Monday 26 October 2020

The Fall & Rise of a Bramley's Seedling

When we first viewed the property that would eventually become our home, it really was love at first sight. What was slightly amusing about that first viewing though, and has become something of a running joke between us, was that when we discussed the property in the pub later, mulling over the pros and cons as you do, I could only really remember the garden with any clarity, and the small overgrown orchard at the top in particular. "So what did you think of the kitchen then?"... "Kitchen!... err, what kitchen was that? What about that nice little orchard though..."

This will have come as no great surprise to Karen, I've never been much of a home bird, and of course the prospect of serious cidermaking and a bit of space for an orchard were at the forefront (as well as most of the foreback and sides) of my mind at the time. This place came with a stone walled ciderhouse (aka the garage) and a ready-made orchard, who needed a kitchen!

Back then, almost all of our neighbours had similar plantings, mostly cooking apples, Bramley's Seedling as far as I could tell. Remnants of what would have been a much lager orchard associated with the nearby 'Big House' and the workers cottages that served it. Ours was more of a mixed-bag, a true cottage garden orchard with pear, dessert and cooking varieties, covering all bases which was often the case when householders actually relied on their home grown crop for cooking and preserving. Sadly most of these trees, and the orchard in general, had seen far better days. Even a cursory examination of the trees revealed too much rot and bad pruning, a legacy of old age and more recent horticultural neglect. In fact most of the fruit had a disappointing tendency to rot on the tree before reaching anything like full ripeness. I did consider leaving things as they were, to decay naturally for the benefit of wildlife, but this was a long-term project and the orchard had to be of some benefit to us too. We decided to re-plant the orchard with new stock grafted with varieties that would be useful to us. So a weekend of heavy chainsaw action ensued...

As you can see in this photo, some of the trees were in the 'Autumn' (if not deep Winter) of their long lives. Completely hollowed-out with rot, unproductive, and sadly in no condition to restore through judicious pruning or top-working with new graft wood. The one exception was our own specimen of Bramley's Seedling. This tree was also showing signs of neglect, a slightly unconventional 'wishbone' shape to the main framework, and way too much upright and irritatingly out of reach growth. Nevertheless it was healthy, vigorous, and prone to carrying a decent enough crop of sound (and of course very useful) fruit. By the time Spring came around the following year, it also revealed itself as an absolute beauty of delicate pink blossom, a feature we've looked forward to with great anticipation every year since. This tree would most definitely be a keeper!

Over the years the orchard has developed, with new plantings of Dabinett, Harry Masters' Jersey, Yarlington Mill and others, but the big old Bramley Apple has always been the heart of the orchard. A sturdy old friend, beautiful in the Spring, reliably productive almost every Autumn, and the tree has benefitted hugely from a bit of long-overdue 'tlc'. Much of the best fruit was (inevitably) just out of reach for careful hand-picking, so the tree has had several quite serious pruning sessions to reduce congestion and height, and remove much of the unproductive upright growth. Meanwhile, almost all of the neighbouring fruit trees have now sadly gone. The old but attractive standard orchard that once spread across several gardens has all but disappeared. This, if anything, makes our own venerable Bramley Apple tree even more of a precious survivor to us.

More recently our Bramley Apple, and the orchard in general, has come under a good deal of stress. The infamous Rockingham Forest Cider Hens were given the free-run of the garden, and needless to say they took full advantage of it. Scratching up what was once a well-tended grassy swathe in the orchard, and depositing in turn an exotic selection of pernicious weeds in its place. More importantly, a former paddock at the top border of the orchard has gradually evolved to become a small area of shady woodland, with mature trees that overhang our own semi-dwarfing specimens to such a degree that some are no longer thriving as they should do. The old Bramley had a very good prune some four years ago and was looking better than it's ever done, you could almost throw a cap through it! But unfortunately it now competes for light, water, and nutrients with these much larger trees, and has sometimes struggled to maintain the healthy leaf covering of old. The apples, whilst still plentiful, occasionally suffer from scab and bitter pit too due to the radically changed habitat.

The plain truth is, the orchard is not what it was, nor indeed what we hoped it would be. Around a third of the area is now what I would regard as 'woodland margin' rather than open orchard. Having said that, as far as the garden and our outlook on it is concerned, a tree is a tree, and we're happy enough with how things stand. Or at least we were until very recently...

On the eve of my birthday this year, Storm Francis made landfall and whipped violently across the country. Quite a howler for sure, but certainly no worse than previous lashings that the house and garden have endured without significant damage. However, the next day Karen noticed that something had changed in the orchard, so we went to explore. The sight that greeted us came as something of a shock, and was for me at least, really quite upsetting!

