Wednesday, 28 October 2009

A Question of Balance

Tannin. Where would we be without it? The picture on the right shows the juice of the Yarlington Mill cider apples we've been pressing recently, the rich tannins oxidising to a deep orangey-brown as the juice come off the press.

If we couldn't get hold of a supply of tannin-rich bittersweet cider apples like these, we'd likely be making a lighter, sharper, perhaps fruitier style of cider from dessert and culinary apples. A cider perhaps more representative of the Eastern Counties cidermaking tradition we're geographically closer to, than the fuller flavoured, spicy, rich ciders of the West-Country and Three Counties areas. Some people express a preference for one style over the other, but we like to make both, and have found that our customers are pretty evenly split in their preference for the different styles.

In truth, the ciders we make from one year to the next are largely determined by what fruit we can get. Last year we made a fruity, sharp cider from a large batch of organic dessert apples, as well as a richer Three Counties style cider from an assortment of mostly bittersweet cider apples. This year we're pressing what's available, and the mix is turning out rather differently.

Almost half the fruit we've pressed this year has been Perry Pears, a real departure from previous years when perry pears have been at such a premium. It would be nice to think we could make this quantity of perry every year, but sadly it's almost inevitable that the trees which have given us such a bumper crop will be taking a well earned rest next year, and the crop will therefore be very much smaller. The rest of the fruit we've pressed has been almost exclusively high quality bittersweet cider apples, and there's plenty more to come when the Vilberie ripens fully in November. On the face of it a very good season so far, many people struggle to get hold of good cider fruit, and we've been very lucky with both the quantity and quality of our cider apples this year. There is a small but important problem however...

Fruiting in the various local orchards and gardens we harvest from, has been so poor this year that we may struggle to make even a small batch of our Welland Valley Special Cider. The shortage of local apples is so acute that we're even struggling for Bramleys, something I never thought would happen. The village orchard has four Bramley trees, our own and the one next door bringing the total to six. We've never been short of Bramleys, in fact most of the crop usually falls before we have a chance to harvest it, which is very good news for the Blackbirds. This year I've taken maybe 30kg of fruit off the whole lot, and other trees in the valley are carrying a similarly modest crop (see pic right).

Now Bramleys are not exactly the best apples for making cider. A pure Bramley cider is quite thin, lacking in body, and often mouth-puckeringly sharp. It's this intense sharpness that makes Bramley Apples unwelcome in excess, yet very useful in a blend lacking in acidity. Bittersweet cider apples are characterised by being high in tannin and sugars, but lacking the acidity needed to produce a balanced drink on their own. In addition, a lack of acidity can often lead to ciders developing 'off' flavours during fermentation or later storage. The Malic Acid which a few Bramley Apples bring to a blend can be an important contributor to both flavour, and the kind of chemical balance needed for a cider to keep well throughout the season.

So, we're short of Bramleys! What to do? We're pressing the last of the Yarlington Mill bittersweet cider apples on Saturday, so I'll be 'Scouring the Shire' for whatever sharp apples I can find to blend in with this low acid fruit. Bumper crops of cider apples and perry pears are all well and good, but sometimes there's a need for something less exotic when it comes to cidermaking. The word is out, we need Bramleys...

PS. 2009 marks the bicentenary of the mighty Bramley Apple, with events marking this pomological milestone occuring throughout the year. Visit the Bramley Apple website for more details.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Cider We Like - Once Upon A Tree

It's not often I'm moved to write glowingly about a bottled cider. By and large the better supermarket offerings taste all too similar to me, pleasant enough but created for mass appeal with little in the way of a real unique character. Even the smaller traditional cider producers are forced to smooth out any rough edges if they want a supermarket listing, and it's for this reason I very rarely buy anything from their shelves now.

Take a step away from the national chains, and seek out farmshops, deli's and the like, and there are some gems to be found. Broadway Deli is one such place, and though the range of ciders on offer is small, they've thankfully avoided the usual suspects and gone for something truly special.

Once Upon A Tree are a Herefordshire based company, and relative newcomers to the cider scene. They've already achieved an enviable reputation for the quality of their ciders with several top awards under their belt. Cidermaker Simon Day comes from a background in winemaking, and it's this new approach, unencumbered by the sometimes unscientific traditions of cidermaking, which leads to ciders of such exceptional quality.

