Thursday, 28 August 2008

Apple mystery solved?

The apples from the small tree we thinned in June have now reached their ripe potential. This is a very early apple which rarely stays on the tree later than early September. Unfortunately quite a few have fallen off in the stiff breeze which has been blowing down the valley this week, but enough have survived to make it into this years batch of chutney, and a fair few will be given away as they don't keep too well. The thinning has helped give us a fair crop of decent sized fruit, and in the spirit of the keen amateur I've been pouring over books and web sites in an attempt to identify the variety.

Identifying unknown varieties of apple is a difficult task even for the 'professionals'. The variables of size, shape and colour are almost infinite, and there's the added complication that a particular variety can vary in appearance under different growing conditions. So it's with this in mind that I've made a reasonably confident guess that this apple is in fact a James Grieve.
James Grieve apples are described in the current bible for apple enthusiasts, 'The New Book of Apples' (Joan Morgan & Alison Richards - Ebury Press), as having a ' flush, stripes over pale green/yellow.' The apple is medium sized, round/conical, and is slightly ribbed. The cavity (the depression the stalk disappears into) has lines of scaly russetting.

These apples certainly look the part, and James Grieve would have been a popular choice around the time this tree was planted. I've also cross-referenced with a few web sites, most of which only serve to confuse the issue, but Nigel Deacon's excellent Diversity website has a good reference to James Grieve with a nice picture of the variety from Church Stretton which looks very similar to ours.

The flavour of our apples is very good, quite tart but with a good rich sweetness too. James Grieve is often described as suitable for use as a cooking apple early in the season, and I can confirm that our apples worked very well in a batch of apple scones this week.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Gretton Beer Festival

The growing success of the Welland Valley Beer Festival in June has often led to talk of a follow-up event later in the Summer. Local villagers must be pretty comfortable with the idea of a beer festival by now, and visitors certainly know where the Welland Valley is. I would have thought that a well organised and publicised smaller event would be almost guaranteed success, even allowing for the ongoing mediocre Summer weather we're experiencing again this year.

So I'm pleased to see that for one day only the three pubs in Gretton have joined forces with the Gretton Sports Club, and organised a festival for the end of August (30th). The Gretton 4 Corners Beer Festival will feature over 40 ales, including a festival special brewed by Potbelly Brewery (see here for the beer list), as well as a small selection of traditional ciders. We will be supplying the Hatton Arms with our Rockingham Forest Cider,and a barrel of Gwynt-Y-Ddraig Barnstormer Cider.

Mark's Law may prevent us from attending this year's event, but I do hope it's a great success. Village pubs need our support more than ever during these difficult times, and when licensees put in the effort to run great events like this, they deserve our support too.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Orchard Hunting

Traditional orchards are rewarding places to explore at any time of the year. Spring blossom time is the highlight for many, but fruitful Summertime, and the stark beauty of a slumbering Winter orchard are equally magical to me. I never tire of the changing seasons, which play out so clearly in a mature orchard.

The picture above, as tranquil a scene of rural England as your likely to find, could easily have been captured in any one of hundreds of unspoilt traditional orchards throughout the West Country, but in fact it was taken this week in the heart of rural Rutland following a spot of Summer orchard hunting.

As a small-scale cidermaker keen to create ciders from locally grown apples, searching out new sources of available fruit has become a bit of an obsession. Driving through villages and open countryside at this time of year, I've always got half an eye on the gardens and farmland I pass, constantly on the lookout for the remnants of old, neglected orchards, or maybe just a single tree laden with a heavy crop of rosy apples. Not every apple tree produces fruit suitable for making good cider, but you'd be surprised how much of this bountiful harvest goes to waste. Very few people seem to know what to do with a glut of apples these days. The crafts of baking, preserving, and just plain enjoying an apple straight from the tree, are sadly dying out.

