Monday, 23 February 2009

Leicester Beer Festival - Cider Bar List

The hard working team behind the Leicester CAMRA Beer Festival have once again pulled out all the stops to get the cider bar list out well in advance of the opening day. Bar manager Susan Shirley (above) entrusted this year's cider and perry order to Neville Middleton of Shardlow Brewery, who seems to have come up with an excellent choice. I'm particularly looking forward to trying the single variety Tremlett's and Dabinett ciders, and the Old Monty cider which I've heard very good things about. Burrow Hill is of course one of my favourites, and anything Tom Oliver sends should be of the highest quality. I just hope a few of these are left by the time I get there on Saturday.

Bridge Farm Cider (tba)
Burrow Hill (Med/Dry) 6.5%
Crossmans Tremletts (Med/Dry) 7.0%
Crossmans Home Orchard (Med/Dry) 7.0%
Gwatkins Kingston Black (Dry) 7.5%
Gwatkin Stoke Red (Sweet) 7.5%
Gwatkin Thorn Perry (Dry) 7.5%
Gwatkin Blakeney Red Perry (Med) 7.5%
Gwynt Y Ddriag Black Dragon (Med/Dry) 7.2%
Gwynt Y Ddriag Dabinett (Med) 6.0%
Gwynt Y Ddriag Pyder (Med) 6.0%
Gwynt Y Ddriag Malvern Hills Perry (Med) 5.5%
Gwynt Y Ddriag Two trees Perry (Med/Sweet) 5.0%
Hecks Vilberie 2 years Old (Dry) 7.5%
Hecks Port Wine of Glastonbury (Med) 7.5%
Hecks Blakeney Red Perry (Med/Sweet) 6.5%
Hecks Blakeney Red Perry (Med) 7.5%
Naish Natural (Dry) 7.2%
Newton Court (Sweet) 5.0%
Newton Court Perry (Med/Sweet) 7.5%
Old Monty (Med) 6.5%
Olivers Cider (Med) 6.0%
Olivers Perry (Med) 7.0%
Rich's Legbender (Med/Dry) 6.0%
Rich's Farmhouse (Sweet) 6.0%
Rockingham Forest Sulgrave Orchard Cider (Med) 6.4%
Thatchers Cheddar Valley (Dry) 6.0%
Westcroft Janets Jungle Juice (Med) 6.5%
Westcroft Dry 6.5%

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Leicester Beer Festival

Our festival year kicks off in March with the excellent Leicester CAMRA Beer Festival (Wed 11th to Sat 14th). This will be the festival's 9th year at the Charotar Patidar Samaj, and the succesful formula of previous years has been maintained with over 200 real ales, complimented by around 30 ciders and perrys, and the unique Leicester Beer Festival Curry House experience! We'll be supplying a barrel or two of our new Sulgrave Orchard Cider for the event, our first sales of the year, and the first appearance of this cider anywhere.

The Leicester Beer Festival comes quite early in the season for us, in fact a little too early for some of our ciders to be ready. The Rockingham Forest Cider, which is made from a blend of tannic 'bittersweet' cider apples, is rarely at it's best until May at the earliest, but the Sulgrave Orchard Cider we pressed a little earlier in the season is fresh, fruity, and ready to go. This is a medium cider made from organic dessert apples in the Eastern Counties style, and is not too high in alcohol at 6.4% abv.

As for the rest of the ciders and perrys on offer, cider bar manager Susan Shirley has promised a wide range to suit all tastes. There will be more rich West Country ciders than previous years, though the Three Counties and Wales will also be well represented. I hope to get to the Saturday afternoon session, perhaps not the best day for overall choice, but still a good day out and an opportunity for a pint and a chat with old friends.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Waskily Wabbits

We've had a spot of Bunny-Bother this week. The village is currently all 'a-hop' with the fluffy pests, and though not often seen, they're leaving a trail of rabbity destruction in their wake. Where them rabbits have been, there's sure to be an almighty mess of droppings and indiscriminate burrowing. No big deal I hear you say, but things have taken a rather more sinister turn of late...

