Sunday, 31 July 2011

Discovery - To Buy or Not To Buy...

Current orchard gossip suggests that apples are ripening earlier this year than ever before. I view this news with a mixture of mild curiosity and blind panic. I'm really not ready to press apples yet. Can orchard fruit please stop ripening.

This untimely rumour, put about by the heavyweight intellectuals of Radio 4 no less, needed some further investigation, so I've been out 'in the field' as it were, investigating.

Yesterday I went for a short walk, from the sleepy Northamptonshire village of Holcot, over the causeway of Pitsford Reservoir and up the hill to Brixworth, home of the eponymous Pate. It was a pleasant walk in fine Summer sunshine, all the more so when I finally managed to get off the busy main road and strike out across parched pasture and stubbly Wheat fields. The presence of the Reservoir helps to boost the wildlife count in this area. I was particularly pleased to disturb as many Brown Hares as I can remember seeing in recent years (that'll be three if you must know).

So much for grassy fields, walking along grass verges has little to recommend it. Fast traffic, rough ground, limited views, all make for very dull walking indeed. On the plus side, many verges double up as linear orchards, populated by a rag-tag of wild grown apple trees often seeded from a causally thrown apple core (something I make a habit of doing myself). These pip-grown apple trees are a bit of a genetic lottery, never growing true from the apple they came from. For the most part they're likely to be of little value, but fun can be had in the possibility that one or two may just be the next Cox Orange Pippin, or Yarlington Mill. The road which climbs from the reservoir towards Brixworth has a few likely specimens, though I was more interested in their stage of ripeness than whether they'd make my fortune with the supermarkets.

The first tree I came to was laden with small-ish fruit, green with a rosy blush. These were sweet and crunchy in a Jonagold kind of way, not quite fully ripe, but pleasant enough to eat. The next tree yielded medium size fruit as sour as anything I've put in my mouth. Truly horrible. On to the next tree which had larger fruit, hard, sweet and low in acidity like a Spartan. Not too bad, but still a little way off ripeness. The final tree was classic Crab Apple, small green fruit, perhaps even sharper than the previous sour specimen. Nasty, and a very good example of why it's rarely a good idea to follow the frequently given advice of adding a few crabs to your cider for their tannin. My advice is to always taste first, you really wouldn't want these in anything you're planning to drink.

A mixed bag then. I probably wouldn't have expected to find edible apples in the hedgerow at this time of year, but there are varieties which ripen this early, including Beauty of Bath and Irish Peach (see here:, so perhaps we're not that far off.

One variety I can fairly comfortably use to gauge the progress of the season is the early variety Discovery, which usually appears in the better grocers round here a week or so into September. I bought my first clutch of Discovery this Friday, maybe a week or two earlier than usual. I'm a big fan of Discovery. I love the aromatic quality of this apple, and delicate floral flavour and soft acidity. Sadly I've been disappointed with most of what I've bought in recent years. Under-ripe apples are never exciting, so I wasn't expecting great things from this latest purchase. I'm pleased to say though, that despite the pips not being as deep a brown as I'd like, the flavour of these are very good, and probably not far off their peak. I recommend you get out there and buy some while they're available.

So an interesting bit of 'research', from which I'm none the wiser to be honest. I really do hope that the season is not as advanced as predicted. I wasn't joking when I said I wasn't ready to press apples yet. There's work to be done in the ciderhouse yet...

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Hock & Roll

Wintery weather (like wot we're having now) calls for the most comforting of all comfort foods. Soup and a Crusty Roll works for me, and there can be no better soup for our traditional chilly Summer months than the humble Ham & Pea variety. Thick as a Bulls Lug, and fashionably Cheap-as-Chips in these days of austerity.

I say cheap, what other meaty treat can you buy for £1.20 which gives enough ham off the the bone to make a cauldron of soup and enough spare for a sandwich or two. The lovely ladies at Sherwins Cheese Stall in Leicesters Indoor Market supplied the Hock. Just try buying one of these bargains in your local supermarket. As for the recipe, Cooking In Cider by novelist Norah C James provided the inspiration, with Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall supplying a more practical modern 'River Pottage' alternative that doesn't involve the liberal use of Frankfurters!

Soak a Ham Hock overnight in a bowl of water. Also soak 300g of Split Peas or Red Lentils in water for at least a couple of hours prior to cooking.

Place the drained Ham Hock in a pan just big enough to comfortably contain it. Cover with half a pint of Dry Cider (I used a bottle of our 2009 Rockingham Forest Cider), and enough water to barely cover the Hock. Add a chopped Carrot, Onion and Celery stalk, plus a sprig of Thyme and a couple of Bay Leaves. Bring to the boil and simmer for an hour or so.