Sad yes, but quite an opportunity for us, since many of the people we ask are more than happy for us to deal with the nuisance of a heavy crop of apples littering their gardens. The sheep have this small orchard to themselves at the moment, but come late September the owners have kindly given us access to harvest the apples for our cidermaking. It remains to be seen how much fruit the sheep will leave for us, but even if it's only a couple of sacks full, the chance to spend time gathering apples in this lovely space can be nothing less than a total pleasure.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Hare & Hounds Ale Fest

Marks 'Universal Law of Summer Weekends' states that for every weekend that passes with nothing much of interest happening, there will be several more where the diary is so full you'll end up missing at least half the events you'd like to attend. In other words, good things come like buses, infrequently but always in pairs at the very least.

It was this law which prevented our planned visit to the Westernbury Cider & Sausage Festival at the Western pub in Leicester, owing to it clashing with the equally essential Leicester Carnival. Similarly visits to Hollowell Steam & Heavy Horse Show, and the Royal Show in Warwickshire, both fine days out with plenty of interest for the cider drinker, were scuppered by a more pressing engagement in London.

We missed the Tollemache Arms beer festival last weekend due to late night Chicken, Wine, Bowling and Bonhomie with our friends Duncan & Diana (Diana is the talent behind our lovely apple logo, Duncan the current talent behind Hellboy, Phew!). Sorry Tollemache people, it's a good festival for sure, but no competition I'm afraid. Luckily we've been given a second bite of the cherry with sister pub the Hare & Hounds, Great Addington, holding their debut beer festival starting this Friday.

From the Hare & Hounds website: 'Our first annual beer festival runs for 3 days with over 20 local and national beers. The Charles wells "Bombardier Bus" is here, a novelty not to be missed. With A BBQ every day and live music , we guarantee a great weekend, whatever the weather!'

A couple of barrels of our Rockingham Forest Cider will also be in attendance, so with nothing else planned for the weekend it seems we may get the better of Mark's Law for one weekend at least.

Monday, 11 August 2008

New Discovery

Like the first Cuckoo call of Spring (traditionally associated with the tapping of the first barrel of cider), the arrival of new season English Apples in our shops is one to gladden the heart.

It's at this time of year that I break my self imposed boycott of poorly flavoured foreign grown apples, and reaffirm my belief that English apples really are the best in the world. These early English grown varieties such as Discovery, Worcester Pearmain, and Katy are my favourite dessert apples, and I try to search them out whenever possible, particularly as the season is so short.

Early apples like these orangey pink Discovery's have a wonderful aromatic, citrusy flavour which sadly doesn't transfer well to cider, though Katy is used by one Somerset cidermaker to produce a very successful single variety cider that is light, refreshing and very accessible. Soft skinned and easily bruised, they are very poor keepers too, which is all the more reason to eat them up whilst you can.

They're in the shops now, so go get 'em.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Cider Jar of the Month - Hancock's

Until quite recently a visit to Hancock's cider farm would have made an interesting diversion on a holiday spent in the North Devon/Exmoor area. Like many of the long established family cidermakers in the West Country, Hancock's had developed the farm to cater for curious visitors with displays of cidermaking equipment, a self guided tour of the farm, and a video of the cidermaking process, all this in addition to the well stocked shop selling cider and other local Devon produce. Sadly Hancock's now only sell their ciders wholesale so the chance for casual visitors to explore the farm has gone.

This attractive stoneware jar presumably dates from around the early 70's or later, when the farm must have shifted quite a bit of their prize-winning ciders to visiting tourists. The rear label bears testament to the quality of the ciders, with awards stretching back over the 100 years this family business has been trading. Indeed David Kitton states in his 1984 Traditional Cider Directory that Hancock's were held in high regard by Jeff Williams, doyen of the Long Ashton Research Station. High praise indeed since this was the centre of excellence for the cider industry throughout most of the 20th Century.

The striking Stag logo is still in evidence on the modern bottled and draught ciders, presumably reflecting Hancock's close location to Exmoor, populated as it is with many Red Deer. Hancock's continue to thrive, and I look forward to trying their medium cider which appears on the provisional cider list for the forthcoming Peterborough Beer Festival

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Orchard Update

As I've travelled around the counties of Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, and Cambridgeshire as part of the day-job, the potential for a bumper harvest of apples can be seen almost everywhere. Apple trees are doing really well this year, even though this season follows a similarly good crop last year. At the moment, things are looking good for our plans to make plenty of cider from local apples, though only time will tell if the quality is as high as the size of the crop.

