Friday, 29 January 2010

Busy Doing Nothing

Should you be looking for an opportunity to spend an hour doing nothing much this weekend, the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch (30th-31st Jan) could be just the excuse you need.

I say 'nothing much', but a major part of the deal is that you spend the time scanning your garden for the occasional flash of feather and beak. If, like me, you believe a garden's primary purpose is as a playground for birds, you'll consider this time well spent. The only actual work involved is the putting of pen to paper, and not a great deal of that in truth.

Register on the website, and download one of the handy 'counting sheets' to help you record your count (I notice Chickens are not included... Bah!). It's not a competition, but should you decide to carpet your garden with tasty, beak-sized morsels in the hope of attracting more feathery activity than your neighbours... well I don't suppose it's against the rules.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

First Taste II - The Ciders

We're in no great rush to start selling our ciders, which is just as well really as all the signs point to them maturing a fair bit later than previous years.

Several factors have slowed things down in the ciderhouse, chief of which is that we didn't start our cidermaking until well into October, which is several weeks later than the early season dessert apples we pressed in 2008. A minor difference maybe, but compounded by the significant change in temperature from warm and sunny September, through to the chill of November. Colder weather means a slower, steadier fermentation, generally considered a good thing for overall quality, but not so good if speedy results are required.

Another factor is that all of this seasons ciders contain a high percentage of tannic bittersweet cider apples. I've previously found that ciders made with a high proportion of cider apples tend to take longer to clear and mature than those made from dessert and culinary fruit. This year we have very little early 'Eastern-Counties' style cider to fill the gap until the 'West-Country' stuff is ready!

This season we're relying on the natural yeasts on the fruit to ferment all of our ciders. Whilst most cultured yeasts have been selected to ferment in the most efficient way possible, often measured in weeks rather than months, wild yeast ferments tend to be much slower, sometimes continuing right through to the warmer Spring months. It's quite possible that some of our later pressings may continue to ferment right through until early Summer, and therefore may not be properly mature and ready to drink until Autumn comes round again! Such is the unpredictability of cidermaking.

So, bearing all this in mind, here's an early-early tasting of this years very young ciders. I've named them after the highest proportion of apples in each batch, which usually constitutes around 60-80% of the blend:

Yarlington Mill - Pick of the bunch, though nowhere near ready. Tastes great. Rich, mellow tannins, some sweetness, lovely deep golden colour. Still very cloudy though (see pic). Promises to be our best cider yet when fully mature.

Bulmers Norman - Sharp and very fruity. Some tannin, slight peardrops. Still cloudy and definately one for blending.

Vilberie - Clean, balanced flavour, with some hard tannin. Light golden in colour and slightly cloudy. Sharper than the Yarlington Mill, should mature into a very drinkable cider.

Welland Valley Special (Dessert/Culinary) - Fresh, fruity and very well balanced. Slight peardrops. This has almost cleared and is tasting very good already, but should be even better by the time this years Welland Valley Beer Festival comes around.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

First Taste - The Perrys

It's been almost four months now since our first pressing of the season, a trailer load of Malvern Hills perry pears, at a peak of sugary ripeness despite being picked in September. Unlike the later pressings of cider fruit, fermentation was quite rapid owing to the warm Autumn weather, and had all but finished by the time things turned colder in November. For this reason, Malvern Hills Perry can often be one of the earliest perrys available in the season, and I've been lucky enough to try some fine examples as early as mid-March.

Of all the different ciders and perrys we've pressed this season, the Malvern Hills is the one I've been most looking forward to trying. It's a particular favourite of mine, usually very pale in colour, crystal clear, with an exceptionally clean, fruity flavour. Like most perrys, Malvern Hills has a light, fragrant quality, Elderflower-like aroma, and fresh, fruity flavour. When sampled straight from the vat, there will often be a pleasant prickle of dissolved CO2, which only serves to enhance the delicate flavour of this highly regarded perry. It can also be very strong! Our Malvern Hills perry has been toned down a little through topping up with a smaller quantity of Blakney Red pear juice. Even so, it's still likely to achieve an alcohol level of 8.0% or more, which is around the maximum permitted level for a drink taxed as perry.

It's the 'racking-off' that provides us with the first opportunity to taste the fruits of last years Autumn labour. 'Racking' is the process of carefully syphoning the young ciders and perrys off the old yeast deposit (sometimes known as the Lees) into fresh vats. This can help to clarify the drink, but it's main purpose is to reduce the chance of 'off flavours' developing as the old yeast deposit breaks down over time. It's also a great opportunity to assess the general quality of each batch, and it may also be desirable to do a bit of blending at this stage. Finding a vat which has cleared naturally and lost the 'yeastiness' of a young, immature cider, is a real bonus at this time of year.

