Sunday, 27 July 2008

Rockingham Forest Perry?

Rumours have reached us of a serious shortage of perry pears in the Three Counties. Mike Johnson of Broome Farm Cider in Herefordshire is currently 'scouring the shire' for available perry pears following the failure of his trees to set much fruit this year, and others in Herefordshire are reporting a similar tale.

We've recently been granted the use of fruit from a very old Worcestershire cider orchard, which also contains several ancient perry pear trees. Needless to say we were greatly looking forward to making our first ever batch of perry from this fruit, particularly as the varieties, Moorcroft and Blakeney Red, are such excellent quality pears capable of making very decent single variety perrys. News of shortages in Herefordshire spurred us to go take a look at this years crop in Worcestershire.

The orchard is set in a beautiful part of the Cotswolds, and though very old, and containing some dead and decaying trees, it's still productive and certainly a wonderful place to spend a hot Sunday afternoon. We examined the cider apple trees which were laden with ripening fruitletts. The cider varieties are also top quality, and include Dabinett's and Kingston Black's, both renowned for making excellent quality ciders. The ground here is not the most giving, and many of the trees are smaller than their age suggests. Orchard owner John suggests that this contributes to the quality of the fruit from his orchard, and having tried his cider in the days when he still made a drop, I can well believe this.

So plenty of cider fruit, but what of the perry pears. Armed with a small set of binoculars, we examined the tall perry pear trees carefully. Small clusters of the small pears could be seen on most of the trees, though hardly a bumper crop on any. It will be touch and go whether we can harvest enough pears to make even one batch of perry this year, though we didn't tour the whole orchard which extends through three separate fields, so there may be more than we think.

A lovely day out in an old orchard rich in wildlife. We spotted Buzzards and Woodpeckers on our stroll through the trees. Common enough birds for sure, but seen in an increasingly rare environment these days. Perhaps the highlight of the day for me was the generous thumbs-up we got from John for a bottle of our own cider. John knows a thing or two about cidermaking so this was high praise indeed for our own humble efforts.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Lovely Lacewings

The UK construction industry may have hit the buffers post credit-crunch, but we're ploughing ahead unperturbed with our own des-res developments for beneficial insects. No planning permission needed, and no loans from the 'trustworthy' world of banking and finance. Just a spare piece of skirting board, an old port wine box, and a few pieces from our extensive collection of old slate tiles. We're confident that the Rockingham Forest Cider recycling targets have been met for another month.

Following the aphid problems we've had in the orchard this year, and particularly the Rosy Apple Aphid which has set the growth back on one of the Harry Masters' Jersey trees by a good year, the need to encourage additional beneficial insects into the orchard has become apparent. Lacewing and Ladybird larvae, Spiders and Earwigs are all good insects to have amongst our trees. Lacewing in particular love Rosy Apple Aphid, and it was with these in mind that I've constructed several overwintering refuges to be distributed throughout the orchard.

The idea of these little bug homes is to provide a safe shelter for insects, many of which would otherwise perish during the cold Winter months. This way, when the aphids make their appearance in the orchard in the early Summer there should already be a strong population of predators in-situ and ready to do battle on our behalf.

There are plenty of these bug homes available to buy off-the-peg, and they're relatively inexpensive, but it's always nice to build something yourself, particularly if it uses up materials otherwise cluttering the place up. The commercial versions usually have a louvered front, whereas ours are simply stuffed with corrugated cardboard underneath. It will be interesting to see what, if any, 'first time buyers' move into our new-build bug houses this coming Winter. Hard working residents we hope.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Cider & Cheese

The 4th Criterion Cider & Perry Festival presented me with a bit of a dilemma. Not which ciders to choose from the great list Russell and Karen had put together, nor whether to sample the last of our Welland Valley Special which had already sold out by the time I arrived on Saturday. The dilemma was choosing between the dozen or so delicious farmhouse cheeses, or reverting to form with the equally appealing stonebaked pizzas. Hmm!