I tried the Marcle Ridge Dry Cider, made from a blend of Ellis Bitter, Brown's Apple, and Dabinett. The Brown's is a 'Vintage Quality' sharp cider apple, and an important contributor of acidity to the blend as well as bringing an aromatic quality to the cider. The cider is still, and properly dry, a rarity amongst the more commercial bottled ciders where a 'dry' is almost always medium or medium/dry at best. Apparently people don't like truly dry cider! I wonder how many people have actually had the opportunity to try a proper dry cider!

The Marcle Ridge is quite full flavoured with plenty of spicy tannins, and a decent dollop of acidity to balance the fullness and make for a very drinkable cider. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of this cider for myself is just how similar it tastes to our own 2008 vintage of Rockingham Forest Cider. If I was given this blind I'd probably guess it was our own, albeit polished up a little.

Lovely stuff, Karen liked it too, and there's a bottle of their single variety Dabinett waiting in the dark recesses of the pantry for another day.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Scale of the Job...

This is what we're pressing at the moment. Mostly Yarlington Mill, but also a few Dabinett, Harry Masters' Jersey, Kingston Black, and Blenheim Orange for acidity. The Yarlington Mills are coming out at a very pleasing gravity of 1.060, which is much better than we've had before and with the potential for around 8% alcohol.

There's also a small quantity of unknown Perry Pears, enough to fill a 60 litre fermenter, and also giving a gravity of 1.060. The tree these pears came from is adjacent to a well used footpath, and I was asked on three separate occasions what I was doing, and what the strange fruit I was bagging up was. Perhaps not surprising really, perry pears are quite small, and often not very pear shaped. What continues to surprise me though, is that nobody I talked to seemed to have any idea what Perry is! A reminder of just how rare this ancient drink has now become, and how important it is for people like us to continue making perry whenever we get the opportunity. Thanks to this year's bumper crop of perry pears, we've now made nearly ten times as much perry as we made last year. The sad thing is we could have made ten times more given more time...

Monday, 19 October 2009

An Orchard Sunset

Here we have a lovely Autumn sunset as a backdrop to some of our young cider apple trees. The right-hand tree is a struggling Harry Masters' Jersey which bore no fruit again this year. It's struggling due to being planted in the poorest soil in the orchard, sandy, very free-draining, and desperately in need of a mulch if we can keep the hens from scratching it all away. This tree was also hit badly by Rosy Apple Aphid in its first season, and is only just recovering.

The healthier specimens to the left of the Harry Masters' are Yarlington Mill. In common with the rest of the orchard, we're training these trees to give a strong centre leader with evenly spaced fruiting laterals. The strong upright growth of the laterals on these trees could make it hard to maintain the dominanace of the centre leader. Come the new year they'll need some careful Winter pruning , as well as tieing down of the laterals when the sap rises in the Spring. This should promote the formation of fruiting buds on the laterals, and in turn help reduce the vigour of the tree as a whole.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

2009 Picking & Panking* Team

Pictured here, getting down and dirty amongst the cider apples in Worcestershire, are this years crack orchard team Paul & Sue (Note: Only one of the above seem to be taking the safety wear policy seriously. Clue: It's not Paul!). They're smiling here because it's nearly time to go to the Horse & Hounds for a lunchtime pint...

Todays haul amounted to the best part of 3/4 of a ton of Yarlington Mill apples, a vintage quality cider apple variety which will form the backbone of this years Rockingham Forest Cider. We may even make a small quantity of single variety Yarlington Mill cider.

Another excellent day in the orchard, our luck with the weather continues, and a tremendous effort from Paul & Sue to harvest this bumper crop of apples.

*Panking: The shaking or knocking down of ripe apples or pears from a tree, often involving the use of a long 'Panking Pole'

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Snouts in the Trough

We've been pressing Perry Pears again, this time a mixed bag of Green Horse, Red Longdon, and an assortment of unknown pears from the Worcestershire orchard. Four pressings filled two of our 120 litre fermenters, leaving seven sacks of spent pomace to dispose of.

Most of the cider apples we press give good juice extraction, and leave pomace behind which is pretty dry, but even with the full force of our hydraulic press it's often possible to squeeze a little bit of juice from the spent pomace between thumb and finger. The pomace left behind from pressing perry pears tends to be very dry indeed, almost cardboard like, and therefore the juice extraction is perhaps even better, one reason we love pressing perry pears. No matter what the state of the pomace following pressing, it's guaranteed a great reception in the piggery at Keythorpe Rare Breeds.

