Sunday, 28 September 2008

Last Orders at the Bar for 2008

Today has been designated a day of rest, well deserved after the exertions of the previous few days. I say 'rest', but it's hardly been a 'feet up in front of the telly' kind of day. Even without actually milling and pressing apples, there always seems to be plenty of cleaning, tidying, and general mollycoddling of the apple juice to be done.

I did manage to stay awake long enough for a lunchtime pint down the village local. A couple of Streaky's from the award winning Potbelly Brewery really hit the spot, the perfect prelude to a planned afternoon nap which unfortunately never happened. The Red Lion had just ran out of Rockingham Forest Cider, and this triggered a key moment in our cidermaking year, the delivery of our very last box of this year's cider. I must admit, it was an emotional moment for me, although this could have been down to the heady cocktail of extreme fatigue and Potbelly Streaky!

Thanks to the stirling efforts of Kevin & Fiona at the Red Lion, and our other regular outlets throughout the year, we've now met our target of selling out of cider by the end of the Summer. It's important for us that the fermenters are empty by October at the very latest, so that they're then ready to be filled with juice for the new season cider.

We do have one barrel of cider put aside for the Uppingham Oktoberfest (9th - 13th October), but other than that, it's the Red Lion in Middleton if you want to try the last of this year's cider.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Pressing Engagement

Weekends are usually a time for rest and recreation. Sunday lunch, a potter round the garden, perhaps a few pints down the local. If only! At this time of the year there's precious little time for any of the traditional weekend pursuits when the apples are ripe and there's cider to be made.

This particular weekend is proving to a very long and exhausting one. The first cidermaking session of the year is always a challenge, but this year we've got the added difficulty of a new mill and press to get to grips with. Usually we have a small pressing session in September to help iron out any problems and get up to speed in readiness for the main pressing in October, but this year we've been thrown in at the deep end with a ton and a half of organic dessert apples urgently in need of processing.

Karen has pulled out all the stops, multi-skilling between washing apples, mashing tea, and delivering cider (see Billesdon Slow Food Lunch), whilst still managing to juggle the demands of three needy hens and an equally needy fella! Between the two of us we've managed to press 150 gallons of juice so far, with another 50 gallons or so to press on Monday when we've had a chance to recover.

The new press is a joy to use, delivering up to 13 gallons of juice per pressing. Fermenters are filling up at a dizzying rate, and the dry apple pulp (pomace) is accumulating almost as fast. This year we are very lucky to have Adam & Serena of Keythorpe Rare Breeds taking our spent pomace. They have a lot of hungry pigs to feed, and porkers like apples apparently. I'm pleased to say that Adam & Serena like our cider too, the feeling is entirely mutual since we very much like their pork!

So, everything in the orchard's rosy then?... Well, not quite!

Every great leap forward in technology comes with an equal and opposite, and often entirely unforeseen drawback. Our press is very efficient, squeezing the pomace satisfyingly dry, and therefore giving us a good quantity of juice. Unfortunately the apples we're currently pressing are delicate little things, and really not designed to be squeezed this tightly.

One of the characteristics of a good cider apple is that the flesh is very chewy. This makes them totally unsuitable for eating, but ideal for pressing in a traditional 'Rack & Cloth' press. In this system the milled pulp is wrapped in nylon cloths, and then sandwiched between slatted racks. The huge pressure of the press squeezes out the juice leaving the fibrous flesh neatly enclosed within the folded cloths ready for disposal. Unfortunately many dessert and culinary apples lack this chewy texture, and during pressing the mushy flesh can be squeezed through the weave of the cloth making them very difficult to clean following pressing. So this has been today's minor headache, the cloths are a mess.

Once again, our first pressing session has been characterised by a spell of glorious weather (after the fog has lifted), and a wide range of spectacularly aching muscles. Oh well! We can be comforted by the knowledge that nothing good in life ever comes easily.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Grape Vines and a Plague of Chickens

A little off-topic for a cidermaking blog, but the Rockingham Forest micro-Vineyard has finally come to fruition.

