Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Pomological Procreation

The MM106 rootstock I ordered in December has finally arrived, neatly bundled and wrapped for safe transit by the nice people at Blackmoor Nurseries.

This was my first order from Blackmoor, and I must say I've been very pleased with the service from start to finish. The price of £1.80/stock seems reasonable to me, and I've received regular e-mails charting the progress of the order. As a bonus, the rootstock has arrived just in time for the grafting course I'm attending at Stowe Landscape Gardens this weekend.

MM106 rootstock, if left to grow on it's own, will eventually produce a medium sized tree bearing a crop of fairly respectable cooking apples. But it's not for cooking apples that I've bought these trees, it's for their roots (hence the rootstock moniker), and perhaps a few inches of slender stem. Future branches, buds, and fruit-bearing are all surplus to requirements.

This might seem cruel, hacking a tree down well before it's had a chance to grow and blossom, but there's a very good reason for this hard pruning. Allowing an apple tree to grow on it's own roots will often lead to a very large 'standard' sized tree, difficult to control in a garden setting, and often just as difficult to harvest the fruit from. By grafting a small piece of wood (the scion) from the variety of apple tree we want to grow, onto the stem of our MM106 rootstock, we can control it's vigour and produce a semi-dwarfing or half-standard tree suitable for most medium-sized gardens.

In addition to the rootstock, we now have a bountiful supply of 'scion' wood ready to graft onto it. The fridge has been temporarily converted into a mini wood store, with all the good prunings from our cider apple trees nestling in the salad tray, waiting to go under the knife. As well as the Tremlett's, Dabinett, Yarlington Mill and Harry Masters', we also have two precious scions of Golden Harvey, a variety I've been keen to acquire since I spotted a tree at Lyveden New Bield orchard last January. Also known as the Brandy apple, and renowned as a good juicing and cider apple, this variety will take pride of place at the bottom of the garden where we hope it will one day provide shade, and a bumper crop of juicy sweet apples. My thanks to Ny of the Marches Cyder Circle for sending me this wood all the way from deepest Herefordshire.

I'll only be using a tiny amount of this collected wood. The surplus will be going to the First National Scion Wood Exchange, an exciting new initiative organised by the Midshires Orchard Group at Buckingham Garden Centre on the 7th & 8th of February.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Perry Good

Today I completed the last bit of racking-off in the ciderhouse. All that remained to be done was a very nice tasting fermenter of Rockingham Forest Cider, and our precious 70 litre tub of Blakeney Red/Moorcroft Perry.

The Perry is still very young but shows great promise. It's clearing very nicely, and has a lovely Med/Dry fruitiness, with perhaps just a hint of a Gin-like note in the finish. There's still a little yeastiness, and the tannins need to soften just a smidgen, but it's everything it should be at this early stage.

Our very first batch of Rockingham Forest Perry is destined to be a bit of a limited edition, there's simply not enough of it to go round. Whatever we don't keep for our own (and friends) pleasure is destined for the Red Lion, Middleton as a special during the Welland Valley Beer Festival in June. It's going to take a huge amount of self-control to leave it gently maturing until then, but with luck it should be well worth the wait.

Our good friend Diana Fegredo came up with this beautiful pear image for our prospective Perry logo. We think it sends out all the right messages about our perry, principally that it's made from pear juice, pure and simple, and that it's definately not a Pear Cider whatever that might be!

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Ross Returns To The Red Lion

Now I know what you may be thinking...

Why, when the standard of writing on this blog has already scraped the very bottom of the literary barrel, would I resort to lame, tabloid-esque wordplay in the title of this entry? Why, you may be asking, would I feel the need to reference the current bĂȘte noire of the media, the naughty Mr Jonathon Ross of Friday evening television fame, just to draw your attention to this blog entry? Well...

