Sunday, 29 March 2009

Sulgrave Orchard Slider

The making of Slider fits nicely into the natural order of the cidermaking year. The Sloe Gin we made in November is now ready to decant, filter, and bottle-up; and by a happy coincidence the new-season cider is ready to receive the gin-soaked sloes.

Slider is a longer, less potent version of the many spirit-based fruity concoctions which are traditionally made throughout Europe. The sloes from a batch of Sloe Gin are given a second life, re-used to flavour a similar batch of cider. We made a Slider last season, but got the timing slightly wrong, meaning there was only a limited amount of our own cider available for the experiment. Nevertheless, what we did manage to make came out very well indeed, so this year we've decided to do things properly.

The cider we've used is our Sulgrave Orchard Cider, fruity and sharp which should take the herbal richness of the sloes well. We've made up a gallon this time, so the flavour will probably be less pronounced, but we hope that a longer maturing time will help draw out more of the sloe character. The Slider will be under airlock throughout the 2 or 3 months of maturation, so there should be no chance of the whole experiment becoming explosive through fermentation!

The Slider should be ready in time for the Welland Valley Beer Festival in June. It's a strictly non-commercial experiment so if you see me at the festival do ask for a sample, I'll be carrying a bottle or two for the purpose.

As you can see, Dolly insisted on getting into this picture. I think the hens were very disappointed that the sloes didn't come their way. Patience girls, your time will come...

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Mansfield CAMRA Beer & Cider Festival

Open season has been declared on cider and perry at the Mansfield CAMRA Beer & Cider Festival (Thurs 2nd - Sun 5th April). Ray & Gail of Mansfield & Ashfield CAMRA (and makers of the award-winning Torkard Cider) have put together a very attractive range of ciders and perrys for this year's festival, with a particular emphasis on East Midlands ciders.

There are now nearly a dozen small-scale cidermakers in the East Midlands, all producing ciders with a truly distinctive flavour from locally sourced apples. These four local ciders represent a modest sample from the much wider range now available throughout the East Midlands, and I know that Ray & Gail would have liked to offer more from the region had they been available.

A cider bar as good as this has definitely got to be worth a visit. I'll be sampling my way through a few during the Friday 12-6pm session, probably starting at the top and moving downwards...

East Midlands Ciders

Floppy Tabs (6.0%). Torkard Cider, Hucknall.

Three Cats Cider, Morley.

Skidbrooke Cyder, Skidbrooke, Louth.

Sulgrave Orchard Cider (6.4%). Rockingham Forest Cider, Middleton.

Welsh Ciders

Dan Y Graig (6.0%). Dan Y Graig, Grosmont.
Old Barn (7.2%). Springfield, Llangovan.

Pyder (6.5%). Gwynt Y Ddraig, Llantwit Fardre.

English Ciders

Day’s Cottage. Day’s Cottage, Brookthorpe.

Sarah’s (7.0%). Sarah’s Cider, Bosbury, Ledbury. Blend.
Yarlington Mill (7.5%). Denis Gwatkin, Abbey Dore. S.V.

Home Orchard (7.0%). Ben Crossman, Hewish, Weston-Super-Mare. Blend.
Port Wine of Glastonbury (6.5%). Hecks, Street, Glastonbury. S.V
Parson’s Choice (7.0%). Parsonage Farm, West Lyng, Taunton. Blend.
Legbender (6.0%). Rich’s, Watchfield, Nr. Highbridge. Blend


Oliver’s Draught Perry. Made by Tom Oliver in Ocle Pychard
Newton Court Draught Perry. Made by Paul Stephens, near Leominster.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Cider - A Book for all Seasons

Books on cider and cidermaking are always pretty thin on the ground. Cider doesn't seem to get the prominence that Beer, Whisky and Wine get in bookshops, so when two books on cider arrive in relatively short order it could be considered as something of a literary glut. But is it...

Last year I was delighted to receive a copy of James Crowden's new book Ciderland, a weighty discourse on the history of cidermaking with several in-depth profiles on some of the movers and shakers of modern craft cidermaking. The book is beautifully illustrated, and full of useful information and anecdote. It's also just won the drinks category of the André Simon Book Awards. Just the sort of book cider and perry enthusiasts have been waiting for.

The soon to be published CAMRA book, Cider, seems to be in a very similar vein, covering several notable cidermakers, and with a superb collection of photographs by Mark Bolton (browse around his website for a sneak preview of some of the images). I'm certainly looking forward to getting my hands on a copy, and I'm sure it will be a worthy addition to a limited literary field.

Of course it's a shame that two such similar books have arrived on the scene so close together, and it probably won't help the sales of either which would be a great shame as they seem to be equally deserving of success. But perhaps the most dissapointing aspect for me is the missed opportunity of the CAMRA publication. The book I really want to see is a new, bang-up-to-date Good Cider Guide, not another coffee table book no matter how good it is.