All our newly planted trees are wire-guarded against the rabbit pest, they certainly need to be since rabbits find the tender bark of young apple trees rather toothsome. The guards have been doing their job well, and whilst we can't keep the nibbling nuisances from getting into the orchard, at least we can be sure that our precious cider apple trees are safe from harm. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for every tree in the orchard.

The big Bramley Apple is safe enough. Razor sharp incisors are no match for the tough bark of this old tree, and any soft new growth is located well above speculative nibbling height. Unfortunately, the James Grieve has not fared so well.

This rather sorry-looking specimen is a text-book example of how not to look after an apple tree. It's very poorly anchored, leans alarmingly, and is liable to rock gently in a stiff breeze. There are signs of rot and bark-loss in several places, and to be honest it's probably living on borrowed time. Despite all this it crops prolifically, producing a bumper harvest of disease-free, sweet, juicy and delicious apples every September. So precocious is it's cropping that it needs to be heavily thinned out to prevent over-cropping. Whenever I'm working in the orchard I cast a fond, paternal eye over the James Grieve, and vow to leave it in for just one more year.

This week a more careful examination has revealed that one of the lower branches has been almost totally stripped of bark, the underlying wood riddled with rabbit-sized tooth marks. It's a grisly sight, made worse by the wet conditions which make the damage look like some kind of voracious bark-eating disease is creeping up the branch. The only decision I need to make now is whether to prune out the damage, remove all the rot, prop the tree up against the wind, and erect a rabbit-proof fence around it... or grub the tree up and replace it with something new and possibly cidery... Tough call!

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Birds - There May Be Trouble Ahead...

The garden and orchard are a-flap with all manner of busy bird life. The Blackbirds, Crows, Magpies and Jackdaws have been a constant presence since their return from the fields last Autumn. Robins, Wrens, and Blue Tits are Karen's favourites, I like the noisy Sparrows which have returned from wherever they went to, and are now re-establishing their nests in the barn wall.

Slightly rarer visitors are a pair of Green Woodpeckers, which cling to our old Bramley Apple tree almost invisible against the mossy green of the trunk. Last year we had Green Finches in the garden, pretty little things though common enough. This year it's the slightly rarer sight of a family of Bullfinches, three strikingly coloured males, and a single, much less colourful female.

This photo of Bullfinches has been kindly made available for use by Sergey Yeliseev under a Creative Commons Licence.

The Bullfinch is listed by the RSPB as being at high risk following a recent decline in numbers, so it's with mixed feelings that we welcome this bird into our garden. Actually we didn't welcome it, and I wouldn't have thought the birds themselves could care less whether we had or not. Anyway, they're here now, and whilst they're definitely welcome, I do fear for our young fruit trees this Spring.

Bullfinches are a notorious pest of commercial orchards, they have a fondness for the fruit buds of various trees, orchard fruit trees in particular. A decent sized flock of these beauties can have a serious effect on the fruiting potential of an orchard, I'll be keeping a watchful eye on the emerging buds on our own trees. What was shaping up to be our first decent crop since planting our little orchard of cider apple trees, could yet be 'nipped in the bud' as it were.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Whip & Tongue Action

I've now finished grafting some of the Dabinett scions onto four of the MM106 rootstocks. I decided there was absolutely no need to do this outside in the cold, so the task was completed in the warm comfort of the kitchen. Karen made herself scarce as sharp slivers of wood pinged off the walls, making the floor a dangerous place for bare feet. The technique I used is known as Whip & Tongue (whoever thought that one up must still be chuckling in their grave), whereby matching diagonal cuts are made on the rootstock and scion, with an additional notch to help the graft hold together. It seemed to go quite well, and as a first attempt unsupervised, I'll be more than happy if just one of my efforts comes to fruition.

The equipment I used was an Opinel No.7 Knife, my trusty Felco Secateurs, an anti-bacterial wipe, and several strips of polythene cut from a freezer bag. This last item is used to bind the graft and prevent it drying out whilst healing. For a fuller explanation of the techniques used in grafting I would recommend Stephen Hayes excellent Fruitwise Video Guides.

There's a spare rootstock which I'll be planting out, or 'Stooling' to hopefully create more rootstock for next year's grafting, more of which later...