To be honest, there's really no particular reason, other than a slightly desperate desire to chivvy the hit rate along on the blog. I would hasten to add that should the aforementioned Mr Ross ever find himself in the area, I'm certain he would receive a very warm welcome at the Red Lion. The Welland Valley is of course a playground for the rich and famous. Celebrity chef, and award-winning tantrum-thrower John Burton Race is an occasional (once) visitor. If the Red Lion is good enough for 'Racey' (as he's known round here), I'm sure a place in the Wednesday night skittles team could be found for Mr Ross. And should the man be forced into taking another sabbatical from his highly paid BBC position, he could probably be squeezed into the Friday night team too. This would obviously depend on his performance at the table...

Of course the real reason for this blog entry is the welcome return of award-winning cider and perry to the Red Lion from the Ross-on-Wye Cider & Perry Co.

In the absence of our own Rockingham Forest Cider, Fiona & Kevin at the Red Lion, Middleton, are keen to keep the real cider flag flying, and we're more than happy to help out. The Sam's Cider went down very well over the Christmas period, selling out surprisingly quickly considering the chilly weather. There is a widespread belief that traditional ciders like these only sell well during the Summer months, but the cider drinkers at the Red Lion are obviously made of sterner stuff than that.

The cider and perry from Broome Farm proved to be a very popular choice at last year's Welland Valley Beer Festival. The talent behind the operation, Mike Johnson, has won a hat full of awards for his fine Herefordshire ciders (this pic shows Mike with an award for his bottled cider at the 2005 Three Counties Show), and if anything the perry is even more highly regarded. A visit to Broome Farm for a sample in the cider cellar is always a pleasant experience, and you can share a little in that pleasure by visiting the Red Lion, where Ross-on-Wye Cider & Perry should be available from this week onwards for a limited period, so get it while you can.

Friday, 23 January 2009


It's pruning time again in the orchard. The trees are all fully dormant now and I've been itching to set-to with the secateurs. In truth I've left the job until now so as to have healthy bundles of freshly cut wood ready for the Grafting Course I'm attending next weekend (more of which later).

The image on the left shows some of the tools of the trade. The vodka is for sterilising the various blades as I 'Hack & Slash' my way through the orchard... certainly not for drinking. For that I would have needed to bring an orange juicer and a tray of ice cubes into the orchard... I was heavily burdened enough as it was.

The Tremlett's we planted last Winter are the most in need of pruning. They are a vigorous variety, and the leaders have shot up over the Summer and now need tipping-back again to encourage more laterals to break. The Tremlett's seem hell-bent on upward growth at the moment, great news for tall and sturdy trees, not so good for the formation of branches bristling with knobbly fruiting spurs.

I'm pleased to say that the older trees need little more than tipping-back and very light thinning of a few badly placed branches. Above all, I'm particularly pleased that there are no signs of disease on any of the trees, and most are showing reasonable growth with a fair number of fruiting spurs forming on the two and three year old wood. A decent bit of Spring weather and we could even expect a few apples on the trees this year...

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

More Pump Action

A welcome break in the recent freezing weather last weekend meant it was high time for another Racking-off & Topping-up session. By racking-off we aim to remove the young, slowly clearing cider, from the old yeast deposit which should by now have settled at the bottom of the fermenter. The cold conditions won't harm the cider, but this session of racking-off involved the transfer of over 1000 litres of cider, a process likely to take most of the day and therefore not a job to be undertaken in bone-chilling sub-zero temperatures.

The time had come to plumb our shiny new pump into couple of lengths of food-grade tubing, and get down to some serious suction in the ciderhouse. The pump performed very well, sucking up the cider without disturbing the sediment, and squirting it into the fresh tub at a (slightly worryingly) high rate. The Okoflow 3000 pump has a flow rating of 50 litres/minute, which I found to be pretty accurate. One of our 120 litre fermenters was taking no more than 2-3 minutes to transfer, the bulk of the time throughout the day was spent cleaning and sterilising the tubs ready for the next batch of cider to be racked-off. This is considerably quicker than syphoning using gravity alone, a 70 litre fermenter racked-off in this way was taking around 10 minutes last year, and I would have struggled to complete the job in a day without the use of the pump.