I examined our own trees today and noticed that the cooking apple tree is carrying a larger crop than we had last year. On a less positive note I noticed that many more of the developing apples are affected by Scab, a fungal disease which thrives in the hot and humid conditions we're experiencing this year. From the cidermakers point of view, scab is more of a cosmetic problem, of more concern to commercial growers of dessert and culinary apples where the appearance of the fruit is all important. Unfortunately it also impacts seriously on the keeping qualities of the fruit. We only use a small amount of the fruit from this tree in our ciders, most are destined for pies, crumbles, family and friends. We'll have to be careful to only put into storage the very best quality fruit, otherwise we could lose most of this year's crop to the dreaded Brown Rot.

The dessert apple tree I thinned earlier in the year has held its crop well, and many of the fruits are of a size where we may be able to get them identified at an Apple Day event. The second picture here is a very good example of what happens when you don't thin the fruits sufficiently. I can't believe I managed to miss this huge cluster which will give much smaller apples than the thinned ones.

The rest of the orchard seems to have shrugged off the early infestation of green aphid, and achieved some measure of natural balance between pests and beneficial insects. The only 'fly' in the ointment has been the bronzing/browning of some leaves on a few of the trees, which may have been caused by Fruit Tree Red Spider Mite, of which I can find no sign, or possibly Potash deficiency. I've given all the cider apple trees a sprinkle of potash as a tonic (Dabinett are particularly prone to Potash deficiency), and I'm pleased to say that none of the trees have been seriously affected by this mysterious problem.

As an update on the pear situation, we visited the Bewicke Arms at Hallaton for a meal earlier in the week, and the impressive espalier pear tree growing up the side of the pub had barely a pear on it! Has anyone seen a pear tree with a decent crop this year?

Friday, 1 August 2008

Tollemache Arms Beer Festival

There was a time not so long ago when a beer festival at a pub was a rare and exotic event. These days, particularly during the Summer months, it seems there's rarely a weekend when there isn't a pub beer festival within a reasonable distance, and we've attended a fair few of them over the last few years.

Putting on a few extra barrels of beer of a weekend is one thing, but making it a weekend to remember takes a little more effort. Of the beer festivals at pubs we've attended over the last few years, one or two have stood out from the crowd and become part of our annual social calendar.

Brigstock Beer Festival, a charitable village event just up the road from us, has been a really good day out for us, and we have a bit of a soft spot for the Cherry Tree Beer Festival in Market Harborough, a thoroughly local event with a good atmosphere.

Last year's Tollemache Arms Beer Festival was a bit of an unknown to us, but we were asked to supply a couple of barrels of cider so I felt obliged to attend for the Friday evening session. I decided to cycle to the festival, a brave and stupid decision in equal measures as it was a little further than I'd initially thought! Thankfully I was rewarded with a fine Summer evening, supping local ales, and listening to the excellent Welland Valley Stompers in the beer garden of a lovely thatched village local.

The Tollemache Arms Beer Festival is probably not one for the really serious beer enthusiast. The ale range at last year's event included two local breweries (Potbelly & Great Oakley), a range of Wells & Youngs beers, and several real ales sourced from some of Englands more well-known breweries. Rare or quirky ales are not what this festival is about. This is a chance for villagers and visitors to enjoy all that's best about the great British country pub. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, with good barbecued food, a good range of fine ales, and local ciders.

We will be supplying our Rockingham Forest Cider for the festival again this year, and will also be supplying cider to the Tollemache Arms sister pub, the Hare & Hounds, Great Addington, which is having it's own beer festival the following weekend. If it's anything like as good as the Tollemache Arms, we may be adding this to our busy Summer social calendar.

The top picture shows the spectacular Summer evening sky from the garden during last year's Tollemache Arms Beer Festival. The second pic features one of the lovely 'Tollemache Arms Girls' serving during the festival.