Once again Adam & Serena are helping us out with our small but unavoidable pomace problem, a happy situation for all concerned. The pigs love the pomace, Adam & Serena appreciate the slightly reduced feed bill at this time of year, and we get to avoid the headache of disposing of upwards of a ton of high quality apple and pear pulp. High quality! Well since all of our apples and pears come from unsprayed old orchards, the pomace can rightly be considered to be Organic in all but name.

Pick of the Crop

This picture records our bountiful harvest of cider apples this year. This represents around half of the total crop, we've been gathering and pressing the fallen apples for a few weeks now. The striped green/red apples at the bottom are Dabinett, the more pinky/orange ones at the top are Harry Masters' Jersey. The handful of Yarlington Mill and Tremlett's Bitter apples have already been juiced.

Not a huge crop on the face of it, but considering our total harvest last year amounted to four apples, we're very pleased with the way our young orchard is developing.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Triple Crown for the Red Lion

Our local pub, and regular outlet for Rockingham Forest Ciders, the Red Lion in Middleton, has recently achieved the full compliment of CAMRA honours.

LocAle accreditation comes on the back of licensees Kevin & Fiona's strong commitment to serving beers from local Northamptonshire breweries, Great Oakley Brewery in particular. The LocAle sticker guarantees there will always be a real ale from a local brewery on offer at the bar of the Red Lion.

Kevin's attention to detail in the cellar has already been recognised by the local Northants CAMRA branch with the award of Pub of the Season earlier this year. Now the Red Lion has achieved the ultimate accolade for the quality of its real ales by appearing in the 2010 edition of CAMRA'S Good Beer Guide.

Completing the set is a new initiative from CAMRA, with accreditation for pubs which regularly sell real ciders as well as real ale. The Red Lion is now one of the first pubs in the UK to sport a 'Real Cider Sold Here' sticker. Throughout the Winter, and until our new season ciders and perrys are ready in the Spring, we aim to source quality ciders and perrys from throughout the country to make sure a real cider is always on offer at the Red Lion.

Brocks Hill Apple Day Pt.2

We'd like to thank Helen Gregory, Countryside and Biodiversity Officer for Oadby and Wigston Borough Council, who organised the Apple Day event at Brocks Hill Country Park on Sunday. We were both pleasantly surprised at the quality of the many stalls she had assembled for the day, including some fantastic displays of rare and local apples.

We were happy to offer samples of our two ciders, which many people enjoyed enough to purchase a two pint takeaway. Our friend Diana Fegredo's beautiful cards attracted a lot of attention, as did our small display of cider apples and perry pears. It was pleasing how many people took an interest in our cidermaking, with several keen to give the craft a go themselves.

We were not the only cidermakers there, with David Bates of Welland Valley Vineyard offering tasters of his Roundhead Cider. We thought the Medium cider was outstanding, well done David. There was also a selection of bottled ciders from Pawley Farm of Kent.

Our stall was snuggled up next to the Leicestershire Heritage Apple Project. Mel, Nigel, and Michael seemed to be having a very successful day, their homemade press was also a great attraction for budding cidermakers.

All in all, a great day out, and one we hope to attend again.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Brocks Hill Apple Day

I'll post a better description of the 2009 Brocks Hill Apple Day when I've got more time, but here's a couple of pics to give a flavour of the day...

The Rockingham Forest Cider Stall

Apple Identification by the Northern Fruit Group

Friday, 9 October 2009

All Shapes and Sizes... and Colours!

Identifying unknown varieties of apple is a tricksy business perhaps best left to the experts. The kind of pomological knowledge required to positively identify one variety of apple from maybe a dozen others which look almost identical, can only be gained through many years of working with orchard fruit.

There are certainly enough variables in an apple to help come to a reasonably positive conclusion, but unfortunately the biggest variable is often where, and how the fruit has been grown. Size of fruit can vary enormously depending on soil, climate, age of tree, and perhaps most importantly, whether the tree is carrying a heavy or light crop. The colouring of the fruit is determined as much by weather conditions and the position of the fruit on the tree with regard to the sun. In addition, an apple may only achieve it's true varietal colouring when truly ripe, a condition which can sometimes be hard to judge.

There are one or two good books available to help with apple identification. We use Liz Copas 'A Somerset Pomona - The Cider Apples of Somerset', which lists most of the more common cider apple varieties. Of course it's of little use when trying to identify an apple not native to Somerset, and even this excellent publication features photographs which don't quite tally with known specimens we've pressed. It's those variables again!