One of the first things we planted when we moved to Middleton, were three grape vines given to us by the owners of a Leicestershire Vineyard. The two Regent, and one Rondo vines produced a modest crop of dark purple grapes last year, which unfortunately ended up in the beaks of the local Blackbirds before we could turn them into wine. This year we netted the vines more effectively, and have ended up with a healthy crop of grapes suitable for making a gallon or two of red wine.

Producing red wine in the English climate can be a thankless task. Even when blessed with good Summer weather we're unlikely to achieve sugar levels to match the heavy-duty offerings of Australian wine makers. Our vines are planted against an (almost) South-facing stone wall which absorbs a tremendous amount of heat during the day, and radiates it out to the vines throughout the night. It was this factor which influenced our decision to plant red wine varieties, though only time will tell whether we've achieved the ripeness we need after such a poor Summer.

Gauging the ripeness of grapes for winemaking is a tricky business without the aid of expensive measuring equipment. We would normally be looking to harvest from the end of September, but circumstances prevailed and we had to pick now, ready or not. Our free-ranging hens were taking a very keen interest in what grapes they could reach through the netting. The sweet and juicy treats were working them up into a bacchanalian frenzy, and the greedy gobblers were threatening to break through the flimsy netting and consume the lot. If all was not to be lost, we had to pick now.

Actually, the chickens seem to have done us a bit of a favour. The grapes are soft and juicy, with a hint that some were on the point of going over to rot. We may therefore have picked them at their optimum ripeness. We've ended up with around 2 gallons of crushed grapes (we used hands rather than the traditional feet to crush the grapes), and hope to produce at least half a dozen bottles of 'Chateau Middleton' strictly for home use.

Normal cider service will now be resumed...

Organic Apple Scrumping

The 2008 cidermaking season is now in full swing. We've already harvested a small quantity of apples from orchards and gardens in the Welland Valley, and now the weather has taken a turn for the better, we hope to be harvesting more local fruit within the next few weeks.

Most, if not all of the apples we aim to press this year will be sourced from orchards which are entirely free from pesticide and herbicide sprays. Indeed most of the orchards we gather fruit from are effectively managed organically (ie. barely managed at all). Many small-scale cidermakers use fruit from similarly un-sprayed orchards, but to describe the resulting cider as 'Organic' requires that the orchard source, and the cidermaking process have to be inspected for approval by the Soil Association, an expensive option for the really small producers like ourselves.

One possible exception to this is the cider we'll be making this coming weekend from a batch of fully certified organic Northamptonshire apples. Neil & Sima Johnston of Windmill Orchard grow a range of dessert and culinary apples for farmers markets and organic box schemes in a beautiful location on Northamptonshire's border with Oxfordshire. Surplus apples not suitable for sale as fresh fruit are usually processed into their own delicious apple juice, but this year we've been offered some of this surplus for cidermaking.

The hard working team at Windmill Orchard helped us load up over a ton of assorted dessert apples this weekend, including the varieties Katy, Ribston Pippin, Ashmead's Kernal, Worcester Permain, and Elstar. These are the kind of apples we used to make our Welland Valley Special cider last year, so we're hopeful that we should end up with something equally as fruity from these apples. We also have to thank all the workers at Windmill Orchard for keeping us topped-up with tea and biscuits, and their great patience when the hire van threatened to break down and the AA had to be called. All turned out well, and we now look forward to the mammoth task of pressing these apples and creating a cider which justifies the hard work of all concerned.

Of course we won't be able to call this batch an organic cider since we're not registered with the Soil Association, but we can certainly mention that it's made exclusively from organic apples, because that's exactly what it will be made from!

Friday, 19 September 2008

Slow Food Coming

The Sustainable Billesdon Group aims to '...REDUCE THE ENVIRONMENTAL FOOTPRINT OF BILLESDON AND ITS ENVIRONS; TO ACHIEVE A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE FOR THE PARISH'. A reasonable enough mission statement, and one we should all subscribe to in our own towns and villages.