Unfortunately for us, the Bramley was having one of it's best years for some time, very well leafed, and carrying a heavy crop of moderately sized apples. For my own part, I'd planned to prune out some of the congestion at the heart of the tree the previous year, but for various reasons it never happened. I don't doubt that if I'd done this work at the time, the tree might still be standing now, which of course makes this something of a cautionary tale! So, what to do now?...

When an old apple tree falls in an orchard there are perhaps three realistic ways forward. In a commercial orchard the tree would most likely be removed entirely, the space used to re-plant with new stock. It's also possible to re-erect a tree that's fallen but still sufficiently rooted, but the bigger the tree, the more difficult it is to raise it, and perhaps more importantly, it can be a real trial keeping it upright and safe against future storms. We felt neither of these options were appropriate, even though the main tap root of the tree is intact.

A fallen tree in a Heritage Orchard or large garden is a different matter, and even if the main root has broken, it's sometimes the case that a recumbent tree will re-root from wood touching the earth and put up new, healthy growth. These living fallers can be long-lived and very attractive if handled correctly. Indeed the original 'mother' tree in Southwell, the tree that all Bramley's originate from, our own included, was struck by lightening and fell over 100 years ago and yet still survives (albeit it too is now in its final years, the root system finally succumbing to Honey Fungus). This was broadly our plan, we just needed to work out the best way forward.

Since the tree was still rooted, and in no danger of falling any further, we mulled things over for a few weeks before enlisting the help of a local tree specialist and his chainsaw. This also gave us the chance to pick some of the better apples for storage, and clear up some of those which littered the orchard floor. The reason we hadn't heard the tree falling was presumably because it had settled onto its thick canopy of branches quite slowly. This meant that there was very little damage to the tree or root system (though sadly one of our hapless cider apple cultivars took the full weight of the tree and will now need removing), making it an ideal candidate for trimming, re-shaping, and preparing for life as a recumbent apple tree.

So here we see the first stage of the regeneration of the tree. The two main parts of the trunk have been left in their entirety, whilst most of the upper growth has been removed. This is not the trees final form, I'll likely remove a bit more wood in time, but given the shock the tree has experienced thus far, it's better to leave some of the leafy growth as a sap-draw and see what develops next year.

Even in such a short time, and at the very end of what might be regarded the trees growth period, several new shoots have already 'broken' on one of the main trunks. Which is all to the good as we don't know how this tree will eventually look, and the more options we have for later pruning and shaping, the better. Given that one of the trunks doesn't actually touch ground, the tree may have a tendency to roll a little as new growth increases the weight, so we've put a temporary prop under one of the trunks, a stronger, more permanent solution can wait until next year.

So hopefully we've securec the future of our beloved Bramley for a few more years, and if I make a good job of the restorative pruning over the next couple of years, it may eventually become an attractive, dare I say more 'interesting' part of our small orchard.

Saturday 26 January 2019

Hereford - A Mini-Guide

Perry is still very much on-trend in this house. As indeed cider would be if I could just pull my finger out and get some of the Rockingham Forest 2016 vintage bottled-up. Tedious domestic circumstances have conspired against any ciderhouse work recently, so I've been relying on 'guest' ciders and perries from near and far to see me through, more of which later. But enough of this dull domesticity, I felt a mini-break in the heart of ciderland was long overdue. So where exactly is the heart of ciderland?

Well for one week only, the Nottingham Beer, Cider & Perry Festival is where it's at, everyone knows that! But despite England and Wales having a truly world-class reputation for traditional cider and perry, particularly in its current 'revived' state, it's my experience that no 'one' place truly fulfils the role as a 'centre of excellence' for actually drinking the stuff. I think I know this because I've been looking long and hard at the subject for the best part of 40 years. In that time I've come across some truly excellent pubs that specialise in cider and perry, a good few producers of the drink that welcome visitors, and a handful of museums with good local displays on the subject. But it's all rather dispersed, the majority of pubs even in the west country and three counties have either no truly crafted cider or perry on the bar, or at best a token national 'brand' that's hardly worth travelling for.

Of all the towns in England and Wales, Hereford might be regarded as something of a shoe-in for a cider and perry based mini-break. It's certainly not always been this way. I've been holidaying in Hereford for 30 years or more, and I can say with some qualification that the choice on offer has often been unbelievably poor for a city that prides itself on being at the centre of an orchard county, a county literally steeped in the traditions of cider and perry making. So have things improved in 2019? Well, yes and no...

I've found in recent years that whilst there's certainly a better choice on offer, with plenty of new and enthusiastic producers in the county, there are still precious few places you can actually drink their fine produce in. And whilst it might be argued that as far as top-quality craft cider and perry is concerned, we've never had it so good, what hasn't changed is that you really need to know where to find it, otherwise you'd really never know! Hence this little guide-ette to the best that I could find in January 2019.

