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!