The latest initiative from the Sustainable Billesdon committee is a Slow Food Lunch on the 28th of September. The international Slow Food movement began in the mid 80's, it's aim being to help counteract the increasing dominance of the global food and drink industry, which is increasingly squeezing out smaller craft producers. Red tape and regulations are making it increasingly difficult for smaller businesses to compete with the bigger players. The economies of scale, and huge revenue streams of big business make compliance with the latest round of petty bureaucracy much easier to deal with. It's for this reason that small-scale food and drink producers need a strong and vocal advocate on the world stage, which is where much of this stifling regulation is dreamt up. This is where Slow Food comes in, a grass-roots organisation, helping to champion the high quality, and often unique produce of the worlds smaller food and drink makers.

The Billesdon Slow Food Lunch will feature food and drink from many local producers, including a box of our own Rockingham Forest Cider. There will also be a Farmers Market outside the Coplow Centre from 11.30 - 3.30pm.

Summer-that at Melton Beer Festival

Our meticulously organised plan for a weekend of fine cider and Melton Mowbray pork pie, has unfortunately failed to get off the ground. I'm pleased to report that a barrel of our Rockingham Forest Cider arrived safely at Melton Beer Festival (thanks to East Midlands 'Cider-Mule' Paul Barton of the Queen Adelaide in Northampton), but unforeseen circumstances mean we've had to cancel our Saturday trip to the festival. Boo-hoo!

I did manage to call in for a swift half during the Friday afternoon session, accompanied by a rare moment of late Summer sunbathing in this uncommonly good weather we're having. The forecast look good for more fine weather tomorrow, so a trip to Melton Beer Fesival could be your last chance to enjoy a great range of ales, ciders and perries, whilst enjoying the closest thing to a proper Summer's day we're likely to get this year. I only wish I could be there, but we've got a rather pressing engagement at an organic orchard this weekend that just won't wait.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Cider Jar of the Month - Creedy Valley

The Creedy Valley Cider Co were one of several sizeable Devon producers which would have benefited from the burgeoning West Country tourist trade of the 60's. This era would have presumably been the peak of Creedy's business success, but it's doubtful whether the company lasted into the 80's since there is no mention of the company in the earliest cider guides which date from this time. But if you thought that the early demise of this regional ciderworks would make their cider jars hard to find, you'd be very wrong.

Creedy Valley cider jars come in all shapes and sizes, and crop up more frequently than perhaps any others. They are very common on eBay, can be found in charity shops the length and breadth of the country, and are occasionally passed off as rare and valuable antiques when in fact they are very common and have little monetary value.

It is perhaps surprising that a company which produced so many of these gaudy cider jars for the tourist trade, and presumably had a good reputation in their local area of Crediton, made such a minimal impact in the few books and online resources which deal with the history of English cidermaking. The only reference I've managed to find is in Mark Foot's excellent collection of history and anecdote 'Cider's Story Rough and Smooth' (1999), in which we learn that the Creedy Valley Cider Co fell victim (at some point) to the voracious appetite for takeovers which helped Bulmers grow to its current position as the worlds biggest producer of cider (of a sort!).

I said that Creedy cider jars come in different versions, and you can see that the most unusual jar in my collection is one made for the Old Inn, Widecombe, which depicts 'Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all' on their way back from the famous Widecombe Fair. I've seen other designs too, including one with the slightly misleading appendage of 'Greetings from Cornwall', suggesting that Creedy Valley's cider sales extended throughout the West Country, and possibly beyond.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Something Fowl in the Orchard!

This persistent rain seems to be dampening everyone's spirits. Cidermakers in particular will be glummer than usual at the thought of another 'less-than-vintage' apple harvest this year. Sure, there's plenty of apples about, and the rain is certainly helping to swell the fruit, but for good sugar levels and flavour we could do with a bit of sunshine.... Please!