Alongside the current excitement around 'craft' beer, it's largely the smaller, newer bars and micropubs that are driving interest in the very best ciders and perries. Micropub Beer In Hand has been open for a few years now, and is already something of an established fixture in the town. A highly regarded venue with a reputation built mostly around the excellent beer offering, but with a cider and perry board (above) that's without a doubt the best in town. Standout for me was the range from local perry specialist Oliver's of Ocle Pychard, of which I tried one or three over the course of the weekend, most memorable of which was the...

Oliver's At The Hop #8 (5.5%)

Hop-infused ciders were pioneered by Tom Oliver, the first example I tried being one of his hopped ciders back in 2014. I have to say I found interesting but slightly unconvincing. Five years later I was still waiting to be convinced when, like buses, two absolute stunners came along at once, and both from the originator, Tom Oliver. First-up a Cascade & Kazbech hopped Cider which was to die for. Then this Simcoe infused perry, literally the bottle that convinced me the future may well be lightly-hopped.

At The Hop #8 is a solidly medium perry, but in that nice frothy-fizzy sherbety way that’s refreshing without being cloying. There’s a fresh grassiness in the nose, a rich honey sweetness, zestiness, some grown-up mouth-puckering tannin, and here come the hops... a very subtle new-world aroma citrus hoppiness that blends beautifully with the perry rather than dominating it. Lovely!

I partnered this with Pizza and an impromptu traditional music session, because that's just the way the evening was going...

The Hereford Beer House has been open since 2015, but still seems very 'new' to me. It's a very welcome addition to the Hereford beer scene. Every town should have a craft beer specialist like this, in fact most do now, such is the appeal of aroma hops and eyeball-popping can designs! The beer house also features a very respectable cider and perry range from some of the very best Herefordshire producers. I started with a couple of excellent draught ciders from Olivers and Gregg's Pit , but settled on something from the small but comprehensive bottled range.

Ross-On-Wye Moorcroft & Bartestree Squash Perry 6.5%

Ross Cider & Perry has been my go-to producer for 20 years or more, and I highly recommend a visit to their pub and shop, the Yew Tree in Peterstow village. I first tried their Bartestree Squash Perry at an early Leicester CAMRA Beer Festival, a rare treat then, as indeed it is now. Ross produce what must be the widest range of single variety and blended ciders and perries in the world, and I'm more than happy to try any one of them whenever I get the chance. Many of their bottled ciders and perries are naturally conditioned, as this one is, and it really does make a difference. This one has a nice prickle of condition, a lingering off-dry sweetness, full-bodied, melon , a straightforward, quite robust perry.

The last time I was in Hereford was mid-Summer, and we found the Left Bank Village quite the funky enclave in an area of quite traditional boozers. Overlooking the wide expanse of the River Wye, the outdoor seating and fire pits attract a young crowd. Young by my standards of course! De Koffie Pot Café was the main attraction for me on what was a cold, wet evening. I like the place a lot, and can recommend the DKP Burger which I partnered with this bottle of organic perry.

I've been a big fan of Dunkertons ciders and perries since the late 80's when their classy corked and bottled drinks were relatively easy to find in the Delis and Wholefood shops of Leicester. In fact I used to always get a few cases in for the Leicester festival, something to take away, and if they didn't sell out, well I was happy to underwrite the stock. I still miss those early 'still' bottled ciders, but the current sparkling range is great too.

Dunkertons Organic Perry 6.9%

This bottle poured with a slight (reassuring) haziness, possibly the result of a slightly longer time in bottle as the current release of this perry is at 7.5%. It has a long, lingering medium sweetness with soft Elderflower and Melon, and some balancing acidity.

I really couldn't find anywhere else to drink good locally made pure-juice cider and perry in Hereford, which is still something of a surprise to me given the reputation the county has for this, our most traditional of drinks. If you're still hungry for more, as I was, and want to take home some of the best that Herefordshire (and the three counties) has to offer, I'd highly recommend a visit to the cidery jewel in Hereford's crown, the Museum of Cider (below), which I'll be coming back to with some pretty pictures in a forthcoming post.

Sunday 13 January 2019

Perry, And All That Jazz Pt.1 - Once Upon A Tree

I've been mulling-over a post about Perry for quite a while now. I've got an awful lot of the stuff in the ciderhouse at the moment, proper vintage perry made from top-quality Worcestershire grown perry pears. Perry that's turned out as good as anything I've made before, and we've been drinking quite a lot of it recently as well as cooking with it and giving a fair bit away. Which probably explains why it's been on my mind...

