Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Ciderhouse News - February

  • The season gets under way even earlier than usual this year, with a barrel of our very popular Blakeney Red Perry making its way to The Hucknall Beer Festival, c/o our friends at Torkard Cider. This special new-season perry is the result of our recent racking, blending and topping-up adventures. We used a smaller fermenter of Blakeney Red for topping up the big tubs, and ended up with 5 gallons of beautifully clear, naturally sweet, and modestly strength'd (4.9%) perry, going spare and needing a good home:

  • Work has now started on the renovation of Middleton Village Orchard. Walls are being re-built, with landscaping and better access planned. More details can be gleaned here, and I'll be popping across the road with my camera to record progress on an irregular basis.

  • Our garden orchard is currently enjoying a welcome cold-snap, much needed if we're to avoid the trees budding up too early and suffering frost damage. It's going to be touch and go over the next few weeks whether we get a proper spell of cold, encouraging dormancy, and safeguarding this years crop for orchardists everywhere. This picture features one of the few remaining Bramley apples which the Blackbirds and Redwings haven't had a peck at yet. They are of course, very welcome to them.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Mussels & Cider

Necessity really is the mother of invention isn't it, and what could be more satisfying than giving yourself over entirely to necessity, and in so doing creating something surprisingly tasty from a few fridge scraps... and a bag of shellfish.

I've featured Mussels before on this blog, they're my 'Home Alone' treat, and the perfect accompaniment to a glass of cider and hunk of crusty bread. Half a kilo of fresh shiny-black Mussels are one of lifes real pleasures. A pleasure to look at, a simple pleasure to cook, and just the most moreish finger food there is. Karen doesn't like them, which is obviously a bonus for me. Half a kilo each is a good weight for a Saturday evening at home with a good movie. You may need to use the subtitle option though, the annoying rustle of a crisp packet is as nothing to the rattle and slurp of a bowl of Mussels.

I bought my Mussels on Leicester Market. Proper barnacle-encrusted Brancaster beauties, bought by the weight, and wrapped in paper, not vac-pac'd and swimming in garlic butter from the supermarket. There's a little more work involved for sure. Barnacles and beards need removing, and a good scrub won't go amiss, but I really like this bit of prep, and it's a good opportunity to find broken or gaping shells which may need rejecting. If a Mussel doesn't snap to attention after a sharp tap on the sink, it's a goner and not for the pot.

When it came to cooking these Mussels, I started as I usually do by opening a bottle of good dry cider. On this occasion, a bottle of our dwindling stock of 2010 Kingston Black/Sweet Alford blend. Rich, fruity, full of varietal character, a slight suggestion of sweetness. In fact almost too good to cook with.

Normandie Mussel Surprise

Saute a finely chopped Clove of Garlic and a tablespoon of finely chopped Onion or Shallot in a nob Butter until softened. To the hot pan add the Mussels and a good slosh of the Dry Cider (Medium/Dry would be fine, but definately not any sweeter). Cover and steam for a minute or two until all the Mussels have opened for your pleasure. At this point, remove the Mussels with a slotted spoon and keep warm.

This is where necessity makes an appearance. I wanted to add a bit of cream to the stock, but the cream was somewhat past its best. Instead I was forced to turn to a scrag-end of creamy Camembert, a leftover from the Christmas cheese board, all gooey and ripe, but still in good condition. I added a chunk of this to the pan, and stirred until I had a thin sauce, seasoned with Black Pepper, and poured over the waiting Mussels. At this point you may want to add some Chopped Parsley, I would certainly have liked to but my luck had well and truly ran out by now. The Mussels were great nevertheless.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Cider Barrel Half-Empty

This evenings blog post was supposed to be a lengthy treatise on the cidery delights of Tewkesbury, a town set in the very heart of Three Counties cider and perry country. Our trip to Tewkesbury was long overdue, the perrys need racking off, and we can't do that without a couple of new Food-Grade Blue Tubs. It's a little known fact that Tewkesbury is a good source of these tubs, and we hoped to 'add value' to the trip with a day out in the town.