On a brighter note, our three lovely hens have arrived, two Gingernut Ranger's, and a Miss Pepperpot, accompanied by a smart new Eglu from the Omlet people. This system of chicken keeping suits our needs well, and three hens should be just about right to patrol our small garden orchard.

Chickens and orchards have a natural synergy. Chickens love to scratch around the orchard floor, pecking at anything that looks tasty. The pupae of Codling Moths (Cydia pomonella), the scourge of apple growers worldwide, often overwinter on the orchard floor, so we're hoping that our hens develop a taste for these and other damaging pests.

As if that wasn't enough, all this scratching and pecking around should result in the hens depositing a range of useful nutrients amongst the trees. Chicken droppings are a great source of Nitrogen, Phosphates, Potash and Calcium, as well as a range of trace elements which are all very useful to the fruit and vegetable grower. Chicken manure can be bought in pelleted form for use around the garden, but we will have our own 'on tap' as it were.

Eggs are of course essential to any self respecting orchard breakfast, and Chickens provide great free entertainment.

We'll have to keep the hens contained in their run for a few days, in the same way that a cat needs to be kept in for a time following a house move. It should help them settle into their new home. I can't see the hens kicking up too much of a fuss about this, after all, who'd want to go out in weather like this!

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Melton Mowbray Beer Festival

There's more to Melton Mowbray than Pork Pies and Stilton Cheese you know! Not that I'm denigrating two of Leicestershire's best known, and world class traditional foods.

The pies from Dickinson & Morris's Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe are without a doubt my all time favourite pork pies. Uncured pork, hand raised pastry, and just the right amount of peppery seasoning make the Dickinson & Morris Pork Pie a worthy recipient of the Protected Geographical Indicator (PGI) status which has finally been granted this year. Tuxford & Tebbutt make Stilton Cheese in the very heart of Melton, and whilst it's probably not my favourite of the seven traditional Stilton Cheese makers (that honour must go to the Long Clawson Dairy down the road), they certainly produce a fine round of tangy blue cheese.

The market town of Melton Mowbray has become a bit of a foodie destination in recent years, playing host to the very successful East Midlands Food & Drink Festival in October, and a weekly farmers market which takes place at the excellent Livestock Market on Scalford Road. Melton Mowbray Market is a wonderful place to be on a market day, and a rare survivor from the days when most towns hosted a regular market for the sale of livestock. As a child I remember being taken to the Cattle Market in Leicester and being entranced by the noise, smells, and general hub-bub of a busy livestock market.

As if all this were not enough to make Melton a bit of a foodie hot spot, Melton Mowbray Market is also home to one of Leicestershire's finest beer festivals. The Melton Mowbray Beer Festival is held over the weekend of the 19th and 20th of September on the same site which hosts the weekly Farmers Market. Lovers of fine food and drink can combine a day at the festival with visits to the excellent pie and sausage shops, the busy farmers market, and perhaps enjoy a glass of our own Rockingham Forest Cider at the cider bar, the ideal accompaniment to a wedge of local Stilton Cheese.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Cider House Blues

There are several pubs dotted around the country which carry the moniker 'Cider House', but the number of truly authentic licenced premises which are solely devoted to the sale of cider can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and even then the thumb and index finger will be surplus to requirements!

On our way to the Ross Cider Festival last weekend we popped into a pub which until fairly recently would have been considered a true cider-only drinking establishment, a real rarity from an age when even London boasted a cider house (run by Westons of Herefordshire). The Blue Bell Cider House is located on a quiet section of the Stratford upon Avon canal at Hockley Heath, and was formerly owned by the mighty H P Bulmer of Hereford. It would have serviced the needs of canal folk in the days when the canals were less tourist highways, and more the arteries of heavy industry. We can only imagine the kind of place the Blue Bell was in those days. Hard graft presumably led to hard drinking, and the isolated nature of many canalside pubs may have kept them out of the eye of sober authorities.