Cider and cheese are of course a perfect combination (though cider and pizza are a pretty good match too), so I plumped for a few chunks of Cornish Yarg and Cornish Blue, accompanied by a selection of biscuits and crackers, and a half of the lusciously sweet Heck's Dabinett & Honey. Heck's are a very well respected Somerset cidermaker which specialise in a wide range of single variety ciders and perrys. The rich tannins of the Dabinett apple with the toothsome sweetness of the honey made this a real sippin' cider.

I also tried the refreshingly bone-dry Orchards Cider, J Edwards Strawberry Norman Cider, which was as nice as it sounds, perrys from Troggi of Wales and Moore's of Gloucestershire, and a very well balanced Welsh cider from Watkins. I didn't try our own Rockingham Forest Cider, there's plenty of that at home to try!

Like buses, Summer beer and cider festivals usually arrive in pairs, so off we went to the Queen Victoria Booze & Blues Festival for a few more ciders in the small courtyard garden. I tried the Gwynt-Y-Ddraig Perry and the Gwatkin Kingston Black Cider, a very good example of single variety cider made from this famous cider apple variety. There were quite a few beers on offer here too, including a Rhubarb Beer which seemed to be the talk of the festival. Here we were entertained by a very good solo performer whose name escaped me, before being whisked home by Karen, the designated driver of the day. Here's a short video of him pleasuring the crowd with Crossroads...

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Beer Festivals and Beetle Dwellings

Another busy weekend of cider business draws to a close, and what a good weekend it's been. Sunday in particular has been a proper sunny Summer day, which encouraged me into the orchard for a spot of wildlife inspired Jenga.

The wildlife potential of our little cider apple orchard needs improving, if only because we're aiming to grow as organically as possible and therefore need all the help we can get from insects, birds and mammals. To this end I'm planning to install a few additional areas of habitat which will hopefully be attractive to all manner of beneficial insects. I've started with a couple of small log piles, located in partial shade to encourage the wood to rot down and provide ideal living accommodation for beetles and other predatory insects. It's going to take a while before these reach their full rotten potential, but it's a good start, and for a pile of wood they look quite attractive really.

We also had a visit from Rothwell cider connoisseur, and Saracens rugby fan (well, nobody's perfect) Rob Boughton, who has a long standing involvement with the Merton Summer Beer Festival. The Oxfordshire village of Merton is a little further afield than we're usually happy to deliver cider to, but Rob talked me round over a pint or two at this year's Delapre Abbey Beer Festival. The absolutely, definitely last barrel of the Welland Valley Special Cider is now on it's way to Merton, so you can choose to track it down there, or at the Criterion Cider & Cheese Festival this coming weekend.

Rockingham Forest Cider continues it's successful Summer residence at our village local, the Red Lion. I doubt whether sales of our cider will be scaring the Bulmers and Magners reps, but someone seems to like it and I'm pleased to say that it's selling well without the aid of ice. The current 'over-ice' trend is a marketing mans dream, but one that sparks terror into the hearts of craft cidermakers. Small-scale craft cidermakers work very hard to produce ciders and perrys bursting with fruity flavours, only for the over-eager use of ice to suppress much of that flavour. We don't recommend the use of ice in our ciders, nor do we recommend the addition of fruit syrups! Unfortunately, we have it on very good authority that our cider has fallen foul of the even more current trend for 'Nordic fruity ciders', with several young ladies asking for a shot of Blackcurrant in their glass of Rockingham Forest Cider.

Hmm! Could there be a market for a Rockingham Forest Blackcurrant Cider I wonder? Perhaps a little too much of a mouthful for me.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Cider Jar of the Month

Well, what can I say about this blast from the past...

Langdons were a well regarded traditional cidermaker based at Hewish, near the tourist hot-spot of Weston-Super-Mare in Somerset, and produced a range of 'Fine Farmhouse Ciders' principally for this huge seaside tourist trade. Langdons were listed in a couple of the early cider guides, including David Kitton's Traditional Cider Directory (1984), but not in Ted Bruning's CAMRA Guide to Real Cider (1996). A relatively short stay for a business making several thousand gallons a year and with a captive market, though competition has always been fierce around this part of Somerset.