I spent most of Sunday racking the ciders and perrys, an exhausting task even with the help of our efficient little pump. The ciders are, not surprisingly, still very cloudy, and some months away from full maturity. In fact some of the very late pressings such as the Vilberie, which wasn't processed until mid-November, are not even ready to be racked yet. The perrys are much further forward, and showing great promise.

Malvern Hills - Clear, clean tasting, and showing only a slight yeastiness. This perry is almost ready to drink, though far too tannic at the moment. Needs another few months to mellow and soften, but should be an exceptional perry when ready.

Blakeney Red - We have two vats of Blakeney, one being quite cloudy, and still showing signs of fermentation. The other vat has cleared nicely, and finished fermenting with some sweetness remaining. It's soft, light and very well balanced, but still showing a very slight yeastiness. Now we've racked this off, I'm confident this should be ready for the forthcoming Leicester CAMRA Beer Festival in March.

Green Horse - Young, somewhat hazy in appearance, but the mild tannins in this should make for a very drinkable perry in another few months.

Vat #25 (Unknown Perry Pear) - Pale and hazy like homemade Lemonade. It may stay this way or clear to near colourless. This is fully fermented and quite dry, with a harder, slightly bitter tannin. Needs more time.

Vat #2 (Unknown Perry Pear) - A real surprise this one. Still very tannic, and therefore not quite ready, but a lovely pale golden perry, crystal clear with a delicious juicy-fruits flavour. Sadly most of this perry has been used for topping up purposes, though a very small quantity has been set aside for bottling and giving away to the long list of people who helped us make it!
Next: The Ciders

Monday, 18 January 2010

Hack, Slash, Tear & Rend

Four Birds - © Rockingham Forest Cider

This weekend's long awaited thaw has presented us with a golden opportunity for horticultural pursuits. It seems like months since we spent any quality time in the garden, and the little Winter jobs appear to have grown into much larger ones through neglect.

First up was the annual hack-and slash of the grapevines. This is a serious, and immensely satisfying bit of garden 'housework'. From tangled mess to neat order in less than an hour, with the added bonus of a stack of cuttings to propagate from. The idea is to restrict this years fruiting potential by removing almost all of the dormant buds on last years growth. In this way we hope to achieve a modest fully ripened crop, rather than a huge quantity of small grapes which may never achieve full ripeness.

In practice this means cutting all but two shoots right down to the permanent 'stock', trimming these back to 5 or 6 buds each, then bending them down onto the bottom wire of our rudimentary trellis system. There's not a lot of growth left by the time we've finished, but grape vines are incredibly vigorous so long as the root system and 'stock' are healthy and happy. As the season progresses, the wall will once again be covered with new fruiting growth, so much so that we'll have to prune back occasionally to keep the vines in check.

You may notice that initially I left four rather than two shoots for bending down onto the trellis. This is an insurance policy which allows for potential breakages during the delicate bending down procedure. For this system of training it's useful to 'stress' the vine by introducing a right-angle bend in the shoot close to the 'stock'. This 'stressing' of the shoot helps to encourage stronger fruiting in the vine, but carries the risk that should it break we could end up losing half of this seasons fruiting potential. In practice, so long as the bend is introduced at the mid-point between buds, there's little chance the shoot will break. They may look dry and brittle on the outside, and creak and crackle to an alarming degree during the actual bending, but the heart of the shoot should be green and flexible.

Another job I'd been putting off until warmer weather was the potting-on of the four Dabinett cider apple trees I grafted over last year. Two are destined for pastures new and will be delivered to their new home next week, whilst the other two are awaiting a suitable site for Espalier training in our own garden. I'd made the mistake of planting the four trees all together in a single pot, and whilst the healthy top growth suggested that all was well, things 'down below' told a different story. Unfortunately, the very healthy root growth had become very tangled in the pot. I've managed to separate the trees, but at what cost to the roots only time will tell. I'm reassured by the fact that the trees should be fully dormant at this time of year, and I've seen the way bare-root trees are handled from the Nursery, which is anything but delicately!

Sunday, 10 January 2010

The Cider Must Get Through...

Daring adventures in deep snow are not usually my kind of thing, but it's sometimes worth taking a few risks in pursuit of good cider. Our local the Red Lion needed cider, award-winning Herefordshire cidermaker Mike Johnson has a barn-full of the stuff. I call that synchronicity of purpose, and a trip to Broome Farm was necessary for cosmic balance to be restored...

Mike conducts his cidermaking business in splendid rural isolation at Broome Farm near Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire. The picturesque approach to the farm is via a winding single-track lane, perched above the flood plane of a small tributary to the River Wye. A lovely drive through a quiet valley of pasture and mature cider orchards, even better by foot or cycle from Ross. Not so good when covered in a few inches of snow!