So what of the Blue Bell in modern times? I last visited this pub back in the 80's and it appears to have been extended a little since then. There is the ubiquitous covered smoking zone adjoining the car park, with most of the rather nondescript interior given over to dining. On the positive side, the original bar is traditional and relatively unspoilt. There's a well worn darts board, and a wide range of traditional cider mugs adorn the servery. These mugs are not just for show, there were plenty of locals drinking the cider when we visited, the perfect accompaniment to England's latest success in a one day cricket international. Outside are several tables overlooking the canal, and this is perhaps the pubs strongest point. Which brings us to the slightly sticky issue of the ciders!

The last vestiges of a cider drinking tradition in England are often to be found in the backstreet locals and isolated rural inns which have somehow escaped the curse of crass modernisation. The pubs themselves are often classics, unspoilt by unnecessary 'progress', yet still thriving businesses sought out by connoisseurs of our glorious pub heritage. The downside to this is that sometimes the drink offering has become stuck in a less attractive 'time warp' of its own.

The twentieth century obsession with mergers and cost efficiencies all but removed the ciders of smaller producers from pubs, in favour of the more 'industrial' offerings of the bigger producers. One legacy of this steady reduction in choice has been that many of these unspoilt cider pubs have a strong commitment to the cider brands they've always sold. At one point in the early 80's for example, just about the only 'traditional' ciders you would find in West Country and West Midlands pubs were Bulmers Traditional, and Taunton Traditional, pleasant enough national brands, but neither of which I would put in the same class as the 100% pure juice ciders currently being championed by the smaller craft producers.

Unfortunately the choice of ciders at the Blue Bell seem to follow this unwelcome tradition. Bulmers Traditional Cider (now made by Westons I believe), and Inch's Stonehouse Cider (formerly a well respected Devon cidermaker, but now made by Bulmers, or maybe Westons? so no longer a true Devon cider), both on handpump. In the interest of research I tried a half of each and was suitably unimpressed with both. There was a stack of empty Thatchers Cider barrels in the yard which would have been a better choice for me if it had been available, but if we visit again I'll stick to the beers of which there was a good range from small indepenant brewers. A traditional cider house it may be, but perhaps it's time for the cider range to move into the 21st century alongside the pub.

Herefordshire hop

When two or more cidermakers gather in a single place, they can usually be relied upon to have a bit of a drink. At the Ross Cider & Perry Festival there are literally dozens of cidermakers, and whilst the drinking is certainly not the only attraction on offer, there's a hell of a lot of 'sampling' and 'research' going on.

Mike Johnson and his hard-working team have been organising a festival at Broome Farm for several years now, and it's getting better every year. The basic premise of the event is a weekend of live music, accompanied by the Broome Farm cider bar and excellent home-cooked food. Friday is Ceilidh night, and Sunday features a very good Farmers Market and Craft fair. The main event though is the Saturday 'Meet the Cidermakers' day, where several cidermakers from Herefordshire and slightly further afield set out their stalls and offer for sale and sampling a bewildering array of fine ciders and perrys.

I've always thought that the timing of the Ross Cider Festival is very good. Many of the ciders and perrys are at the peak of maturity, and the pressing demonstration by Dave Mathews of Seidr Dai is a nice touch, all the better for using seasonal fruit. But perhaps the best thing about mixing with so many experienced cidermakers at this time of year is the chance to make useful contacts, pick up tips, and exchange information whilst the thought of the impending cidermaking season is fresh in our minds.

It was of course a huge pleasure to just share a drink with people we enjoy chatting with, but rarely get the chance to meet. The nouveau cidermaking tradition of the East Midlands was well represented with Ray and Gail of Torkard Cider, and Chris and Sue of Three Cats Cider in attendance. Ray and Chris can be seen here in full flow. I believe they may have been discussing something too.

Another great festival, congratultions to all involved. If you missed it never fear, there should be several more events organised for the Summer of 2009, culminating in the cider festival at the end of August, and a visit to Mike's cider cellar at Broome Farm is always a rewarding experience whatever the time of year.