Thursday, 31 December 2009

2009 - Mulling It Over

2009, a fairly mixed-bag of a year for most people I guess, us included. It's been a difficult year for everyone, and for all kinds of reasons, but at least our cidermaking has continued to go from strength to strength, and provided us with some memorable occasions along the way. On balance we can look back on the year with a measure of satisfaction, and a little sigh of relief. We seem to have weathered the storms reasonably well, and things could certainly have been a lot worse!

So with a new decade only a few hours away, I think a celebration is in order. We'll be seeing in the New Year in our local the Red Lion, but before that it's as good an occasion as any to break out the spices and Mull up a warming treat. The very last knockings of our Sulgrave Orchard Cider will make the fruity base to our Rockingham Forest Wassail Cup, along with a few spicy store-cupboard favourites. The cider we're using is very dry and quite sharp, so adjust the sweetening to suit the cider you're using and to your own taste. For every litre of dry cider we'll be adding:

2 or 3 dessert spoons of Honey
2 tbsp Calvados (or any other Brandy/Rum)
A good tsp each of Cinnamon Bark, Cloves, and Allspice (crushed)
A short grating of Nutmeg
Peel from half a Lemon
A few Chilli Flakes (optional)

Heat through and simmer very gently for a few minutes, then strain into a flask and surprise your friends and neighbours.

Wishing all our readers a very Happy New Year

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Wine Snobs Come Out Fighting

In what I'm assuming to be a blatant and savage riposte to my Six Ciders For Christmas Day selection, upmarket stick-in-the-mud wine magazine Decanter have only gone and pinched the idea and issued their own recommendations for the big day. Predictably it's wine, wine, wine all the way, with beer and cider well and truly off the radar. You can view the tawdry article here.

Well, I could whine on about it some more, but since plagiarism is surely the sincerest form of flattery I'll let them have their moment of glory. A small plug for our blog wouldn't have hurt though!... In the spirit of goodwill I'll mention that a Calvados does make it onto their Top 10 Spirits for Christmas list. Meantime, I'll be keeping a very close eye on those Gout-riddled Decanter Johnnys. All work on this blog is copyright. Even the rubbish stuff...

Merry Christmas to all our readers and drinkers.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Christmas Pudding

The usual orderly approach to Christmas Day has been anything but orderly this year. The late-late cidermaking hasn't helped, neither has an untimely flurry of real work following a Summer of bone-idleness. Suffice to say that the Christmas spirit has arrived very late this year...

Things are really kicking off now, which is just as well since it's less than a week before the big day! The tree is up, there's snow on the ground, and I've finally got round to making the Christmas Cake and Pudding.

Ho, Ho, Ho I hear you say, far too late to mature properly for Christmas Day. Stir-up Sunday, the traditional day to make your Christmas Pudding, came and went on the 22nd of November. Ha, Ha, Ha, I reply, it's not a problem when you're still eating last year's cake, and the pudding recipe I've used is a cross between a plum pudding and a steamed sponge cake. No maturing necessary, and I give you the recipe here because it's never too late to steam-up your kitchen for Christmas.

I've taken inspiration for the pudding from the accurately named 'Farmhouse Cookery', a veritable treasure trove of Irish recipes, produced by the lovely ladies of the Ballylennon Presbyterian Church, County Donegal. A full three quarters of this book is devoted to baking, which is as it should be. Play to your strengths that's what I say... So a tip of the hat to Anna McKean of Rateen, St Johnston whose recipe I almost followed to the letter.

For a medium sized pud, beat together 110g Butter and the same of Soft Brown Sugar until fluffy, or your arm succumbs to tennis-elbow. Add One and a Half Eggs, 40g Plain Flour, 25g Chopped Almonds, 110g Brown Breadcrumbs, a tsp of Mixed Spice, and a Quarter tsp of Baking Powder. Stir around a bit then add 350g Mixed Fruit which includes mixed peel, along with a peeled, cored and diced Cooking Apple. Things will have got pretty dry by now, so add the juice and grated rind of Half a Lemon, along with 2-4 tbsp of Sweet Cider, I used the same Henny's 2008 Vintage Cider which I recommended for the Cheese Board. Stir very well and transfer to a well buttered pudding bowl. The pud will rise by an inch or so, so cover with foil tied in such a way as to allow a little expansion, and steam for 3 Irish Hours (maybe a little less, maybe a little more, check with a skewer to see whether it's cooked through). When it's done, allow to cool a little, then pierce all over with a skewer and drizzle as much Cider Brandy or Calvados into the pud as you feel necessary. Quite a lot in our case!