The one possible disadvantage of using a pump to rack-off the cider, is the vigour of the transfer. The cider is sucked into the pump chamber clear and relatively un-agitated, but emerges in the other tube fizzing with tiny bubbles. This is the dissolved CO2 being liberated from the cider by the spinning impeller of the pump, a bit like twizzling a straw in a fizzy drink. We aim to keep as much of this dissolved CO2 in the cider at this stage, it helps to protect the cider from oxidisation and the possibility of bacterial infection. But even so, the cider should still have enough dissolved CO2 to protect it, and the warmer months of Spring will inevitably lead to a period of gentle fermentation which will also help.

I'm not the only cidermaker with pumps and racking-off on his mind. The ukcider discussion forum, the essential online destination for anyone with an interest in cider or cidermaking, is currently host to a lively debate on the relative merits of a wide assortment pumps. Perhaps not the most exciting discussion you're likely to find on ukcider, but it could be worse. A discussion on the merits of cider on the ukpumps* forum anyone?

*I made up the ukpumps forum, though I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that one really does exist!

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Pork Pie - Pt.2 'A Porky Prime Cut'

The recipe is a modified Rick Stein one. Instead of Shoulder I used a rather more sinewy Leg of pork, which is obviously just plain wrong. I also left out the Anchovy Paste because we didn't have any, and also because this is a pork pie not a fish pie Mr stein!

The pastry is very short, using Butter rather than the more traditional Lard of a hot-crust pastry. The pies were brushed with a beaten egg from the Rockingham Forest Cider flock. Bless-em.

Thanks to the foresight of nestling them into an Anthony Worral Thompson Silicone Muffin Tray, all the pies turned out beautifully without sticking or breaking. After cooling, each pie received a generous dollop of the excellent Trotter & Cider Jelly. This is where Karen started to lose interest.

The results, as you can see, are really quite delicious. Even Karen enjoyed the 'Light, Crumbly Pastry', 'Moist, well-seasoned pork', and 'Strange, slightly-too-firm jelly'. An experiment well worth repeating I think.

Pork Pie - Pt.1 'A Tale of Two Trotters'

This week we've taken delivery of a 1/4 of rare breed pig, handily jointed into all manner of juicy cuts, and now monopolising most of our freezer space. I think the breed is an Oxford Sandy & Black, also known as the Plum Pudding pig, which sounds delicious. Serena of Keythorpe Rare Breeds did tell us the breed, but I was too busy rooting through the meat at the time, glaze-eyed and muttering about Crackling and Sunday Roasts, so wasn't concentrating on the technicalities!

Serena very kindly included a few of the less obvious 'cuts' as a kind of 'Epicurean Bonus'. The generous portion of Liver is destined for a future experiment in Faggot making, the Kidneys... well, the Kidneys need a little more thought, which just leaves a dainty pair of Trotters.

Trotters... Hmm! Pigs would of course struggle to get around without them, but my research to date has found that this may be the limit of their usefulness. Legendary Snout-to-Tail advocate Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall swears by a Sweet 'n' Sour recipe for Trotters, but the comments I've read from people who've tried this recipe can be summarised as 'Nice sauce, but on no account attempt to eat the trotters', which is hardly a ringing endorsement.

I've decided to go back to basics, extracting the flavour and a useful dollop of gelatin from the Trotters by boiling up with a few stock vegetables and aromatics. Much more sensible than attempting to search through skin and knuckles for anything worth a chew. Pork pie it is then, with Trotter jelly (IMO the best part of a pork pie) made with a good Devon cider in the absence of our own. I've used Winkleigh Sam's Dry which is a clean tasting, and properly dry cider, ideal for the purpose. I don't want the jelly to be sweet, or too highly flavoured with the rich, bittersweet flavour typical of Herefordshire and Somerset ciders. I don't want any hairs in it either, so the trotters have had a bit of a shave.

For the pie itself I'm using a (slightly tweaked) recipe by Rick Stein, which has the distinct advantage over more traditional recipes of not using Lard in the pastry. I've made proper hot-crust pastry before with some success, but I've a feeling that if Karen catches sight of a block of Lard slowly melting into a pan of water, I'll be eating the whole 2lb pie myself...