Interestingly, the Cripple Cock brand appears to pre-date Langdons, with John Dix of Dixie's Fine Cider producing a cider of the same name up until the mid-80's. John Dix plied his trade in the heart of Bristol, not too far from Langdons, and was a well known character and advocate of traditional cidermaking and orcharding. It is of course quite possible that Langdons bought or inherited the brand when John Dix ceased pressing, and similarly, when Langdons threw in the towel the Cripple Cock brand was perhaps deemed too sale-worthy to let die, and was relocated even further into the West Country of Devon.

A bottled cider bearing the label 'Cripple Cock Farmyard Scrumpy', which features the same one-legged rooster on the label, can still be found in supermarkets and tourist traps throughout the West-Country. It's now produced by the Fowlers Scrumpy Co, a Cornish producer who's other products include the 'hilariously' named Fowl Scrumpy and Scrumpy Willey (ahem!)

These quirkily named ciders don't appeal much to me. They perpetuate an image of cider which is rooted in the bad old days of rough farm scrumpy, and drinking the strongest tipple available as an aid to getting as drunk as possible. However, they do seem to come from quite a long and (dis)honorable West-Country tradition, one which continues to this day. Perhaps when Fowlers have finished with it, they'll be looking to hand on their one-legged Rooster brand to another willing cidermaker. We'll be sticking with Diana's lovely apple logo for now, we think it sends out the right kind of message. Our cider is made from Apples, and definitely not Fowl!

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Criterion Cider & Cheese Festival

One of our regular outlets the Criterion Freehouse in Leicester, has now moved into the digital age with a natty new website:

The Criterion is one of a handful of Leicester city-centre pubs which can be relied on to always offer a good range of cider and perry, in addition to the real ales. On a recent visit I enjoyed a Yarlington Mill cider from well respected Herefordshire producer Dennis Gwatkin. The team at the Criterion have a long-standing commitment to offering real ciders and perrys, and back this up with a successful Cider & Cheese Festival in the Summer.

This year's festival, which is now less than two weeks away (17th - 20th July), will be the fourth, and should feature a dozen or more ciders and perrys including a few from Wales. We will be delivering the last barrel of this year's Welland Valley Special Cider for the festival. If you missed it at the Welland Valley Beer Festival, this will be your last chance to try this fruity local cider before the new season in 2009.

I'm looking forward to visiting the festival over the weekend, and trying some of those delicious cheeses, which are of course the perfect accompaniment to a glass of cider or perry.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Aphid update

Those nasty green Aphids are still a problem in the orchard. I've continued my regime of squishing those insects which can't be blasted off with a jet of water.

We're very pleased to see the garden birds are doing their bit too. A busy pair of Blue tits are finding the apple trees very attractive to hang on to, and one of my favourite birds, a speckle-breasted Song Thrush, has become a regular visitor to the orchard floor. Best of all is the Green Woodpecker which has been visiting most days, hopping around the orchard in search of ants, of which there is an abundance. These are the very same ants which carry aphids up to the soft shoots on our trees, so this shy visitor is more than welcome.

The most unusual bird I spotted this week was a female Sparrow Hawk, which I spotted clinging to the barn wall Woodpecker-style, just outside one of the many Sparrow nests. The bird must have chased a Sparrow back to it's nest in the wall. It wasn't quick enough though, the Sparrows were safe within, and the Hawk flew off empty beaked. This all happened no more than 10 yrds from where I stood, but sadly there was no chance of capturing it on film.

I've struggled to get a good pics of any of these birds, the best being this rather blurred image of the Woodpecker, dibbling amongst the Dabinetts and Harry Masters'. Woodpeckers have a habit of hiding behind trees whenever they realise they're being watched, which made stalking this bird for a photo quite a challenge.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

T'internet finally arrives in Hucknall

Northern cider monkeys Ray & Gail of the award-winning Hucknall Cider Co, have finally joined us in the 21st Century by embracing the world of Cider-Blogging. Expect plenty of canny tales, brash northern humour, and gritty images from the world of flat-caps, Whippets, and the tight creamy head.

Alright, that's enough stereotyping for one evening, I'm looking forward to regular cidery updates from Ray & Gail, I know they've got plenty to blog about.
The Internet is awash with malt'n'hops blogs, it's high time we had a few more bulletins from the orchard. There is a link to the Torkard Cider Blog to the right of this entry.