Being made with butter rather than suet, this pudding will probably not keep so well as a more traditional, heavy plum pudding, though the Brandy should help.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Drink Cider for Conservation

Here's a little snippet of news which caught my eye from The Times today. Apparently, Naturalists from Butterfly Conservation, in partnership with the mighty National Trust, want us all to drink more cider...

Hmm! Let's dig a little bit deeper into this one.

The truth of the story is less about giving the green light to bacchanalian excess, and more the plight of a rather rare little Moth which happens to have a strong affinity with Mistletoe. The Mistletoe Marble Moth (Celypha woodiana) is struggling to find enough of it's favourite mealtime delicacy owing to a decline in Mistletoe, which in turn is due to our sharply declining orchard stock. I think you may be able to see the connection now.

Journalistic shorthand leads to the conclusion that more cider simply must be consumed if we stand any chance of saving these poor critters. I'll drink to that, and so of course should you.

Having read the news feature again, I still can't see where Naturalists have made any specific mention of cider, instead they seem to be urging us to support British apple growers. It's a minor technicality, the result is the same whichever way you get your 'English Apple-a-Day'. A greater appreciation, and less destruction of old orchards, Mistletoe galore, and happy, happy Moths.

The image accompanying this post has been kindly made available by oldbilluk under a Creative Commons licence. Thanks Bill.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Six Ciders for Christmas Day - Brandy, No Cigar

And so we come to the last knockings of what has been a long and indulgent day. Snuggled up in front of a crackling gas fire, stuffed to the gunnel's with rich Christmas Fayre (ahem!), fit for nowt but a family film of your choice or the welcome oblivion of an afternoon nap. At this stage of the day you're not likely to have room for another cider, so my final choice for the day is a generous schooner of Julian Temperley's finest Cider Brandy.

Somerset Cider Brandy is a real home-produced treat, created from the distillation of fine Somerset cider at Burrow Hill in deepest Somerset. When Julian Temperley wrestled a licence to distill from a highly reticent HM Customs in 1989, the scene was set for the recreation of a style of Brandy which had all but faded from memory in this country. The bottlings which have been released up to now have been exceptionally well received, and as time has crept by, older and more mature Brandies have been released, including most recently, the stunning 15 year old Somerset Alchemy.

For preference I favour the 5 year old brandy, less fiery than the youthful 3 year old, but retaining more appley flavour than the smoother 10 year old bottling. Unfortunately, we don't have any of the sublime 5 year old to hand, so we'll have to slum it with a limited release 10 year old Single Cask Somerset Royal Cider Brandy. This version has a slightly higher alcohol level at 45.8%, and was matured in new Limousin Oak which will probably give creamy vanilla notes in the flavour.

If you can't get hold of a bottle of Somerset's finest, I'd also recommend the much easier to find Sainsbury's Calvados Pays d'Auge XO. This 12 year old spirit is deep golden in colour, slightly medicinal on the nose, but beautifully smooth on the tongue. There's rosy apple, vanilla, spiciness, and a Rum-like demerara sugariness. A great way to end the day, and if you can find a little more room, pair these two with a generous slice of Christmas Cake. If you can't, perhaps the cake itself would appreciate a drop or two!

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Six Ciders for Christmas Day - Cheese

Two recommendations for the price of one.

I've said it before on this blog, and for those that may have missed it I'll happily repeat myself. Cheese & Cider, or to put it another way, Cider & Cheese, a marriage made in heaven. Yes, contrary to the opinions of the wine trade, most of which seem to believe that the only proper accompaniments to cheese are a Robust Red or a Zingy White (well they would say that, wouldn't they!), cider is the perfect partner to the Christmas cheeseboard. Now don't get me wrong, I'll certainly be rummaging around our small, carefully cellar'd collection of Ports for something special to go with the Stilton, but a really good Cheddar needs something far classier than mere Vintage Port, and that'll be Cider of course!