The last edition of CAMRA's Good Cider Guide was published in 2005, and it wasn't a bad effort, certainly better than some previous editions, though perhaps not as good as Dave Mathews excellent edition, or the early David Kitton books of the 80's. The problem is that this guide is now massively out of date, and virtually unusable as a travelling guide to pubs and farms which sell cider. This guide needs to be re-published at least every three years, ideally every other year, but sadly there seems little sign of a new edition.

I'll be buying the new 'Cider' book, and I do hope it's a great success, but the unfortunate truth is that this new book is likely to make the publication of a new Good Cider Guide even less of a possibilty in the near future.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

'6 Nations Crowd Drink Pub Dry' - Read all about it...

What a day yesterday was. Glorious sunshine, oodles of rugby, and nothing much to do but drink it all in at the Red Lion, Middleton.

After a morning spent communing with the hens and rummaging through seed packets, it was off to the pub for the final weekend of Six Nations rugby action. This year's tournament has hardly been a vintage one, but the results were all good yesterday. England put in a stuttering performance to win back the Clacutta Cup, and the mighty Ireland team achieved their first Grand Slam since 1948. In between the internationals, news filtered through that the Leicester Tigers had thumped Saracens 46 - 16, which was the icing on the rugby ball shaped cake kind-of-thing.

There was a good crowd in at the pub, and a fair few of them were drinking the Sulgrave Orchard Cider. An impromptu survey of the (mostly) ladies enjoying the cider revealed comments such as 'It's lovely', and 'Very appley'. Good enough for me.

So enthusiastic were these lovely ladies for the cider, that half way through the Grand Slam decider they'd managed to drink the box dry. The beers followed soon after and a rapid re-stock was required today. So this morning I dusted off the trusty Rockingham Forest Cider Sack-Barrow, and a new box of Sulgrave Orchard Cider has joined the Phipp's IPA and Great Oakley Welland Valley Mild on the bar. Just in time for the legions of thirsty Mum's who've descended on the pub to enjoy on their big day.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

The Joys of Spring

March is rapidly drawing to a close and I've yet to catch sight of a Hare, mad or otherwise. Rabbits galore of course, but these are hardly the harbingers of Spring we associate with the wonderful Hare. Oh well, there are plenty of other signs that Spring is finally upon us. The buds are swelling on many of our trees, and the warmer days have nudged some of the ciders into a renewed gentle fermentation.

Most exciting of all are the new signs of life in the potting shed. It's early days yet, but the Scarlet Crofton I grafted in February appears to have taken, the buds on the scion have well and truly broken, and it looks as if we may have a tree on our hands. I said at the time I was doing the grafting that if only one tree took I'd be a happy man, and it has, so I am. The Dabinetts have yet to burst into life, but most cider apple varieties flower late so there's plenty of time for them yet. The Golden Harvey is also showing little in the way of life at the moment, but the Calville Rouge D'Hiver looks promising, the buds have definitely grown a little over the last couple of weeks.

Out in the orchard I've continued to tie-down some of the more upright branches on the cider apple trees. The Yarlington Mill and Tremlett's Bitter trees have been particularly prone to this upright growth, and by tying down these branches we can encourage the trees to produce fruiting buds rather than too much vegetative growth. If we can get the Tremlett's to crop reasonably early there's a much better chance of reducing their vigour. The Tremlett's enjoy the conditions in our garden, and if we're not careful we'll end up with huge spindly trees which are reluctant to give us any fruit.

Of course the coming of Spring can bring problems along with this new growth. From now on it's 'Pest Watch' in the orchard, we don't want a repeat of last year's Rosy Apple Aphid infestation.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Cider Jar of the Month - Perry Bros

As you can see, the people at Somerset cidermaker Perry's seem to have a bit of a thing about stoneware jars. I hadn't realised just how many of their jars I had until I started to collect them together for a photo-call, and even then I suspect that one or two more may be lurking at the back of a cupboard somewhere. Perhaps it's me that's got the thing about Perry's cider jars! They do make for a lovely collection though. Proper old-fashioned stoneware, though no less a collection of tourist trinkets than the more gaudy 'Zumerzet' versions if truth be told.

I'd put Perry's in the same stable as their near neighbours Sheppy's. Similar in size, they're both family concerns making award-winning ciders with some pedigree. Both farms are well equipped for the tourist trade, with museums of farm implements, an on site shop for tastings and sales, tea room etc. I really must give Perry's a visit next time I'm travelling through Somerset.