I'd researched my subject well, and was reasonably sure that the unspoilt medieval charm of Tewkesbury would conceal a reasonable range of traditional Ye Olde Worlde Local Cyders, and maybe even some Fyne Glostershire Perries. Sadly, t'was not to be the case.

The Royal Hop Pole almost delivered the goods. A Westons cider and Wetherspoon newcomer Gwynt-Y-Ddraig Black Dragon Cider might seem to you a good result, but the fact is I could have stayed at home for these. The Nottingham Arms proved to be another Westons stronghold, nice but not what I was after. The Berkeley Arms promised cider, but there was none to be seen, and Tewkesbury newcomer Theoc House listed bottles of Archies Cotswold Cider, but didn't have any on my visit. To make matters worse, the only pub in town I was guaranteed cider of sorts, was the White Bear, but I ran out of time for this pub. In the world of Twitter, this is known as a #totalciderfail.

Never mind, in an attempt to salvage the day, I turned to retail therapy, which is something Tewkesbury excels at. So here's what I got:

At last! Proper Gloucestershire Cider from Severn Cider of Awre near Newnham. This is a pure juice medium cider, full flavoured, fruity, tannic, and beautifully rounded and smooth to drink. That Wine Place on the High Street also have ciders from Three Choirs Vineyard, Gwatkin, and Lyne Down Farm. Thank heavens for that!

This weighty tome would certainly have been considered 'modern' in 1956 when it was first published, but there's still plenty in here of relevance to the fruit grower and orchardist today. It's got some nice pictures in it too.

This little scrumpy-swilling fella came with a 50p price tag, and will take pride of place amongst my collection of jars and jugs in the ciderhouse. I've decided to call him 'Little Ray', for no particular reason...
We've also got the aforementioned Blue Tubs, so next weekend I'll be racking the perries, and needless to say blogging about the experience here.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Bits'n'Bobs (Formerly Ciderhouse News) - January

It's no secret that we have a 'Mole' inside the Leicester CAMRA Beer Festival organising committee. She (or indeed He) goes by the code name of 'Susan', aka SueSusie, The Suse-let etc. depending on what disguise she (or he) is working under. Information can also occasionally comes to us via her (or his) intermediary, 'Paul' aka 'Susans Husband'. Now I'm not at liberty to reveal any more than this, certainly not her (or his) role in the organisation. Suffice to say that our Mole is very close indeed to the inner sanctum of the organisation, and has a key role in the drinks orders, though not necessarily anything to do with the beer... or soft drinks. I can't say any more.

Anyway, Susan has already supplied us with a few nuggets of information ahead of the event, on the strict understanding that we carefully 'leak' them here. So I can now exclusively reveal, that subject to all the usual issues of supply, this years cider bar will feature a whole bunch of local Ciders (and a Perry), as well as a whole bunch more ciders and perries from elsewhere. It's hoped that over the weekend the following producers will be represented in one form or another, including rather excitingly the current top three East Midlands producers as judged by CAMRA at last years Nottingham Beer Festival:

Bottle Kicking Cider Co - Leicestershire
Charnwood Cider - Leicestershire
Rockingham Forest Cider (Silver Medal Winner) - Northamptonshire
Scropton Cider (Bronze Medal Winner) - Derbyshire
Thirsty Farmer Cider - Leicestershire
Torkard Cider (Gold Medal Winner) - Nottinghamshire

If I've got any of these details wrong, I can only apologise. Sometimes the intelligence can arrive in a 'scrambled' southern dialect. One other snippet of information: Cider Bar in New Stillaging Shocker! - Folk singer already booked to lament the old ones...