Bottled Luscombe Organic Devon Cider (4.9% abv) is as close to the taste of a proper draught Devon Cider as makes no difference. It's quite a chunky, rustic, and dare I say, unsophisticated cider. It's also unfiltered, and can therefore pour a little cloudy, something I'm not usually too fond of, but in this case it just adds to this ciders 'Farmhouse' charm. Pour into your glass from a height to help remove the slight sparkle, and you'll have the perfect accompaniment to a proper piece of tangy Farmhouse Cheddar. Close your eyes, pop a generous knob of cheese in your mouth, then swirl and nose a glass of this Devon Delight. Think Devonshire Summers, warm hay-lofts, cool cider barns and generous farmers wives. Lovely..... you can open your eyes now.

Luscombes Cider can sometimes be found in upmarket Cafes and Deli's, alongside their excellent range of soft drinks (the Ginger Beer is great for the day after if you know what I mean!). Ours came from The Case Wine Shop on Millstone Lane, Leicester. Another excellent alternative which is more widely available is Henney's 2008 Vintage Cider (6.5%), a still, full-flavoured medium cider, easily the match for a chunk of Keen's award-winning Cheddar. A sweeter cider like this would even hold its own alongside the pungent saltiness of a good Stilton. Ok, so these ciders may be a little too robust for gentler tasting cheeses, so my advice is... 'Don't buy any gentle tasting cheeses'. It's too late in the day for subtlety, it's a tongue-tingling whopper of a cheese you're after, not a prissy little soft goats cheese. Since when did Brie & Chardonnay transport you anywhere so nice on Christmas Day!

Monday, 14 December 2009

Six Ciders for Christmas Day - The Queen's Speech

Hush-up and stand to attention, it's 'er Majesty on the box. If you've forgotten to get the cheeses out of the fridge, it's too late now...

Pour yourself a generous glass of Duchy Originals Organic Dry Reserve Cider (it could be a long speech this year*), and settle down for the traditional post dinner royal roundup. This robust, earthy, grown-up cider is more medium/dry to my taste, but with a good dry finish. The very light sparkle accentuates a spicy, almost sherbet-y character, which seems to be a house style of Worcestershire cidermaker Knights (now owned by Aston Manor) where this cider is made. You'll find this excellent cider in larger branches of Waitrose. If you don't have a Waitrose nearby, you might like to try it's lighter-weight cousin, Tillington Hills Premium Dry Reserve Cider, also made by Knights and available in many Co-op stores.

If you're finding it hard to concentrate on the speech, you may prefer to picture the bucolic scene in the 'Royal Ciderhouse'. Camilla working up a sweat grinding the apples in the old wooden Scratter. Charles bent double over the twin-screw press, the Royal Smock stained brown with apple juice, rubber-gloved hands carefully spreading the pomace out to the corners of the cheese. Prince William, slumped in the corner by the massive oak barrels, a drinking horn nestled protectively in folds of tweed...

Drink-up, it's time for the Cheese Gromit.

* and no, we won't be watching it either!

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Six Ciders for Christmas Day - A Tipple with your Turkey

Christmas Dinner, and we're not making things any easier for you.

Let's assume that like us you're having Turkey. Over the years we've tried the alternatives, from a Free-Range Goose which was so long it only just fitted in the oven (I liked, Karen didn't), through Duck, Partridge, and even a brace of toothsome Quails one memorable Christmas, but always with a little Turkey on the side for the picky eaters! This year it's Turkey all the way, because when cooked properly it's the ultimate meaty comfort food, a no-worries bird that'll feed you through the whole 12 days of Christmas and beyond.

I think Turkey goes best with a good dry White Wine, or better still a fine Perry. Gamier birds, and darker meats might benefit from something a little more robust, a fullsome English Cider for example, or a light-ish Red Wine if you're feeling particularly unimaginative. Turkey needs a lighter hand. A good Perry is delicate, floral, aromatic, with maybe a touch of sweetness to enhance the soft fruitiness. The perfect partner to a savoury slice of breast meat, and a sweeter, fuller flavoured Perry would go very nicely with the Christmas Pudding too.