Leave to cool a little, then skim any excess fat from the surface. Spend a happy 10 minutes picking the surprisingly generous quantity of meat from the Hock. Strain the stock and discard the vegetables. Add the drained peas/lentils, a couple of finely chopped Carrots and Celery stalks, and a couple of medium Onions to the stock and bring to the boil. Simmer for about an hour before blitzing to a soupy consistency. Add as much chopped Ham as you like, and adjust the seasoning if necessary (the Hock may have been salty enough). I like to add a tablespoon or so of Oxford Sauce, or a good dash of Worcestershire Sauce to finish.

I haven't included a photo of the finished soup. It's soup after all, and I think we all know what soup looks like...

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Ciderhouse News - July

  • If you hurry, there's still time to catch this years Cheese, Cider & Perry Festival at the Criterion in Leicester. We popped in for a few halves on Thursday, and particularly enjoyed the Border Orchards Perry, and Sandford Orchards Fanny Bramble Cider (Cider with Blackberries). Quite a few of the ciders listed were being held in reserve, including our own Red Kite, and local Charnwood Cider from Leicestershire, so there should be plenty left for today and the week ahead.

  • The first release of our new Kingston Black blend of cider has gone to Wing Hall, ready to service the needs of an influx of holiday campers. The Kingston Black is available in the Farm Shop, with Red Kite Cider available from Zia's cosy Veranda Cafe Bar.

  • It's now only a week until the start of the 6th Tollemache Arms Beer Festival (1st - 7th August). Over 30 ales, ciders and perrys are promised, including our own, and Eves of Kettering. The weekend also incorporates the 2nd annual Music Festival, with 25 acts performing for our pleasure.

  • The following weekend is the 3rd Raunds Cricket Club Beer Festival (11th - 14th August), featuring 28 ales, cider & perry, plus a whole bunch of entertainment on and off the pitch. I can now confirm that the cider and perry range for the weekend will be: Once Upon A Tree - Tumpy Ground Cider; Rockingham Forest - Kingston Black Cider, Red Kite Cider, Perry; Ross-on-Wye - Cider, Perry. The good folk of Raunds have a habit of drinking the cider and perry dry at this popular event, so we've increased the number of boxes/barrels we'll be supplying so there should be something available throughout the festival.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Mystery Perry 2011

I've been busy in the ciderhouse today, boxing up the Kingston Black Cider ahead of festivals at the Tollemache Arms and Raunds Cricket Club. The cider is tasting very good, in fact everything tastes good at the moment, a reminder that cider really does need a bit more time than we often give it.

I took the opportunity to deal with a lonely gallon demijohn of mystery Perry whilst I was about it. It's the one with the 'jellyfish' of tannin floating on top, and was originally earmarked for topping up purposes but never got used. I've no record of what it was made from, or what it's alcohol level is likely to be. What I do know is that it's crystal clear, has a rich Elderflower and pear aroma, and a juicy, sweetish flavour with a well balanced and drying tannic finish. Similar to the Malvern Hills (which it could well be), but less tannic, which can only be a good thing.

Anyway, Perry as good as this needs to be savoured, so I bottled up half of the gallon for our own drinking pleasure. The other half is destined for a more culinary fate...

Really good Cider Vinegar is quite an expensive condiment, but common enough. Perry Vinegar on the other hand is even rarer than the drink it's made from. Westons experimented with a Perry Vinegar some years ago, but it didn't take off and seems to have disappeared. The only way you're going to find Perry Vinegar (should you want it), is from small craft perry makers, or make your own. I've decided to make my own.

It's an easy enough process, leave a jar of (unsluphited) perry exposed to the air for long enough, and it will soon become infected with wild acetic acid bacteria and eventually turn sufficiently vinegary to be of use. If you want to help things along, and help protect the perry from the chance of other less useful micro-organisms taking hold, it's best to inoculate your perry with a 'Mother' of live Acetobacter from a bottle of unpasteurised cider vinegar. The problem is, you'll be lucky to find unpasteurised cider vinegar in the supermarket, this is a job for the craft cidermaker.

I bought my unpasteurised cider vinegar from perry (and cider) making wizzard, and all round top-bloke, Tom Oliver. It's good stuff, a lovely deep Herefordshire colour, with a greater depth of flavour than the national brands. Lurking at the bottom of the bottle is a small clump of the all important 'Mother of Vinegar', waiting to get it's digestive system into my perry. I decanted the vinegar off this clump, and pitched it into a not-too-full jar of the perry, gave it a good shake to aerate, and tied a small piece of muslin to the top. I want the air to get to the perry but not the Vinegar Flies.

