crumbles and cakes. Unfortunately, this year's poor weather has resulted in apples which are a little too scabby to keep well through the Winter, and it's therefore a race against time before they succumb to rot, fit only for the compost heap.

Karen and I both loves mince pies, who doesn't! For me, it's Karen's mammoth mince pie baking sessions, filling the house with their sweet and spicy aroma, which kick-starts the whole festive season. I do my bit by making the mincemeat... and eating the pies obviously!

This year I've used a recipe from The Big Apple's 3rd collection of Apple & Cider, Pear & Perry Recipes, a terrific little booklet produced by the Big Apple Association, 'a Herefordshire based group dedicated to promoting English orchards, apples and cider'. I've tweaked the recipe slightly, we like our mincemeat slightly sweeter than they do in Herefordshire.

900g Bramley Apples
Juice and grated peel of an orange and a lemon
500g mixed dried fruit
175g muscovado sugar
100g butter
1tsp cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
1tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp nutmeg
300ml cider
5tbsp cider brandy

Grate the apples and add everything else to a pan except the brandy. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for an hour. When thick and pulpy add the brandy, stir well and spoon into sterilised jars.

In the absence of any of our own I used a bottle of Henny's Vintage Still Cider, and topped it off with a drop of Zapiain Sagardoz, a rare cider brandy from Spain's Basque region. Is it too early for a batch of mince pies I wonder...

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Raw Quality

Today was a choice between watching the struggling England rugby union team play the mighty All Blacks in a cosy Uppingham pub, or a tedious racking off and blending session in the freezing cold cider house. On balance frostbite and boredom in the cider house seemed the most rewarding option...

The Rockingham Forest Cider which we pressed in October has almost finished it's initial fermentation. Most of the tubs are showing little or no sign of activity, and it's now time to top them up ready for the cold Winter months. I've been looking forward to this little job ever since we pressed the apples from John's beautiful old Cotswold orchard. I had a good idea that the apples we harvested were good cider varieties, it's not too difficult to recognise a bittersweet cider apple, they don't taste very nice, but it's only now that I can truly gauge their quality.

With the aid of the trusty Rockingham Forest Cider Chicken Baster, I sampled each of the fermenters before topping up with one of the sharper blends of cider. The flavour is obviously a little on the raw side, and still largely dominated by yeastiness, but even so the rich bittersweet character comes shining through. I'm really pleased with the quality at this stage which promises to be even better than last year's vintage. Two of the tubs are still quite lively and sweet, and if anything these slow-movers show the quality of the blend even better.

I may have missed the rugby, but I can sleep safe in the knowledge that all is well in the ciderhouse tonight.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Ram Jam Inn Orchard

During the fruitful months of September and October, cidermakers become highly tuned to presence of orchard fruit. Whether it's keeping an experienced eye on their own orchards, or scanning hedgerows, gardens and fields for other peoples trees, cidermakers are always on the lookout for possibility of fruit going to waste.

When I spotted this beautiful old orchard adjacent to the Ram Jam Inn, I thought my luck was well and truly in. The Ram Jam Inn is an 18th century roadhouse located near the village of Stretton, just off the busy A1 in Rutland. It's more of an upmarket restaurant these days, but was once a hostelry of some renown. The unusual name derives (probably!) from '...a strange concoction brewed by the former Indian batman sergeant landlord' Charles Blake, which was bottled for the take-away trade.

The orchard is very neatly laid out in several straight rows, and apart from the overgrown and upright nature of the growth, nicely maintained. Unfortunately for me the trees appear to be all cooking apples, probably Bramleys, and of no use for our cidermaking. One man's disappointment is another's good fortune though. If you have a liking for apple pie, the Ram Jam Inn may well be the place to visit at this time of year.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Tasting, Topping-up, and Blending

The steady glop of fermentation has eased-off a little in the ciderhouse, and it's time for a spot of topping up. Vigorous fermentation should produce enough CO2 to purge the cider of harmful levels of oxygen, and being heavier than air should form a protective 'blanket' of gas over the surface of the cider. The most common faults in traditional cider, oxidisation and vinegar taint, can only occur when the cider is exposed to oxygen, so it's when fermentation slows right down and less CO2 is being produced that it's essential the ciders are under airlock and topped right up to exclude air.