We'll be pulling the cork from a bottle of our dwindling supply of Rockingham Forest Blakeney Red Perry, nicely dry, and now showing just a hint of sparkle from the extended time in strong bottles. For the pud I'll open a smaller bottle of Waitrose 2008 Vintage Perry, a richer, sweeter example of the style made for the supermarket by Westons of Herefordshire. Waitrose are possibly the only supermarket offering a range of quality perrys, and you might be lucky enough to find a bottle of Dunkertons Organic Perry on their shelves too.

I wish you well in your search for a good quality Perry. It's not the easiest drink to find outside of the Three Counties area, and even there it's not exactly common. If you don't a have a Waitrose on your doorstep, I think you'll struggle to find anything other than inferior Pear Ciders, which I can't recommend in all honesty. Online you might like to try Orchard Hive & Vine, who specialise in Three Counties producers, many of which produce excellent Perry.

Next: A Toast for the Queen's Christmas Message

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Six Ciders for Christmas Day - The Pre-Dinner Snifter

A good Pint in a welcoming Pub can be a truly memorable Experience. It would be true to say though, that some Pints, in some Pubs, and on some Occasions, are certainly more memorable than others.

The 'Unexpectedly bumping into friends in the Pub and accidentally drinking the afternoon away...' is certainly one of the better 'Memorable Pints'.

How about the 'Warming winter Pint in front of the crackling log fire after a long walk in the countryside', surely everyone loves that one.

A recent addition to the 'Memorable Pint' list is the 'Gosh, we appear to be snowed in and can't get to work so might as well go to the Pub... Blimey, everyone else in the village seems to have had the same idea, Mine's a Pint'... This one is a particular favourite of ours, and one we look forward to repeating some time during this years greatly anticipated Winter freeze.

Then there's the occasion which this post is all about, the 'Christmas Day lunchtime local Pint', always a little special, and as important a part of our Christmas Day as the Turkey and Tree (actually, nothing is more important than the Tree for our Karen).

We're very lucky to have a good draught cider available at all times in our village local the Red Lion, Middleton. When our own cider has ran out, we supply a range of quality alternatives from near and far to keep the 'Real Cider' flag flying through any shortages. The current 'Guest Cider' is from Hecks of Somerset, a proper West-Country cider from an award-winning producer. I'll probably go for the smooth, dry Tremlett's Bitter straight from the cellar, rather than the sweeter blended cider on handpump. A pint or two of this 6.5% beauty should set us up nicely for the Christmas Dinner.

Now I know what you're thinking! Recommending a cider in your local pub on Christmas Day is all well and good for those of us with a Real Cider pub on our doorstep, but what about the vast majority of pubs which offer little more than a range of poor quality bottled or draught 'industrial ciders' (you know the ones I'm talking about, though if your lucky there may be something decent from Aspall or Westons available). Well don't despair, in all honesty the main point of this blog post is less about the cider itself, and more about going to the pub on this special day. If there's nothing cidery worth drinking, feel free to deviate from the theme and try a good beer or wine instead. So long as it's in a pub amongst friends and acquaintances, your not likely to regret it.

Can't get to the pub! There's probably still time to order a bag-in-box of Real Cider for home consumption. Many of the larger regional cidermakers can deliver their draught ciders to your home, and the bag-in-box method guarantees that the cider will stay fresh and tasty throughout the Christmas period and beyond. Our good friends at Ross-on Wye Cider & Perry have recently set up an online sales website which I can heartily recommend, and for a wider range of West-Country ciders you might like to try

Coming Soon: A Tipple with your Turkey

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Six Ciders for Christmas Day - Breakfast

Breakfast drinking! Probably only appropriate on two occasions. Your own Wedding Day is one, and who would argue with that, but perhaps the only truly annual excuse for a drink with the cornflakes is Christmas Day.

Champagne or Cava are generally considered the traditional Christmas Breakfast Drinks, which is fair enough I suppose. A bit of fizz in the morning can be a great way to waken the senses and put you in a party mood. Sherry seems to feature too, though for what purpose I'm not sure. Perhaps it's the traditional way of polishing off what Santa couldn't finish the night before.