Perry Vinegar is pretty rare stuff to be sure, but whether this reflects the scarcity of the raw ingredient, or the lack of value of the finished product remains to be seen. In a month or two's time I should hopefully be able to tell you.

You can read more about Cider Vinegar making on Andrew Lea's excellent Wittenham Hill Cider Pages

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Cake Sunday

Before we acquired our little flock of laying hens, we thought we'd done all the research and groundwork on back garden poultry keeping we could possibly do. Hen-house, Layers Pellets, Grit, Mites, Dust Baths, Wattles, Combs, Beaks, the lot. We've had our ups and downs since then, and learned quite a bit about Hen Health and Welfare, but one thing we've never managed to get on top of is the regular delivery of up to 21 eggs a week...

Lay Ladies Lay

Tip of the Egg-berg
Now we like eggs well enough, and there's always the giving away to family and friends option, but even so, the Middleton Egg Mountain continues to grow apace. Those hens just won't give it a rest. Pickled Eggs seem an obvious solution, particularly if my plans to convert a small batch of our perry into Perry Vinegar comes to fruition. The trouble is... Pickled Eggs!... Eggs, Pickled! Well we've tried it, and I can safely say that rubbery vinegar is definitely not our thing. So cake it is then, an excellent way of using up surplus eggs, and a traditional Sunday pastime in this household.

Almond Bars with Cider Glaze

This recipe is pinched from 'A Taste of Cider' by Shirley Harrison, a book which has been gathering dust on my bookshelf for some years now. The cider used for the glaze was a bottle of Moorland Farm Medium/Sweet Cyder.This is quite a sweet cider, but with a fair bit of acidity to balance it, and in common with the draught version I tried at Newark Beer Festival this year, has a lovely soft 'peachy' flavour which goes very well in a glaze.

Cream 225g of Butter with 100g Caster Sugar until fluffy. Stir in 50g of Ground Almonds, 175g Self Raising Flour, 50g of Sultanas, and a few drops of Almond Essence. Spread onto a lined baking tray, and scatter with 50g of Flaked Almonds. Bake at 160C for 35 minutes.

Meanwhile bring 150ml of Sweet Cider and 50g of Caster Sugar to the boil, and reduce by boiling rapidly to a couple of tablespoons of syrup, When the cake is cooked, drizzle the glaze over the surface and leave to cool before cutting into bars.

You'll probably have noticed there are no eggs in this cake. Damn! 

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Pouring, Not Raining

It's official, there is a God! A God of village Fetes to be precise... and a minor deity of Beer Tents too.

At 12 noon today, the success of the 2011 Cottingham & Middleton Village Fete stood on a knife-edge. Heavy rain was predicted, and just for once the Meteorologists had got things just about right. All morning the rain poured downwards, the only bright note being that it wasn't pouring sidewards, or indeed upwards. Things were looking a little damp to say the least. The fate of this village Fete was hanging by a thread...

Just when all seemed lost and most of the stalls had retreated to the sanctuary of the village hall, the rain miraculously stopped. The sun came out, the band struck up, and a goodly portion of villagers formed an orderly queue at the bar. Langton Brewery beer, and our own Rockingham Forest Cider & Perry were on offer, accompanied by talented local musicians, and the star of the show, the incredible floating marquee... The wind had got up by now!

We'd like to extend our congratulations to the organisers of this years Fete, and particularly the BBQ team who gamely soldiered on, quite literally in the eye of the storm. We had a great afternoon in good company, and look forward to next years Fete, come rain or shine.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Trouble With Tremlett's

It's a cry you'll hear all too often from orchardists, particularly at this, the growing time of year. You'll hear it emanating from orchards large and small, from the vast plantations of rural Herefordshire, to the allotments and gardens of the keen amateur. Needless to say, you'll hear it in the Welland Valley too...

'I've been neglecting the Orchard' they cry, these shame-faced orchardists. Giving in to weed, pest, and disease. Letting nature of all things, have its wanton way. Neglecting their fruity duties no less. There really is no excuse... and yet!... It's Summer. The cider and perry is ready, there's Festivals and Fetes and all manner of Fun and Frolicking to enjoy. Who the hell has the time for orchard work at this time of year I ask you?

Well, I suppose I have actually. I've been putting it off for far too long, the neglect is too great. The orchard is in a bit of a state to be honest, overrun with weeds and riddled with Aphids, so this evening I set-to with my trusty 4lb Lump Hammer, and a pair of Karens Old Tights, in an attempt to get things in the orchard back on track. So, in the first of an occasional series, I bring you 'Orchard Restoration - Pt.1', which looks likely to build week by week into a series of highly embarrassing insights into my orchard laziness... or your money back!