One major difference between Perry's and Sheppy's, certainly from our perspective in the Midlands, is that Perry's ciders are not nearly so widely distributed. This is a great shame as their ciders are very good indeed. The nearest outlet for Perry's ciders that I'm aware of is the delicatessen Browns of Stilton in Cambridgeshire. Hardly local, but I'm lucky enough to work over that way occasionally, so had the opportunity to pick up flagons of their single-variety Somerset Redstreak Cider, and more traditional Farmhouse Cider recently.

They're both very good. The Redstreak is a medium cider with a lovely rich fruitiness, very easy-drinking, but with a reassuringly grown-up splash of tannin in the finish. The Farmhouse is more robust, slightly drier, though perhaps sweeter than the Medium/Dry Perry's claim for it. The tannins in this cider are less sophisticated, and there is a slight bitterness in the finish. I'd prefer it a little drier, but it's a good, pint-drinking cider nevertheless.

I couldn't help noticing from the website that Perry's still sell cider jars and mugs from their shop, a nice tilt-of-the-hat to tradition. I was particularly pleased to see that the family are now making use of a more modern method to advertise their range of fine ciders. The new Cider Diary, written by Perry Bros current manager George Perry, is a blog I'll be following with great interest throughout the coming year.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Leicester Beer Festival

I've been to the Leicester Beer Festival today and taken loads of photos. Here it is!

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Sidra - The Next Big Thing?

The future is Spanish. I know, I've seen it, and I'm passing on this red-hot tip so that fashion-conscious cider drinkers don't have to miss out on the 'Next Big Thing'. After all, the last thing you want is to be caught drinking something 'Over-Ice' this year, and god forbid that you might be seen with a bottle of Pear Cider a full year after this particular 'Phenomenon' has been consigned to the Bin End sales. Putting aside flavour (which seems to be the golden rule for mass-market drinks brands), it's absolutely crucial that us poor, easily lead consumers, drink only what's in fashion right now, certainly not a 'Yesterday Drink', like say... Magners.

Poor old Magners, dramatically falling sales have finally spurred the good-old-boys of Clonmel to bring out Magners Pear, a new concept in 'Irish-cider-with-pear-flavour-kind-of-stuff', designed to look comfortingly old-fashioned. It's therefore such a shame that the Pear Cider bandwagon has already packed up, waved goodbye, and rolled out of town. Here's another 'Hot Tip'. Magners Gooseberry for 2010 anyone? Hmm, maybe not.

So, my prediction for the Cider Trend of 2009 is... El Gaitero Spanish Cider. Yes, that's right, Spanish cider (or Sidra), though sadly not a Sidra Natural, which would probably be a bit too hardcore for most people's taste. El Gaitero are one of the largest producers of cider in the traditional Sidra region of Asturias in Northern Spain. Their ciders, which are widely available throughout Spain, tend to be of the low alcohol, sweet and fizzy style. It's probably true to say that if you like Woodpecker, you'll probably like the El Gaitero range of sparkling ciders.

We have Waitrose to thank for introducing Spanish cider to the UK market, this being their second attempt at marketing a cider from Asturias. The first showing, several years ago, was a genuine Sidra Natural, dry, unfiltered, and sold in a traditional corked bottle. I can't remember the name of this sidra, but I do recall it had a little too much vinegar tainted for my taste. Perhaps not surprisingly it didn't catch on, and soon disappeared from Waitrose shelves. This new attempt to introduce sidra to the supermarket shopper may fair a little better.

The cider, which is described as Medium Dry on the bottle, is carbonated, filtered, and actually closer to Medium in sweetness. I was expecting a very commercial flavour, but was surprised to find quite a bit of genuine sidra character. There's a lovely sherberty tang which reminds me of the Co-op's Tillington Hills Cider before that was dumbed-down. A very slight vinegar taint is actually quite authentic. Take away the sweetness and your left with a reasonably authentic Asturian sidra.

All in all, quite a decent cider, and in hindsight perhaps a little too good to be the next big thing.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Chukka Pies

Our new Sulgrave Orchard Cider is a much sharper, fruitier and cleaner tasting cider than our Rockingham Forest Cider. This crisper flavour is due to the blend of apples we used to make it, mostly dessert fruit rather than tannin-rich cider apples. This 'Eastern Counties' style of cider is perhaps closer in flavour to a crisp white wine than a traditional 'West-country' cider, and for my money the higher acidity makes it much better as a cooking ingredient.

We decided to put this to the test with a pot roast of Free-Range Chicken in Cider, with assorted vegetables, and a generous pinch of Tarragon. The Chicken was delicious, and the cider made for a really tasty gravy. The left-over meat was destined for pies, though if truth be told I was thinking of the pies before the roast, so the roast was just a means to an end really...

This pie-making session was inspired by Phil Young's Rebel Chicken Pie blog entry, heavily tweaked to suit our current store-cupboard situation. We sauteed some Leeks and Celery in a little oil, stirred in a heaped tablespoon of flour before adding a slosh or two of the all important Sulgrave Orchard Cider. At this point the gelatinous remnants of the Sunday roast gravy were added, giving a serious Tarragon-y boost to the overall flavour.