I decided to use this as an opportunity for a spot of tasting and blending, which in turn led to the first racking-off session of the season. I don't usually rack the ciders off the old yeast deposit (lees) until the new year, but the early dessert apple cider we made in September has just about finished fermenting and most of the sediment has now settled out, so I was keen to assess the different batches ready for blending.

Whilst pressing the eight different varieties of dessert apple which went into this cider, we tried to blend the fruit as we went. We were aiming for consistency across the separate fermenters, but the specific gravities, which ranged from a fairly feeble 1044 up to a more respectable 1051, gave a good indication of our lack of success in this respect. Interestingly the flavour reflected this quite accurately too, the higher gravity ciders were much fuller flavoured, and also a fair bit sharper than those with a lower gravity which tended more to a lighter fruitiness. It seemed sensible to blend these to give an average gravity of 1047-48, equivalent to an alcohol level of around 6.4% if fermented out to a dry cider.

I'm pleased to report that the perry, which was also topped up, has a very good, healthy aroma. So far, so good, the incantations appear to be working.

The picture has of course got nothing to do with the topping-up and blending, but gives a good indication of the current state of the village orchard. These fallen Bramleys made for a nice picture, though sadly they're too bruised to store well, and far too acidic for cidermaking, so the orchard floor is where they'll stay.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Cider Jar of the Month - Mannings

There's not a lot I can say about this long defunct Devon cider business. In common with most of the (presumably) successful regional cidermakers which were either swallowed up or bit the dust in the latter part of the 20th century, information is rather thin on the ground.

The only bit of history I've managed to dig up on Mannings & Sons is this website for Mallard Cottage, a self-catering business on the site of the original Mannings ciderworks in Tuckenhay near Totnes. There's a nice picture of an old bottle label, but little else to flesh out the story of Mannings Vintage Devon Cider.

It's a nice jar though.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

What a difference a day makes...

The Welland Valley Special has now joined the other ciders in a frenzy of frothing 'n' foaming fermentation. The additional yeast I pitched in appears to have had a dramatic effect. My job is done... for now.

There's still quite a lot of apples on trees around the village which I could press, but as most of it's high acid culinary fruit, unlikely to bring anything extra to the various blends of cider, I've decided to call this year's cidermaking session to a timely conclusion. The press has been mothballed until next season, and it only remains to organise the staff Christmas social...

Monday, 3 November 2008

Slow Starter

There's always one isn't there! The Welland Valley Special is playing hard to get, dawdling behind the other happily fizzing fermenters and refusing to become cider. This will not do!

We pitched the yeast into this final batch of cider a week ago, and since then I've taken regular peeks under the lid in anticipation of the fermentation bursting into life. The initial signs of yeast activity seemed good, the tell-tale ring of tiny bubbles appeared within a couple of days, but since then it's all gone quiet. The nose is a good instrument to bring into play at this stage, any signs of yeastiness, or the sharp pain of a nose full of CO2 would give the game away. Even the unmistakably foul aroma of H2S (common in the early stages of fermentation) wouldn't neccesarily be unwelcome, but this particular tub has remained resolutely appley with no sign that it wants to turn cidery in any great hurry.

I confirmed the initial prognosis by checking the gravity with a hydrometer. It hasn't shifted from the initial 1047 of the freshly pressed juice. Oh well, no harm has come to it yet so I've pitched in a second dose of yeast and this will hopefully kick-start the fermentation. Back to peeking under the lid then...

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Apples in the Press

Earlier in the month I was interviewed, photographed, and generally spit-roasted by the features editor of the Northampton Chronicle & Echo. The resulting article, inspired by CAMRA's October Cider & Perry Month campaign, appeared in the October 11th edition of their 'Weekend Life' supplement, but since we were too busy picking apples in Worcestershire that day, I failed to track down a copy.

Today Karen had business in Northampton so I took the opportunity to tag along and pop into the Chronicle & Echo offices, who were happy to sell me a copy. They obviously have an awful lot of this edition left over...