I was worried about this final approach to the farm, but thankfully there had been very little traffic this way and the snow was still powdery rather than icy. So much for the treacherous lane, just the 1-in-4 up to the farm to negotiate. This proved to be a risk too far and I decided to leave the car on the lane. Following some light sampling in the ciderhouse, we delivered the boxes of cider to the car by sturdy wheelbarrow, and I made my escape before the next round of blizzards threatened to snow me in. Come to think of it, I can think of much worse places to be stranded...

The ciders have now been delivered to the Red Lion, a fairly dry Whisky Cask matured cider, and a Medium/Dry blend of Ellis Bitter and Browns Apple. Get them while you can, they're going fast.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Drawing Breath

That was one hell of a hard frost we had last night. A twinklingly clear night sky, and temperatures down to -6°C conspired to make things as crispy as a Findus Pancake underfoot. The orchard trees look sugar-frosted, and the poor Rockingham Forest Cider Hens are just about as cold and miserable as it's possible for hens to be (given the unlimited supplies of warm porridge and raisins on tap). Have I mentioned it's cold?

Cold it may be, but there's still plenty to look forward to at this time of the cidermaking year. Yes, the basic graft of actually making cider and perry is now over, squeezed into a few short weeks of harvest around October, but no sooner has the Christmas break been put to bed than the New Year brings with it a host of new jobs and events. In many ways this is the most interesting time of the year for us.

A trip to the cider heartland of Herefordshire is imminent, the voracious appetite of the Red Lion regulars demand that we supply more cider. A trip to Ross-on-Wye to visit our friends at Broome Farm will be a real treat, and I can add value to the journey by bringing back a couple of new fermenters. In our haste to press everything we could pick, we managed to fill every available tub, leaving us with nothing to rack the young ciders and perrys into later this month. Talking of which, it will soon be time 'swirl, nose and sip' the young ciders and perrys for the first time since we pressed them. It really doesn't get much more exciting than that I can assure you!

Pruning time in the orchard is not far away, and with it comes another round of Grafting. We're also looking forward to the 2nd National Scion Wood Exchange Day (6th Feb) at Buckingham Nurseries. This unique event, organised by the Midshires Orchard Group, will hopefully provide us with some rare and interesting apple varieties to graft onto the rootstock we have on order.

Christmas may be over for another year, but January brings its own round of festivities. Twelfth Night is the traditional date for Wassailing the orchards, a highly sociable folk custom designed to celebrate the turn of the agricultural year. Wassails can occur at any time from the first weekend of the month through until the 'old' Twelfth Night of the 17th. There is a very successful Wassail at Broome Farm on the 16th, and slightly closer to home there will be a Family Wassail at Stowe Landscape Gardens in Bucks, again organised by the Midshires Orchard Group. We'll have a mini Wassail in our own orchard, a few glasses of cider and warming fire should do the trick.

So plenty of activities to keep us busy, and warm the heart if not the body over the next month or two. Oh, almost forgot, there's a tax return to do before the end of the month. Now there's a thought to chill the bones.

Cider & Perry - Herefordshire Style

Saturday, 2 January 2010

A Peck of Apples

I've received this interesting message from a Dr Colin Hewitt, and post it here in case any of our readers know of a source of windfall apples within striking distance of Rutland.

Dear Rockingham Forest Cider, I understand from your web page that you use locally grown apples and I wondered what is done with any windfalls or apples that you find are unsuitable for cider? I am a member of the Rutland Water Nature Reserve bird ringing group, and at this time of year we are keen to attract as many migratory thrushes, blackbirds, fieldfares and redwings (that are arriving in large numbers at the moment) to our ringing sites so that we can ring the birds and contribute the data to international scientific projects on migration and demography. One of the ways that we can encourage birds to our ringing sites across the county is to leave windfall apples in the ringing area for a few days before we go to the site. I therefore wondered whether you might have, or know of anyone who may have, windfalls or unusable apples that would otherwise be left to rot that we could have to put down at our ringing sites. We would be happy to come and collect the apples from the ground and take them away at any time convenient to you.

It also serves as a timely reminder of the importance of keeping a (relatively) untidy garden at this time of year. We've noticed that our garden foragers are back in force, Blackbirds in particular are looking for a bit of easy scrattle to see them through the Winter. It's slim pickings around the Bramleys this year, so Karen has been out scattering Mealworms and cooking up Porridge as a supplement. The last few Williams Pears from John's orchard have gone to the birds too. Every little helps.

This delightful image was made available by AndersSteenNilsen under a Creative Commons Licence. Thanks.