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Cider Jar of the Month - Sheppy's

The farmers and cidermakers of the Sheppy family must have introduced a huge number of people to the joys of real Somerset cider over their 200 years in the business. Their award-winning ciders are available nationwide through several supermarket chains, and the base of operations at Bradford-on-Tone near Taunton welcomes visitors from near and far for tours, teas, and of course the sampling of their many blends of cider.

Sheppy's are one of the few supermarket distributed ciders I'm happy to buy, not because of some snobbish belief that only the smaller producers can make decent cider (though this is sadly all too often the case), but because Sheppy's ciders are to me much more distinctive and true to form than many of their competitors.

The cider sections of the larger supermarkets can give the impression they offer a great choice of distinctive ciders from producers large and small, but in my experience this is often far from the truth. Unfortunately most of the better quality ciders available from supermarkets seem to have been blended by committee. The supermarket buyers don't want distinctive ciders, they want ciders which appeal to as many people as possible, albeit in an unexciting and formulaic way. I'm sure that many of the cidermakers which supply this market make very good cider, but by the time their wares have been filtered, pasteurised, carbonated, sweetened-up, and who-knows what else-d, we're left with a good range of fairly decent ciders which sadly all taste the same.

Sheppy's on the other hand make ciders which somehow manage to survive the committee process and cling on to their individuality and distinctiveness. Their single variety ciders are a good example of this, remarkable in that they actually taste of the apple varieties they're made from. The Dabinett is very different to the Tremlett's Bitter, and probably not to everyone's taste, but then what would be the point of making it if this wasn't the case! My personal favourite has always been their Gold Medal Farmhouse Dry Cider, a still, full-flavoured cider, made from bittersweet and bittersharp cider apples. Too rich and tannic for most peoples taste I'd guess, and this is presumably why it's not so widely available.

I bought a bottle of Sheppy's Farmers Harvest to try whilst writing this, a new cider unveiled in 2008 to celebrate the centenary of the National Farmers Union. Now that I've big'd-up Sheppy's I have to admit that this isn't one of my favourites. It's quite a lightweight cider, very drinkable, with a bit of sweetness and a fair amount of rich bittersweet character, but the flavour fades a little too quickly for my liking. It's similar in style to some of the lighter Westons ciders, and I would imagine it would be quite popular as a draught cider, maybe even 'over-ice'...

Oh well, I guess this is what you get when it has to meet the approval of the committee. A kind of cidery Collective Bargaining.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Cheap Fruit Trees - Good or Bad?

So you've got a nice open sunny space in your garden, and would like to fill it with a fruit tree (for the purposes of this blog entry, an apple or pear). Excellent idea. Planting a tree, any tree, fruiting or otherwise, is always the right thing to do. Even the smallest garden can accomodate a dwarfing variety grown on M27 or M9 rootstock. A dwarfing tree will take up very little space even when mature, and can tolerate being grown in a (quite large) pot. This is of course the ideal time of year to plant a fruit tree, particulalrly if it's 'bare-root' rather than pot grown.

Each year one or two of the budget supermarkets (and until recently, Woolworths!) have seen this as a great opportunity to add a small range of very reasonably priced fruit trees to their range. These budget trees can often be the first step for many into the wide and wonderful world of fruit growing, and I've heard nothing but good reports about the quality and vigour of these fruity bargains. If money is tight (and when is it not these days), they represent great value for the prospective orchardist.

Having said all that, there are to my mind several very real problems with opting for budget fruit trees, and if you can possibly afford it I would always recommend going the extra mile and buying a tree from a specialist nursery instead. Here's why:

For me, perhaps the single biggest problem with buying a budget apple tree is that it limits you to a very small choice of varieties. This wouldn't be such a problem if the varieties on offer were a bit more interesting, but sadly they always seem to be the 'usual suspects'. The fruit from Bramley, Cox, Jonagold, Conference etc. is all readily available to buy from supermarkets and greengrocers, and thanks to cold storage technology, available almost all year round. So why would we want to grow one of these ultra-common varieties? Surley the whole point of growing your own fruit is the opportunity to try something totally different from the norm, perhaps a rare and interesting variety from the literally hundreds available through specialist nurseries. Something that will suit your own taste, and perhaps just as importantly, your own specific soil conditions, microclimate, and skills as a gardener. You may also want to grow a variety which was developed locally to you, providing a little Local Distinctiveness.