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Cider Jar of the Month - Symonds' Scrumpy Jack

Herefordshire cidermaker Symonds' was established in 1727, and stayed a relatively small, and well respected family concern until 1984 when the company was purchased, and massively expanded by Cheshire brewer Greenall Whitley. Only four years later the fully modernised ciderworks at Stoke Lacy was sold on by Greenalls to H.P. Bulmer, along with the Symonds' brands which included Scrumpy Jack.

Scrumpy Jack was one of the most popular of the old Symonds' brands, and therefore ripe for development as a national brand. Sadly the popular traditional version of this cider died with the closure of the old Symonds' site in the 90's, and we are now left with the keg national version which is really nothing to write home about.

The image on these lovely little cider jars is of the horse-drawn cider mill which graced the frontage of the old Symonds' ciderworks. These old mills litter the Herefordshire countryside, though very few indeed are still used for their original purpose. At best they stand as monuments to a once proud tradition of rural cidermaking, many more are planted up with flowers in peoples front gardens!

The Symonds' story is not all bad news though, the old ciderworks at Stoke Lacy is now occupied by the award-winning Wye Valley Brewery, brewers of one of my favourite beers, the pale and hoppy Hereford Pale Ale. But perhaps even better news is that the family tradition of Herefordshire cidermaking continues in Sarah's Cider of Bosbury. Sarah herself is the granddaughter of Neville Symond, the man who ran the Symonds' ciderworks until it's untimely demise in the 90's.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Pump Action

All I wanted for Christmas was a pump! Sadly, despite dropping numerous not-so-casual hints to anyone who would listen, I had to buy the damn thing for myself.... I drew the line at wrapping it up and putting it under the tree though.

Racking off can be achieved by the very simple process of carefully syphoning from one vessel into another cleaned and sterilised vessel. This is how I've been doing it for years, it's a little slow but has the distinct advantage of costing no more than a length of food-grade tubing. It's a gentle process too, which is important at this stage of the cider's development, we don't want to agitate the cider too much as this will drive off any dissolved CO2 and possibly lead to oxidisation.

The problem with syphoning is that the cider must be physically higher than the receiving vessel or it won't flow. Small fermenters can be lifted to a suitable height either before racking, or if you're really careful, during the racking process. The larger the fermenter, the more difficult this is to achieve, and we've now found that our newer 120 litre tubs are simply too heavy to lift. The time has come for us to invest in a food-grade pump.

The industry standard pump for small-scale cidermakers like ourselves is the Schneider Okoflow 3000, a flexible impeller pump made in Germany (naturally!), and imported by those suppliers of all things cidery, Vigo Ltd of Devon. Needless to say they're not cheap, but we really can't get by without one now.

It's a thing of robust, functional beauty, decked out in hot 'Industrial Orange' as all good 'Man-Toys' should be. I'm certainly looking forward to flexing it's dinky rubber impeller very soon. Perhaps I'll post a video on here... Hmm! Perhaps this Blog is dull enough already...

Friday, 2 January 2009

The Birds

Today's blog entry is a game of 'Spot the Blackbird'. There's no prizes, and I've made it very easy by highlighting the birds in the picture.

All rather pointless you might think, but there is a good reason for posting this (frankly rather poor) image, and that reason is a plea for untidiness in the garden.

Over the last few weeks this area of our neighbours garden has been home to literally dozens of birds, all feasting greedily on the rotting Bramley Apples which litter the ground. At any one moment there have been up to 20 Blackbirds, either on the ground pecking, or perched overlooking this welcome Winter food reserve. Recent cold weather has made things difficult for our overwintering birds, the ground has frozen, berries and bugs are now in much shorter supply, so a pile of rotting apples attracts great interest from our feathered friends.

The village orchard is another happy hunting ground for birdlife, and I'm pleased to see that many of the other apple trees in the village have been left relatively untidied. As for our own small orchard, well this has been largely cleared of debris by the even greedier hens. Karen has become adept at creating 'hen-proof feeding stations' for the smaller birds, though it's a bit like trying to keep the Squirrels off the bird feeders, a constant battle of wits, a battle the poultry all too often win!