Tremlett's Bitter vs M26
Tremlett's Bitter (3 yo) - Thin rootstock,
 heavy top-growth, now staked higher.

The four Tremeltt's Bitter trees I planted in 2008 have been nothing but trouble. Tremlett's is a reasonably well regarded cider apple variety. Full bittersweet, lovely deep red conical fruit, a heavy cropper, great in a blend, particularly one lacking in tannin. I've used Tremlett's before, they crop quite early, and press well. It's not all good though. Tremlett's are notoriously biennial, that is to say they crop heavily on alternate years with practically nothing in the 'off' years. The tannin is very full, and certainly doesn't make a good single variety in my opinion. The variety is also well-known for it's high vigour, making it difficult to control in restricted growing conditions. In the small garden orchard, I'd have to say that Tremlett's Bitter is probably not the best choice, which begs the question, why did I plant them in the first place?

In cidermaking, variety is the spice of life. Really good quality single variety ciders are rare indeed, and it's really not a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket with regard to the varieties you grow. Even the most renowned cider apple varieties can have 'off' years. Plant an orchard of Yarlington Mill for example, and you run the risk of having no crop at all every 3 or 4 years. In the case of Kingston Black, I know from experience that you'll be lucky to get a crop worth pressing most years.
Harry Masters' (5 yo) - Nice even growth,
this tree doesn't really need staking now.

I wanted a bit of variety, but being sold on the semi-dwarfing rootstock M26, which is ideal for a modest garden orchard, the choice was somewhat limited. For all it's faults, Tremlett's is still worth growing, but it's the choice of rootstock that's really dampened my enthusiasm for this variety. Tremlett's is a very vigorous variety, prone to putting on tremendous levels of growth right from day one. Not necessarily a problem, but what I've learned from my own experience is that this kind of vigorous growth doesn't sit well on a rootstock designed to produce a smaller tree. This year the problem has really hit home, a combination of excessive growth and a good crop of apples on a rootstock which is struggling to keep up, has left the trees extremely top-heavy. It's not a pretty sight, one tree had virtually fallen over with the weight. The rootstock is thinner than the main trunk, and simply can't support the vigorous top-growth.

The general consensus on the staking and tieing of trees is to tie the tree quite low down, allowing the trunk to bend in the wind, encouraging the production of a strong stem. This is how I've staked and tied all my trees, with generally good results. Not so the Tremlett's, which have just flopped over. There was nothing for it, I had to purchase some new, longer stakes, and I've now tied the trees higher up, with a few additional ties (Karens tights!), to help straighten the leader.

So, the moral of this story may well be, if you want to grow a compact apple tree, choose a dwarfing rootstock by all means, but be careful which variety you have grafted onto the top. Too vigorous a variety, and you could end  up with a very large 'step-over' tree, rather than the attractive bush form you'd like.

Friday, 1 July 2011

My Great Lost Work

A month or so ago, I wrote a long, detailed and highly eloquent blog post on a recent cider-themed trip to the Three Counties. It was really very good. Witty, packed with information, riddled with useful hyperlinks, and liberally adorned with top quality images from the trip. It was so good in fact that I'd already touted it to the Nottingham CAMRA newsletter editor, who was very kindly holding a page for it despite already being in receipt of a glut of good copy. During final polishing and editing, I somehow managed to delete the whole damn thing. It was (to use a technical computing term) un-re-bleedin'-coverable. Oh dear!

Days passed. I was adamant I wasn't going to waste any more of my precious time attempting to re-write the piece. I just knew it was never going to be as good second time around, and besides, there plenty more cidery stuff out there to be written about. Some more time passed. I decided to re-write the piece...

It was quite good. Not as good as the first attempt for sure, but definitely worthy of posting. So with great fanfare, I posted the piece to my blog, and announced its arrival on Facebook and Twitter. I was pleased, perhaps even a little smug. I was thinking, this is what it must be like to be a proper journalist. I was still thinking this when Blogger, the quirky portal for all my very best work, spectacularly, and irrevocably crashed, losing all recent posts, including my Three Counties magnum opus. Grrreat!

Well I'm definately not writing it again, life really is too short, and it's absolutely never going to be as good as the second attempt, least of all the original masterpiece. Instead, I give you a picture, because in this case at least, a picture is worth so much more than a few thousand lost words.

The point of my original post was that it is so much easier to find top quality cider and perry in Herefordshire and the Three Counties than ever it used to be. There, I've said it. I'm now going to drink this important message, one lovely bottle at a time.