The photographer took dozens of pictures, posing me like a cheap page three girl over mounds of rosy-red apples. Unfortunately, rather too many of these tawdry images made it into the article, and for your own good I've neglected to include the full-page spread which featured on the front page of the supplement!

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Pick 'n' Mix

Today was almost certainly the last day of pressing this season. It's been hard work, but gratifyingly we've managed to make more cider than ever before, around 400 gallons in total.

Today's pressing session was quite significant as we were making a new batch of our Welland Valley Special, the cider we make from local apples and which we usually sell at the Welland Valley Beer Festival in June. The picture above gives a good indication of the mix of apples which have gone into this year's batch, around 8 different varieties in all. The dessert apples which make up the bulk of this blend were very full flavoured late varieties, including some small, yellow, and very sweet apples from Rockingham, a sack full of huge russeted pippins from up the road in Cottingham, and the deep purpley red apples in the picture which had a wonderfully rich, slightly bitter, sweetness. These apples came from an old orchard on the Rockingham Castle estate which contains at least eight different varieties of apple and pear alone. If only we know what they were! The specific gravity of the juice is 1047, which should give a reasonable level of alcohol, and I think this blend will produce a very good cider.

We used some of the juice from todays pressing to top up the earlier batches of cider, particularly important where the fermentation had all but finished. In the event I slightly overfilled one of the tubs and had to remove a little so that it wouldn't overflow into the airlock. This gave me an opportunity to sample some of the cider we pressed in September, which was made from a blend of organic dessert apples.

The cider is obviously very young and still quite cloudy. It's quite hard to evaluate the aroma at the moment, as the yeast has not settled sufficiently and it still dominates the nose. Other than that it shows great promise. The flavour is sharp, but pleasantly so, and there's quite a bit of fruitiness despite the cider being quite dry. The first taste is a little bit too full-on to really enjoy, but after a few sips it starts to taste remarkably drinkable. Not bad for a cider made only a month ago, and I'm confident this will mellow nicely for early Summer drinking.

Friday, 24 October 2008

A word about? ...Organic

This year most of our cider, and all of our small batch of perry will be made from the fruit of old unsprayed traditional orchards. The only fertilizers these trees receive are from the livestock which graze the orchard floor during the Summer months or the diverse range of fauna attracted to these largely unmanaged havens for wildlife. We count ourselves very lucky to be given access to these venerable, unspoilt orchards, which we're confident have been free of any agricultural spraying programme for many years, if indeed they've ever been sprayed!

Unfortunately most of the trees and orchards we gather our fruit from are living on borrowed time, of little or no commercial value, merely waiting to be exploited as building land or at the very least for a more profitable agricultural use. Grain seems to be the flavour of the month, apples have been out of favour for decades! By continuing to harvest (and pay for) the fruit from these traditional old orchards, we like to think we're going some way towards supporting their continued existence, even if it's only in a very small way.

The cider we make from the fruit of these old, unsprayed orchards is not necessarily better than that made from more intensively grown fruit, that's all down to the blend of apples and the skills we aim to bring to the cidermaking process. But given the choice we'll always choose to make our cider from apples grown without the use of agri-chemicals, even if that means hand picking the fruit and paying more for the privilege. The more intensively managed the orchard, the more need there seems to be for sprays and chemical fertilizers, and we've found that the fruit from old traditional orchards is often largely free from the sort of diseases which are routinely sprayed for in the more intensive orchard environments. Which brings me rather neatly to the point of this blog entry, the 'O' word.

Organic ciders have to be made from apples grown organically, ie. grown subject to strict guidelines on what can and cannot be added to the soil and the trees themselves, and so reduce the growers impact on the environment in general. The organic system has always made sense to me, I don't want to eat and drink things full of artificial chemicals, and I care enough about the environment to want to support organic growers and to encourage more to think and farm in the same way. So why are things not so rosy in the organic orchard...

The cider we made in September was from a batch of fully certified organic apples, 'cull fruit' not suitable for commercial sale due to blemishes or small size, but perfectly suitable for juicing and cidermaking. We were offered the fruit by the nice people at Windmill Orchards in the Northamptonshire village of Sulgrave, and felt that it was worth making an experimental batch of cider, since not only would it be from 'Organic' apples, but also from relatively 'local' Northamptonshire fruit. Even though we knew we wouldn't be able to call the resulting cider 'Organic', we were reasonably confident that we would be able to label the cider as being made from 'organic apples'. We would therefore be able to comfortably pass on the higher cost of the apples in a slightly increased price for the cider, knowing that customers would be getting the double whammy of a truly local cider made from purely organic apples.