Perhaps the best chance of getting a positive identification of an unknown variety of apple is at a local Apple Day event. They frequently feature one of these 'apple experts', indeed there will be Apple Identification at the Brocks Hill event we are attending this Sunday (11th Oct).

The fruit we've been pressing this year comes from an old orchard in Worcestershire. The orchards owner John can name many of the varieties, but even he doesn't know the identity of all the trees. Some were planted by his Grandfather over 100 years ago, indeed some of the perry pear trees are probably nearer 200 years old, so it's no surprise that some of the knowledge has become a little hazy. It doesn't help when a certain tree is known only by a unique 'local' name, though for me this does add colour to the whole story. One perry pear tree for example, is known by the name Bell Pear due to it's distinctively shaped fruit, but I can't find a reference to this variety anywhere. Luckily for us, we don't really need to know the identity of every apple which goes into our cider, so long as the taste is right, and in this we're guided by our tongues!

So here's a picture of the cider apples we've pressed so far this year. The fruits are quite distinctive, and we know for sure what most are, but there are one or two mystery apples. If you know what they might be, do let us know.

From top left to bottom right:

  • Unknown early bittersweet - These apples had all fallen by early October, and our best guess on these waxy skinned, scabby green/yellow fruits is Bulmers Norman, which we've pressed before.
  • Kingston Black - From a windswept smallish tree which rarely produces much. The skin is very dark red at the nose, and the flesh is hard, chewy and classically bittersharp. Wish we had a few more of these!
  • Dabinett - Homegrown on our very young trees. Large apples for Dabinett
  • Dabinett - Believe it or not, these are the same variety as above, but from a heavily cropping mature tree in the Worcestershire orchard.
  • Unknown Sweet - Conical, scabby but attractive apple. This is a pure sweet, that is it has low acidity distinguishing it from a dessert apple.
  • Harry Masters' Jersey - Homegrown, from a heavily cropping young tree. Harry Masters' is distinguished by a pinky/orange colouring.
  • Yarlington Mill - Homegrown, and again very large for the variety due to a young tree carrying a small crop. These yarly's are deep red, with a pointed nose and distinctive ribbing.
  • Unknown Bittersweet - Small, round and dullish green. These are mid season apples from a single tree in Johns orchard. Full bittersweet, Michelin? Who knows!
  • Unknown Sharp - These had mostly all fallen at Johns orchard in Worcs. The skin is striped orangey red, and the apple is heavily ribbed. A very attractive fruit with a wonderful aromatic flavour which reminded me of the sharp cider variety Brown's Apple.

Birds Everywhere

I've never seen so many birds in the garden. Half a dozen Sparrows fighting for territory with a similar number of Bullfinches. A sizeable family of Blue Tits flitting between the trees, a Green Woodpecker pecking at Ants on the lawn, and a solitary Robin sitting on the fence watching it all.

We must be doing something right in the garden, perhaps it's this years 'less tidy' approach to gardening. All we need now is the return of the Blackbirds. Where do all the Blackbirds go at this time of year?

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Pressing (Contains Graphic Images)

It's been a very busy few days, and I'm too tired to blog about it tonight. Until tomorrow, here's a short 'superior' video showing all the action from todays pressing. It's 'superior' because I don't speak over it! Enjoy.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

It's Raining Pears...

Harvesting Red Longdon Perry Pears in Worcestershire.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Perry Making

It's nice when a plan comes together. When the niggles and obstacles are few, your system works, and everything is smoothness and efficiency itself. It's particularly nice as it so rarely seems to happen!

Yesterday was one such day, and it came on the back of several preceding days of smooth efficiency in the orchard. Up at the crack of dawn, and up to our elbows in Perry Pears and water. The Blakeney Reds were in very good condition, very few rots, and since they were mostly shaken down onto a tarpaulin, not too dirty either. I was helped with the washing for an hour or so by Colin Bates, a chap from nearby Great Oakley with a surplus of apples and a desire to learn how to make cider from them. He brought along a friend who gamely set-to with the washing up.

The pears pressed very dry indeed, and released around 250 litres of juice with a thoroughly respectable specific gravity of 1.050. Not exactly a 'vintage' sugar level, but still better than last years Blakeneys which were 1.048. We were all finished, everything cleaned down, and ready for a relaxing bath when Serena & Adam of Keythorpe Rare Breeds arrived to whisk the dry pomace off for the delight of their pigs. Not only did they arrive with impeccable timing, but brought with them a wedge of unbelievably creamy Lemon Cheesecake. We sent them home with our thanks and a bottle of Rockingham Forest Cider, and still feel we got the better end of the deal!