In other breaking news, the Rockingham Forest Ciderhouse Pub Games Collection continues to grow, with the recent acquisition of a vintage Rings Board and accompanying collection of Tatty Hoover Belt Rings. Once a very popular pub game, but now mostly confined to Ireland and the Ventnor area of the Isle of Wight, this handsome board will take pride of place on the ciderhouse wall ready for the entertaining of visitors. A lovely old Mahogany Cribbage Board has been secured for the scoring, though lacking lovely-pegs as yet. We're still on the look out for a Sussex Toad in the Hole, though heaven knows where we're going to put one...

It's always nice to get a bit of feedback on this blog, nice and usually a surprise since we know our readership is usually quite slim (in numbers, not necessarily girth!). It was a genuine delight to receive the following message from across the water in Ireland, and on a subject close to my heart. The famous Anna McKean Christmas Pudding which I'm pleased to say we enjoyed again this year:
Hi, I'm Jane from near Rateen, St Johnston and Anna McKean was my grandmother......I can't tell you how delighted and pleased I was for my wonderful Granny when I saw your mention "tip of the hat to Anna's plum pudding". She was a very hard working farmers wife who spent her whole life rearing children - my Mum being the eldest - and cooking, cleaning and best of all baking for those around her. Many people over the years have said what a wonderful baker she was - her shortbread and Christmas cakes (wedding/christening etc cakes) where second to none. Oh and how could I forget her delicious chocolate sponge cake - oh man that was so good. She passed away in Sept 2006, I miss her still. It's heartwarming and deserving for my Gran that she gets some tiny taste of fame for her baking even though it's too late for her. My mum, Joan, and her sisters Mary and Anne are all good bakers too and it was Aunt Mary who discovered this website when she googled Rateen. Thanks again, Jane
Proof, should it be needed, of the wide demographic spread this blog enjoys, thanks for that Jane, the pleasure is all ours. Now, if only we could attract a few more cider enthusiasts to the blog...

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Dipping a Toe in the Perrys

With the mild weather we've been having this Winter, fermentations are much more advanced than during last years big freeze. I'm keen to get some of the earlier pressings, by which I mean the perrys, racked off from the sediment of primary fermentation. Hopefully I'll be in a position to do this within the next week or two, but in the mean time I couldn't resist dipping my 'wine thief' into some of perrys to see how they're progressing.

We sampled four batches of perry, and the contrast with the samples we tasted last year is really quite marked.

The first thing to say is that all of the perrys are clearing nicely, even the blend with quite a high proportion of Green Horse, which usually never clears entirely. Needless to say, the more advanced fermentation has resulted in drier perrys, with all but the Blakeney Red fully dry or med/dry now. Here are our scribbled notes:

Blakeney Red - Pleasantly sweet, soft, clean and with a rich pear fruitiness. There's quite a bit of tannin in the Blakeney this year which is a surprise.

Red Longdon - This is the first time we've had enough pears to make a single variety perry from this variety. At the moment it's producing a sharper, fruity perry which tastes quite similar to a medium/dry white wine.

Malvern Hills - The maceration has certainly had an effect, with much less tannin evident. This is the least impressively flavoured of the perrys at this stage. Dry, with some acidity, Karen described it as 'Crisp'. The Malvern Hills is a long way off being ready, and it should improve as it matures through the year.

Green Horse Blend - This blend has some Red Longdon and Oldfield in it, and it's perhaps the most complex of the perrys we tasted today. There's quite a lot of tongue-coating tannin, and Karen found a slight 'woodiness' in there. It's dry and fruity, with a long finish.

I'm very pleased with the overall condition of the perrys we tried, all of which are clean and fresh, with no signs of the potential problems which can sometimes afflict this delicate drink. I would have to say that at this stage they are all slightly less full-flavoured than last seasons perrys, largely down to being much drier, but possibly also the result of the more vigorous fermentation. Another 2-3 months maturation will give us a much better idea of how things have turned out this year.