I decided it was time to contact the UK arbiters of all things 'Organic', the Soil Association, to find out where we stood with regard to the labelling of this 'premium' batch of cider, which is where it all started going wrong! Because we are not registered as organic producers with the Soil Association, we cannot use the word 'Organic' anywhere on labelling or publicity, this despite the fact that we have receipts for all the apples which went into this batch of cider from certified organic growers.

I suppose I can understand the need for policing the use of the word 'Organic' throughout the chain of production from growing to selling, but the problem is that very small producers like ourselves are effectively priced out of the whole Organic loop. The minimum cost for registration with the Soil Association is well over £500 per annum, which is small change for large-scale producers, but a significant percentage of our current turnover. It really isn't worth our registering for this cost, any additional value we would realise from our 'cider made from apples grown by a certified organic grower' (even this title may be breaking the law!) would be wiped out by the cost of inspection and registration with the Soil Association. There is a sliding scale for registration, based on the size of the business, but unfortunately the scale doesn't slide anywhere near our (or many other small-scale cidermakers who are also using unsprayed fruit) level.

So, we will continue to make ciders and perry from totally unsullied apples and pears (of a standard which actually exceeds that of organically grown fruit, ie. no Sulphur sprays against scab!), but it's doubtful whether we'll be repeating the experiment of producing a cider from 'Organic' apples next year, since there's little chance that we can realise the value of a cider made from fruit that we can't talk about in public!

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Monday, 20 October 2008

Hog Heaven

The tricky business of disposing of around a ton of pressed apple pulp has been made considerably easier this year with the help of the nice people at Keythorpe Rare Breeds.

Smallholding dynamo's Serena & Adam are the driving force behind Keythorpe Rare Breeds, producers of high quality pork and lamb at a smallholding on the Leicestershire/Rutland border. Amongst the menagerie of (mostly!) domesticated animals living happily at Keythorpe are a sizeable stock of rare breed porkers, and as we know, pigs absolutely love apples. So once we've extracted the important bit from the apples, the dry(ish) pulp, or pomace as it's known in ciderland, goes over to Keythorpe to supplement the diet of these pampered porkers.

I was a little worried at first that the pigs wouldn't be able to keep up with the quantity of pomace we've been producing, but it turns out I was way off the mark. Demand is outstripping supply, and the arrival of each fresh batch of pomace causes quite a stir on the smallholding. Here's a message I received from Serena today...

'...One of my fatteners OD’d on the other lot of apples the other day, and spent most of yesterday sleeping and looking very sorry for itself, needless to say Adam and I went out of our way to make as much noise as possible, and to constantly wake it up. Serves it right for spending most of Saturday with its head in the apple bag.'

Appley over-indulgence... Sleeping all day and looking sorry for itself... Serious lack of sympathy from loved ones... Hmm! Sounds rather too familiar to me...

Saturday, 18 October 2008


Yesterday was the first day of our annual October cidermaking week, an exhausting round of milling, washing and pressing which should ultimately lead to a ciderhouse full of busily bubbling fermenters. The day went reasonably smoothly, and progress was steady. Today has been a well-earned rest day.

The first fruit into the mill was a small batch of ripe perry pears harvested from the Worcestershire orchard we visited last weekend. We knew there were several old perry pear trees dotted throughout the orchard, including several of the highly regarded varieties Blakeney Red and Moorcroft (sometimes known as Malvern Hills), but with many Three Counties perry makers reporting very poor crops this year I wasn't expecting much from these ancient specimens. By commercial standards the crop was indeed pretty poor, but our more modest production levels made the meagre crop just about worth harvesting.

We came away with around three sacks of ripe pears from three or four different trees, and we appeared to have two distinct varieties. Pears of all types have a tendency to be at their optimum ripeness for only a few short days, quickly going from hard-as-nails to mushy-with-rot before they can be put to use. These pears were no exception, and it was crucial that we process them as soon as possible.