It's also worth mentioning that the varieties used for these budget trees are often chosen on the basis of their familiarity to potential purchasers, and not neccesarily because they're the best varieties to grow in the average garden situation. Cox's Orange Pippin, probably our most widely recognised dessert apple, is often one of the varieties on offer, despite the fact that the beloved Cox is a very difficult apple to grow without the use of all manner of sprays and chemical additions. The Cox is prone to Mildew, Scab, Canker, and is absolutely not suitable for cold, wet conditions.

Another problem with these budget trees is the rootstock. Unless things have changed recently, I've never been able to identify the rootstock used for these trees, crucial if you want to know it's eventual size when mature. I suspect that most of these trees are grown on the popular MM106 rootstock, a good all-round stock, but perhaps too vigorous for smaller gardens, and certainly not suitable for a pot grown tree.

On a more technical level, the age of these trees can sometimes be a problem. If you want to train your fruit tree in a particular way, it's always best to start with as young a tree as possible. A one year-old tree (Maiden Whip) is often recommended since you can train the tree exactly to the form you require. A budget tree may be 2 or even 3 years old, and the basic form of the tree may already be too well established to train correctly.

There's no doubt that given the choice between planting a budget fruit tree, and not planting a tree at all, I would always recommend a trip to your 'local' Aldi or Lidl. But an apple tree is something that should thrive in your garden for decades, providing tasty fruit, beautiful blossom, shade and shelter well beyond it's pay-back time. I believe it really is worth spending a little bit extra for a variety which will be just that little bit more special, and is sure to give you pleasure for many years to come.

There is a good listing of specialist nurseries on the ukcider Wiki, including many which supply cider apple varieties: Nurseries for Apple & Pear Trees

Thursday, 5 February 2009

White Out, Cosy Inn

Today we awoke to a good 8-10 inch blanket of lovely powdery snow. With all our potential exits from the village up fairly steep inclines we're effectively snowed in for the day, and work of any kind is out of the question. Boo-hoo!

As good an excuse for a trip to the village pub as any I've heard. Meanwhile, here's a little video of our snow-bound garden...

Monday, 2 February 2009

MSOG Grafting Day

This Sunday may have been one of the coldest days rural Buckinghamshire has ever seen. It was certainly the coldest day in rural Bucks that I've ever seen. A teeth-chattering, headache inducing, Narnia-esque chill, with the added threat of a blizzard for good measure. Very, very cold for sure, but thankfully I wasn't suffering alone. I was in the company of a merry band of orchardists and apple enthusiasts, all gathered at Stowe Landscape Gardens to learn the skills of Grafting. They were a friendly bunch, and hardy with it. A spirited display of 'Team Grumbling' won the day, and the freezing conditions became just about tolerable.

The ancient art of Grafting has much in common with the equally venerable skills of whittling and ...erm! cabinet making. All require the use of viciously sharp tools, a steady hand, and some basic understanding of woodwork. Uncontrollable shivering, painfully numb fingertips, and blurred vision from the bitterly cold wind are not generally conducive to the delicate carpentry required for successful grafting. To their great credit our tutors Andy and Marcus of the Midshires Orchard Group managed to demonstrate the techniques of grafting, and supervise our own fumbling efforts, without having to deal with a single amputation, disfigurement, or sticking plaster.

We all came away from the event with three newly created apple trees, chosen from a wide variety of scions, and grafted by ourselves onto a choice of several different rootstock. I chose to graft one of the Golden Harvey scions which Ny kindly sent me from Herefordshire, a very old Irish variety of dessert apple, Scarlett Crofton, and a variety called Rouge D'vere (?) which I can't find any information about.

More importantly, we all now have the confidence to graft our own trees whenever the mood takes us, and I'm itching to take a knife to the MM106 rootstock I bought from Blackmoor Nurseries recently. I may have to wait for a nicer day though. Numb fingers, a sharp knife, slippery snow, it's an accident waiting to happen.