Friday, 6 January 2012

2012 - The Year of Gluttony

I'm not one for New Year Resolutions. Every day of the year I resolve to 'do those things which I didn't do yesterday', 'try a little bit harder at that', and of course 'be a generally better person going forward...'. It's a constantly recurring theme in my life, and a major part of the strict Moral Code I endeavour to live by. The failure to achieve these resolutions on a regular and frequent basis is naturally cause for concern, but the trickle effect throughout the year helps to keeps me 'grounded' and 'generally hopeful' in a way that a big New Year Resolution failure probably wouldn't. I think I've said too much now, so on with the point of all this...

I've resolved to indulge myself more this year, mainly because a resolution as simple as this is relatively easy to achieve, and let's not forget that through indulgence lies happiness of a kind. For balance, I've also resolved to indulge Karen more this year too, which is of course entirely altruistic, and therefore carries none of the 'sinful baggage' of my first resolution. Clever eh! I've started early, spoiling Karen royally at Christmas with Chanel No.5, luxury Joules clothing, and Booja-Booja Chocolates. 'But what of yourself Mark?' I hear you ask... 'Don't forget your good self'' you cry. Well you'll be pleased to know I haven't.

Feast your eyes on these two beauties. Indulgence personified. I'm no stranger to the delights of Sampford Courtenay Cider. If nothing else, I'm a huge fan of their eminently re-usable swing-top bottles. The stuff inside is pretty good too, and by luck the Waitrose cider buyer seems to agree with me as this is where you'll find it. At the risk of becoming a full-on advert for Waitrose, have a look at this video, if only for a glimpse of the huge wooden 'Tuns' at Sampford Courtenay, which may or may not be in use but look fantastic nevertheless.

The seasonal offering is a Sloe & Elderberry Fruit Cider. The kind of mad concoction that could be little more than a sickly alco-pop in the wrong hands. The folk at Sampford Courtenay are a safe pair of hands where cider is concerned, and this is lovely, fruity, yet very grown-up stuff. The main point of interest for me is that it still has the tastes and aroma of cider. Rich, strong Devon cider, and really quite dry cider at that. Now it really shouldn't come as a surprise that a cider with other fruits added should actually taste of cider, but the fact is, most of these fruity concoctions seem to be made merely to disguise the cideriness, not enhance it. In the case of the bigger brands, it's all about making your cider as accessible to as wide a demographic as possible, and there's no better way of making your cider accessible than by making it taste like Ribena. We're absolutely not in Ribena territory here.

Did I mention it was Dry? Now that's a real surprise, not least because it's described on the Waitrose shelf as being Sweet. It's a full-bodied, chunky, dryish Devon Cider, carefully overlayed with a subtle berry sweetness, and a fair bit of mouth drying tannin which could originate from just about any of the primary ingredients. If you're looking for an easy-drinking alco-pop, look elsewhere, this is butch, grown-up stuff, at a grown-up price it must be said. If £4.99 a bottle seems a little pricey to you, just think of the lovely bottle you get free, and being a seasonal offering, hope as I do that a special offer is just around the corner.

Talking of special offers, there's really nothing  more special (or indeed underhand) than offering a generous free tasting of something absolutely delicious on one of the last shopping days of Christmas. This is how I found myself in possession of a bottle of Zeni Acquavite di Williams, for which the people at Ben's Wine Shop in Oakham can be thanked, or indeed blamed. They obviously know a weak-willed man when they see one.

What can I say about this bottle? In a word, Lush. In four words, Really Very Lush Indeed. You can read the company blurb and details of this spirit here, keep scrolling past the grapey stuff, it's near the end. It's a smooth little devil for sure, spirity, but not at all firey, with a long-long, juicy Williams Pear finish. This takes me all the way back to skiing holidays in Austria, without the troublesome bother of trying to ski that is. It's a versatile spirit, good in a Hip Flask, equally at home straight from the fridge with a slice of Smoked Salmon. It's lovely, indulgent, and a great start to my year of immoderation.