Most perry pears are high in tannin, but some are so mouth-puckeringly tannic that the resulting perry could be virtually undrinkable. Tannin levels in pears and apples can be reduced by a process called 'Maceration' which involves milling the pears then leaving the pulp to stand for several hours prior to pressing. We decided not to macerate these pears, Blakeney and Moorcroft don't fall into the 'massively tannic' category, and are regarded by some as relatively easy pears to make perry from. Welcome news!

After our experiences pressing dessert fruit in September I was sure these (by now rapidly over-ripening) pears would surely clog up the pressing cloths and make a right mess of the racks. I worried needlessly, these pears milled to a fine porridgy consistency, and pressed beautifully. We didn't manage to completely fill the press, but did manage to extract a similar amount of juice to that of a full pressing of apples. The spent pomace was very dry and we managed to almost fill one of the smaller 70 litre fermenters. All in all, we like pressing perry pears very much!

Prior to pressing these pears I spent a bit of time researching the process, and one thing which cropped up time and again was just how much of a lottery perry making can be. Following all the rules is sometimes not enough on its own, you may also need a little bit of luck. Even a well-made perry can turn vinegary or develop other faults at the drop of a hat, so as novice perry makers we're hoping for a little bit of good old fashioned beginners luck to hover over this particular fermenter.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Cotswold Harvest

Whoever it was that booked the weather this weekend did a splendid job. A long weekend spent harvesting apples in driving wind and rain could have made for a thoroughly miserable experience, but the sun shined and it proved to be a memorable weekend in a beautiful Cotswold orchard.

Harvesting a ton or so of apples by hand is a very labour-intensive and back-breaking way to fill the cider press, but there are a few advantages which make it worth the additional effort. Despite the hard graft, it can be a very pleasant way to spend a day, particularly if willing helpers are on hand to lighten the load. Karen put in a very long day on Saturday, and brother Paul and sister-in-law Susan will no-doubt be feeling the pain from the Sunday harvesting session. It was a great effort and I'm very grateful for the help. I think everyone enjoyed the experience, and are presumably counting the days until next year's picking weekend...

Perhaps the biggest advantage of hand picking our apples is the chance to avoid any rotten, damaged, or unripe fruit. We can also avoid the excessive mud, leaves and twigs associated with mechanical harvesting, and this should make the cleaning process far easier.

Ripe cider apples are quite robust, and the traditional method of harvesting involves shaking the fruit down from the tree and collecting from the orchard floor, a hard but very effective method of clearing an orchard. So armed with long 'panking' poles, buckets, bags and a large tarpaulin, we moved swiftly through the orchards selecting only the best bittersweet cider apples to shake down, and a few precious perry pears. The steady stream of walkers on the adjacent Cotswold Way footpath seemed to appreciate our efforts, a rare glimpse of a genuine rural tradition, albeit with a modern fibreglass pole and a Lidl apple picker!

The poles need a little more thought as neither of them lasted the weekend intact. They really are essential tools in an old traditional orchard like this where most of the trees are on tall 'standard' rootstock. The perry pear trees are even taller, and much of the fruit is beyond the reach of even our longest pole.

We were selecting our apples by taste as most of the varieties were a mystery to us. Bittersweet cider apples have a distinctive bitter, tanninic quality, as well as a healthy dose of sweetness. We believe we may have Dabinett, Tremlett's Bitter, Yarlington Mill, and possibly even a few small Kingston Blacks amongst several other varieties. The perry pears could be either Blakeney Red or Moorcroft, and we're hopeful there are enough of them for a single pressing. This would give us enough juice to fill a 70 litre fermenter and with luck produce a very limited quantity of Rockingham Forest Perry.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Cider Jar of the Month - Norbury's Black Bull Cider

Black Bull Cider from the Norbury Cider Co was one of the first 'real' ciders I ever came across. Camping and partying in the Black Mountains of Wales occupied many of my weekends in the early 90's, and we always seemed to drive past the distinctive roadside sign for Norbury's Black Bull Cider on the journeys there and back.

The sign is long gone now, but anyone who would have taken the road from Worcester to Hereford in those days may well remember the huge white barrel, lofted high on a platform and bearing the image of the company's Black Bull logo.