Now I'm all for tradition, but the problem with Champagne and Sherry are their 'weight'. I want the fizz, and I certainly want a grown-up drink, but let's face it, this Christmas Day thing, it's rather long isn't it! Too much alcohol and there's a very real danger of peaking early and missing the Queen's Speech! I want something bursting with zingy flavour, but relatively light in alcohol...

Which brings me to my first Christmas Cider recommendation. Something fruity and fulsome, lightweight and approachable, yet a cider of exceptionally high quality. I'm talking Classy, Sassy, and a little bit Gassy. I'm talking about something French! Yes, polish up the Champagne glasses, ease out the mushroom cork, and treat yourself to a delicious Cidre Traditionnel from across the channel. It's le jour de Noël...

I've chosen La Bolée du Père Raison (5.5%) from the Breton cidre maker Loïc Raison. It's a sophisticated, traditional sparkling cider, labelled as Brut but with more sweetness than some I've tried. Breton ciders tend to be more full-bodied in style than those from Normandy, and the slight sweetness helps to balance the full tannins and slight toffee-apple richness in this example. There's a lovely zesty fruitiness too which benefits from the restrained sparkle created by the Methode Traditionnel. The smaller bubbles created in the bottle enhance this cider, unlike the harsh fizziness found in most of our more commercial bottled 'ciders'.

I was lucky enough to come across this cider at Sergi's Deli in Spalding, Lincs. They also have a Sweeter (Doux) version which weighs in at a minuscule 2.0% abv. You might be forgiven for thinking this low level of alcohol can only be achieved through the generous addition of water, but in fact those clever French cidermakers have perfected the art of arresting the fermentation before all the sugars have been turned to alcohol, resulting in a naturally sweet, naturally low alcohol cider. Too sweet for my taste, but very good nevertheless.

If you can't get to Sergi's Deli, try your own local Delicatessen, many of which will have a good quality French Cidre. I would also like to recommend the excellent single apple variety Duche De Longueville Cidre... I would like to, but since I haven't come across it in a Sainsbury store for some time now, I can't. Decent sized Waitrose stores also sell a French Cider, but I haven't tried it so can't really recommend that to you either... An internet search should find a number of online retailers of French Cider.

So, the French have it, but not for long! It's time to shove the bird in the oven, scrub the Parsnips, and put little crosses in the Sprout stalks. Set the oven timer, wrap up warm and hit the road. Your local pub needs you now more than ever. It's almost time for the traditional Pre-Dinner Snifter...

Saturday, 5 December 2009

# 'Deck the Halls with Cider & Perry, Tra-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-lah'

Wine recommendations come thick and fast in the build up to Christmas. The weekend colour supplements and top-shelf foody mags are full of festive wine talk ahead of the big day, though quite what's so 'Christmassy' about any of the recommend wines is rarely explained. Wine seems to be the only currency the UK media are happy to deal in, particularly during the festive season when you'd be forgiven for thinking that no other alcoholic drink merits a place at the Christmas table. The well-worn path from Champagne to White to Red, with a fortified and a distilled grape-based drink to finish is hardly original, so why do we get the same dull formula year on year!

Beer rarely if ever gets a look in on these 'Festive Lists', this despite the fact that dozens, if not hundreds of Yuletide special beers make their appearance at this time of the year, both in bottle and on draught. Do wine writers drink nothing other than wine? Assuming they do, why on earth don't they write about it? A warming Winter Ale can be a real joy at Christmas, add in a crackling log fire and the buzz of your local at lunchtime on Christmas Day, and we're talking an essential part of the Yuletide experience. I can only assume that wine writers and foody journos rarely visit pubs. It's probably the lack of spittoons!

Which brings me to the most ignored of all alcoholic drinks, whether at Christmas or any time of year for that matter. Outside of the main Autumn cidermaking months, Cider and Perry are well and truly off the radar as far as the mainstream media are concerned, yet most Cider and Perry is consumed throughout the Summer months. Cider and Perry does perhaps suffer from the lack of range available in the larger retail outlets, but this is a Chicken and Egg situation. The more that drinks writers venture out of their cosy comfort zones in the Home Counties, search out fantastic artisan drinks producers in the wild scary countryside, and write positively about them, the more demand there's likely to be for drinks which originate closer to home than Stellenbosch and Hawkes Bay. Greater demand might just encourage supermarket buyers to increase their meagre range of ciders and perrys, thereby giving the drinks writers more to write about.... Instead we get the usual 'Ooh-arr, Scrumpy' press trotted out in October, predictably littered with 'hilarious' Wurzel references, and that's it for the year. Great!