The chopped-up chicken was then stirred in, along with a generous handful of garden peas (fresh from the freezer). The rapidly thickening gloop was then allowed to cool.

Karen has been blessed with an excellent set of 'Pastry Fingers'. Whilst my talents extend merely to the simmer and stir, Pastry-Queen Karen is truly the skilled artisan in this pie-making operation. I stood back, poured a glass of cider, and let the woman get on with it.

The cooled pie filling was then spooned, a little over-generously, into the waiting pie-lets, before topping off, and brushing with a golden yolk from the Rockingham Forest Cider Flock (long may they lay).

Baked for half an hour or so, the pastry was perfect, the filling absolutely delicious. A fitting contribution to British Pie Week... which was last week... so we missed it!

Monday, 9 March 2009

One for the Ladies...

... and we'd like to think it's one for the Gentlemen too. Here we can see Kevin Barby, licensee of our village local the Red Lion in Middleton, pulling something young and tasty at the bar. It is of course our new Sulgrave Orchard Cider, and Kevin & Fiona will be only too happy to pull one for you too if you pay them a visit over the coming weeks.

We'll be supplying our ciders to the Red Lion from now until the ciderhouse runs dry, which should hopefully take us through the Summer at least, and maybe as far as October. The Sulgrave Orchard Cider is Medium/Dry to suit local tastes, and our Rockingham Forest Cider should be ready to go by around April/May time.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Open for Business

Cider sales at Rockingham Forest Cider have gone from nought to sixty in less than a week. The first sixty litre fermenter of our new Sulgrave Orchard Cider has been racked off, barrelled up, and shipped out. Two barrels have been delivered to the Charotar Patidar Samaj for next weeks Leicester CAMRA Beer Festival, and another box is destined for the Red Lion, Middleton, a welcome return to our village local. It's an early start to the season for us, but no sooner have we broached the first batch than orders have started to trickle in for more of the same...

The Criterion on Millstone Lane has recently been announced as Leicester CAMRA's Pub of the Year for 2009. This is the third year on the run that Russell and his team have won this prestigious award. The winning combination of fine ales and ciders, excellent pizzas, and a warm welcome have made this a hard act to follow, and we'll be helping with the celebrations by delivering a box of Sulgrave Orchard Cider later this week. We hope that this should be available during the Leicester Beer Festival weekend.

Hardy northern folk Ray & Gail of Mansfield & Ashfield CAMRA, are also keen to secure a box of our cider for the forthcoming Mansfield Beer & Cider Festival. Ray & Gail are also the formidable team behind the Hucknall Cider Co, producers of the multi award-winning Torkard Cider, a true taste of locally grown Nottinghamshire fruit. I think it's safe to say that these two know a thing or two about cider, and I hope they like our Sulgrave Orchard Cider, a genuine Northamptonshire cider.

We're also currently looking into the possibility of supplying our cider to another highly regarded Leicestershire alehouse. More details soon...

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Watching the Grass Grow

Despite the best efforts of the Rockingham Forest Cider Hens, there are definite signs of early Spring growth in the garden. The grass is starting to green up a little, and many of the shrubs and trees are in the very early stages of bud break.

Some of the cider apple trees are more advanced than others, though thankfully nothing tender has actually emerged yet. Temperatures are dropping once again, and a dusting of snow is likely over the next day or two. One sign that our trees are starting to emerge from their Winter hibernation is that the branches are now much more flexible than when I pruned them in January. This shows that sap is on the rise, a good thing as I'll need to tie down quite a few branches this year. Much of last year's growth was a little too upright and these branches will now need tying down to a more horizontal angle if we hope to bring them into early fruiting.

My afternoon preamble around the orchard has provided more evidence that the local rabbit population is out of control. More damage, this time to our neighbour's mature Bramley, and to another tree which has been almost completely stripped of bark by the hopping pests. I'm seriously thinking of guarding my own Bramley, the one I thought was too tough a proposition for rabbity teeth...

Natural predators are plentiful enough in the valley. A Fox has been spotted hereabouts, presumably giving our hens the once-over! A Sparrowhawk is also a regular visitor to the orchard, but it would seem that life is too easy for these carnivores to make any serious impact on the rabbit population. The time has come for a more 'man-made' solution. As I write, traps are being baited with a handful of tasty carrots, and a handful of feisty Ferrets are being readied for the pursuit.

The dispatch of a healthy animal just to protect our own garden is of course not to be undertaken lightly, but unfortunately rabbits and orchards (and pretty-much all of the garden) make for a very poor mix. Rabbits & Cider on the other hand, well they make for a very tasty mix, and we aim to put any reduction in the rabbit population to very good use in the kitchen.