The Norburys started making cider around 1980 following the slump in the homegrown fruit market as a result of the UK joining the EEC. The ciders are made from a range of traditional cider apples blended with dessert/culinary varieties grown in their own orchards, and are well made and clean tasting. The 'Black Bull' title is derived from the French 'noir' (black) and 'boeuf' (bull) from which the Norbury family take their name. I think it makes for a handsome and authentically 'rural' image on cider jars such as this one.

A range of bottled Black Bull ciders can be found locally at Brockleby's Farm Shop near Melton Mowbray, and Norbury also attend several East Midlands Farmers Markets.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Uppingham Oktoberfest

Another local beer festival comes along, and once again it's touch and go whether we'll manage to get to it. A plea to all beer and cider festival organisers, 'Don't organise your tipple-fest in October please, we're too damn busy!'... Well, it's worth a go.

The Crown Hotel is my pub of choice whenever I visit the Rutland market town of Uppingham. It's an Everards Brewery pub and therefore has beers I like (though sadly no cask Beacon), plus a better than average range of guest beers, and Westons Old Rosie for those who prefer the taste of fermented apples. The Crown has also become one of the centres of local CAMRA activity since licensee Alan Pickersgill was made Secretary of the new Rutland branch of the Campaign for Real Ale.

This is the second of two annual beer festivals which take place at the Crown. The Oktoberfest (Thurs 9th - Mon 13th) will feature around 20 Real ales, draught German beers and a small range of real ciders, including our own Rockingham Forest Cider. This will be the last event we supply with cider this year, another significant milestone in our cidermaking year.

Update: Whilst delivering our cider yesterday I had a chance to chat with Alan. The beers are all stillaged, rigged up to cooling equipment, and settling nicely. There will in fact be 6 ciders available from Biddenden (Kent), Thatchers (Somerset) and Westons (Herefordshire), plus of course a barrel of our own from Northants.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Pressing & Problem Solving

Cidermaking is of course an art. Selecting varieties of apple which are suitable for the style of cider we're trying to make is the start. The conduct of the fermentation, maturing and blending of the different ciders, and careful storage right up until the point of sale are all important in producing a high quality drink.

The actual physical process of making cider is much more a problem solving exercise than an art. Every year we aim to move the process forward, investing in new equipment and up-scaling production, but each great-leap-forward brings with it new and unforeseen problems.

Our terrific new Voran Press has been instrumental in doubling our efficiency this year, by both speeding up the process, and increasing juice yield significantly. The press delivers over 24 tons of pressure through the 8 layers of the cheese, effortlessly squeezing the apple pulp dry, and delivering around 13 gallons of juice each pressing. This sort of efficiency can of course lead to bottle-necks somewhere in the process, and it's in the washing and sorting of the fruit that we're now struggling to keep up. We may have to invest in a bigger bucket!

The huge pressure that the new press delivers can cause problems too. The dessert apples we've been pressing up to now have a tendency to squeeze out through the press cloths, making cleaning a very difficult task. This shouldn't be such a problem when we start pressing the more fibrous cider apples later in the month.

The Rotary Mill (or Scratter) which is attached to the press is also very efficient. It deals with bucket-loads of washed apples as quickly as we can pour them in, spitting out the finely milled pulp at such a high velocity that things could get very messy in the ciderhouse. Our ingenious solution involves a cheap storage tub, a Stanley Knife and a couple of Bungee's. The high-speed pomace is now directed straight down to the waiting tub, and another potential nightmare clean-up session has been avoided.

Talking of nightmare cleanup's, the Acacia Racks which separate the layers of cloth-wrapped pomace, are also a bit of a devil to get clean. Cleanliness in cidermaking is essential, and these racks will quickly develop a bloom of mould if not cleaned and dried properly after use. I've been searching long and hard for a reasonably priced container big enough to lay the racks in for a soak in sulphite solution. I finally found a tray in a garden centre which was the perfect size for the racks, though unfortunately not deep enough for all nine together. More cash spent, more problems solved.

The two larger pictures of the press were kindly sent to us by James, sometime resident of our village local the Red Lion, in Middleton.