So in the interest of greater balance, over the next few days I'll be presenting my own Cider Recommendations for Christmas Day. Six great ciders and perrys, all chosen to match critical moments on the big day. From the early morning Breakfast Pint, something Rich and Classy for the Queens Speech, through to a final 'Wafer-Thin' digestif to help the latest Harry Potter movie go down. So polish up your best glassware and throw the corkscrew out*. It's going to be a Cider & Perry-tastic Christmas this year, and you're all invited... To your own homes that is. Not round here, we haven't got the room!

*Actually, don't throw the corkscrew out. That would be very wasteful, and besides, you might need it on Boxing Day!

Friday, 4 December 2009

Tree O'Clock

Tomorrow (Dec 5th) for one hour only (11am -12 noon) it's Tree O'Clock, a world record attempt to plant the most trees in one hour. A worthy project, and part of the wider National Tree Week which aims to promote the planting of trees in the UK, and the appreciation of trees in general. If you were thinking of planting a tree this Winter, it's not too late to buy one now and make a pledge to plant it tomorrow on the website. Don't forget to take a picture of the planting though, or it won't count towards the record attempt.

Sadly I won't have time to plant a tree tomorrow, I've made a little pledge of my own to Karen... The Christmas shopping has been put off for far too long, and a trip to the pretty market town of Stamford is apparently 'non-negotiable'. If you happen to be in Stamford tomorrow and spot a sulky looking middle-aged tramp in a wax jacket and bushman's hat being dragged around the M&S gift dept... that's me that is... Bah-Humbug!

Ok, so we won't be part of the record attempt, but that hasn't stopped us planting a couple of trees today instead. Of course the planting of a tree itself is the important bit, world record attempts!... well they come and go. I was once a record holder... along with the rest of the pupillage at our secondary school way back in the early 80's. The Dying Fly was all the rage back then, made popular by the mighty Tiswas team, and we proudly held the world record for this somewhat dubious practice for maybe a week at most... Inevitably, another school out-flyed us, the gimlet-eye of fame moved on to another star-struck secondary modern, and that was that! I don't think we even made it into the Big-Book itself. Such is life.

But I digress. It's tree planting time, the moment our grafted apple trees have been waiting for all Summer long. First in was the Calville Rouge D'Hiver, a dual purpose apple variety, originally from France where it's still found in some gardens. Calville is a name given in France to a range of apples which exhibit a heavily ribbed, crowned shape, and the flavour of this apple is described in the New Book of Apples (Joan Morgan & Alison Richards) as being 'Sweet, fruity with little richness, almost aromatic; soft, white flesh'. It also cooks to a 'lemon puree...' which sounds nice. This tree is on a semi-vigorous rootstock, MM106, which will eventually give a fair size tree, so I've used it to replace the Birch tree which outgrew it's welcome near the house.

The other tree which I've 'planted' is Scarlet Crofton, a dessert apple with a 'Striking dark red flush, under network of russet' and a 'Sweet, almost scented taste'. This apple is possibly of Irish origin, a tip of the hat to my ancestry. The tree itself was grafted onto M27 rootstock, a very dwarfing rootstock, perhaps only really suitable for pot-grown trees which is where this one has been planted. It will need staking for it's entire life, and cropping will be relatively small, but hopefully we'll end up with an attractive specimen for the patio in a few years time.

There are other trees to plant out, including a Dabinett which I'm hoping to train as an Espalier against a stone wall, but these can wait a few weeks until the Christmas rush is over. With the cidermaking finished, racking of the ciders not until January, and the latest round of pruning still later, the month of December brings a welcome break in the cidermaking year. From now until Christmas, we're getting festive, and this blog aims to be less about cidermaking, and much more about cider drinking. Wah-Hay!