Tomorrow it's back to the orchard with my brother Paul as a willing (?) volunteer. We've our sites set on apples this time. This perry making is all good fun when it goes well, but it's high time we made a bit of cider!

Nice Orchard Blog

We like to litter our blog with as many pretty pictures of orchards as possible. Why wouldn't we? Orchards are at the very heart of what we do. They're beautiful places to spend time in whatever the season, and of course we couldn't make cider and perry without them.

Orchards are also incredibly fragile places, often neglected, and of little commercial value to their owners. You only have to take note of the many 'Orchard Closes', and 'The Old Orchard' housing developments to see what we've already lost of this precious heritage.

By writing about orchards, and also by providing a market for the fruit through our cidermaking, I hope we're doing a little bit to help preserve some of this orchard heritage. A more hands-on approach is being taken by Henry Johnson, who is busy restoring a couple of old Bramley and Plum orchards in Gloucestershire. He writes far more eloquently on the subject than we do on his excellent Charingworth Orchard Trust blog, and the pictures are much more impressive than ours too!

Friday, 2 October 2009

Orchard Rambling

We've had a great day at the orchard in Worcestershire today. Orchard owner John very kindly helped out for an hour or so in the morning, and we managed to bag-up maybe a quarter of a ton of Blakeney Red perry pears. It was pretty hard going, but very satisfying working in such a tranquil environment.

I say tranquil, but the RAF fly very low round these parts! Other than that it was the resident Woodpeckers a-rattling, Pheasants crah-crah-ing, and the distinctive cry of a Buzzard circling overhead. I tried to video the Buzzard, but by the time I'd wound the camera up, it had gone. Instead I did a really bad video blog, which you can view below. Rest assured, I'll be quicker and catch the Buzzard next time...

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Perry Pears - Raising a Stink

Perry Pears are unusual things. Small, hard, sometimes very quick to rot, and absolutely horrible to taste when eaten raw.

The unpleasant taste is the result of very high tannin levels in perry pears, sometimes so high that the fruit needs to be milled a few days before pressing to help the tannins 'soften' through oxidisation (known as Maceration). Of course it's the tannins which make perry such a fine drink, and the reason why 'ordinary' dessert pears are not nearly so good for perry making.

The perry pears we pressed a couple of weeks ago were pretty tannic, though not so high that they needed to be 'macerated' to reduce the tannin. These Moorcroft pears are renowned for producing an excellent perry, though it's a difficult pear to make perry from owing to the very short time between ripening and the fruit rotting. In common with many varieties of perry pear and cider apple, Moorcroft pears go by several names depending on where they're grown. When grown in Worcestershire they tend to go by the name Malvern Hills or Malvern Pear for obvious reasons. Choke Pear is another name which perhaps reflects the tannic nature of this variety of perry pear.

Another less common name which has come to greater prominence in recent years, is Stinking Bishop, also the name of a highly regarded artisan cheese made by Charles Martell in Gloucestershire. If you've ever come across this rare soft cheese, you'll know the reason for it's unusual name. During the ripening period, the individual cheeses are regularly washed in perry made from the Stinking Bishop pear. This gives the cheese a unique 'sweaty socks' aroma which certainly lives up to it's unusual name. On the face of it, perhaps not a great advert for Moorcroft Perry, but strangely enough the perry itself is light, floral, and perhaps one of the finest you're likely to come across. So whither the pong?

The quantity of Moorcroft pears we pressed was not that great, and the resulting dry pomace was only sufficient to fill two small sacks. We normally send our pomace off to Keythorpe Rare Breeds as feed for their lucky free-range pigs, but this batch was a little too small for the journey and therefore sat for a few days outside waiting to be disposed of with the green waste. After a couple of days in the sun, the Stinking Bishop moniker started to become all too clear. The smell was overpowering, even the vinegar flys were avoiding the sacks. I dread to think what the bin-men were thinking when they emptied our green bin this week!

We're off to Worcestershire again this weekend in search of Blakeney Red perry pears. Another great pear variety, with the potential to make really excellent perry, though formerly used to dye soldiers uniforms Khaki.... Hmm!.... At least it won't smell so bad.