Green Horse Perry Pear
Perry at its very best is a drink that needs all the promotion it can get. It's a rare old drink that despite the continuing efforts of some world-class producers, and a handful of switched-on pundits and drinks journos, has singularly failed to ignite interest in the way that 'craft' beer and cider has in recent years. Of course there are compelling reasons why Perry may never achieve the profile that enthusiasts such as myself think it deserves. Perry pears are simply not grown on a commercial scale these days. For the most part it's a small-scale 'artisan' passion, a tradition kept alive by the smaller commercial cider and perry makers and teeny-tiny enthusiasts like myself. Most of the fruit used by these small-scale producers comes from very old trees, often solitary behemoths dotted around the old farms of the Three Counties area. Difficult to harvest, and some of these trees are literally hundreds of years old and hence approaching the twilight of their productive lives. Some new planting of Perry Pear trees is going on, but if Perry as a traditional high-quality drink is to survive, maybe even thrive in the future, a lot more needs to be done, and that means creating a demand for the drink that makes it a commercial proposition for growers and producers.

A bottle of vintage perry, yesterday.
So I was looking for maybe half a dozen good quality perries to eulogise about from the comfort of my own home. No dodgy commercial stuff, no Pear Cider, and for my taste, nothing too sweet. Perry has something of a reputation for sweetness. A reputation that can make it a difficult sell for some. Maybe it's memories of Babycham! More likely it's that too many producers 'do' have a tendency to over-sweeten their perries (and their ciders!), and 'far' too many festivals and pubs routinely shy away from the drier styles that do exist. Having said that, it's a fact that some perries do finish fermenting with a degree of sweetness. That's because many pears have quite high levels of non-fermentable Sorbitol in their makeup. My own perry has a touch more natural sweetness than I'd like if I'm absolutely honest, but it's certainly not 'sweet'.

So, I just wanted some good perries to help demonstrate the variety and quality that's on offer. To show what most people are undoubtedly missing. Well that proved to be much easier said than done!

When you make your own, and therefore have hundreds of litres to hand at the turn of a tap, you forget just how difficult it is to get hold of proper pure-juice Perry outside of the Three Counties area. In fact for some people I'd imagine it's not so much a difficult task as an impossible one. If you fall into this category, the answer is of course the 21st century miracle of online sales, of which there are several offering a good range of perries. I resorted to the tried-and-tested method of 'going-west' in search of the best that the Three Counties can offer, and tapping friends and colleagues up for a few freebies of course...

Once Upon A Tree - Medium Dry Herefordshire Perry (5%)
So where exactly 'is' the centre of the cider and perry making tradition? A question that's vexed me for several hours now, and one guaranteed to rouse fierce debate amongst those who care about these things. Which is of course why I ask...

Putley and the Marcle Ridge area of Herefordshire could certainly lay claim to the title (if there were one), located as it is within a dense forest of old and new orchard plantings centred on the regional giant, Westons of Much Marcle. Home to the annual Big Apple cider and perry trials jamboree, which is a gathering place for some of the finest producers in the business, a significant handful of which harvest and squeeze their fruit locally.

Simon Day of Once Upon A Tree is one such local producer. A winemaker by trade, he's been building an enviable reputation for his fine ciders and perries since establishing the company in 2008. I got in early, supplying his draught Tumpy Ground cider to the Raunds Beer Festival back in 2011. Once Upon A Tree ciders and perries are some of the more easily found in the Three Counties area, their bottles a relatively common sight in delis and farm shops which is where I got mine from. In Warwick!

This perry is a bit of a sparkler, pouring (from a great height) clear and significantly less sparkling, which is how I like it. It carries the Protected Geographical Indication label for Herefordshire Perry, ensuring the fruit was sourced entirely from the aforementioned county, and much else of a reassuring quality mark besides. Quite what will become of this PGI when we've dumped ourselves out of the EU is anyones guess, but given the absurd and frustrating regulations around cider in this country (practically anything goes so long as it's had an apple dipped in it at some point!), any promises of a UK replacement should probably be regarded with deep suspicion...

The perry is a rich, sweetish, medium-dry sipper, as befits a drink made from a high percentage of freshly pressed juice. I get ginger beer and barley sugar, Melon and citrus, and a slightly vinegary tinge that mellows to tongue-tingly sherbet. I've paired this zesty sparkling perry with the cool West Coast Jazz classic, Jazz Erotica by Richie Kamuca and friends (Jazz Track JT1024)*

More perries coming when I've drunk 'em…

*Music pairing for guidance only. Other styles and genres are available.

Thursday 25 October 2018

Wibble Wobble, Perry On A Plate

Since knocking the whole 'selling our cider and perry' thing on the head, we've found that there's an entirely 'expected' benefit. We've got more cider and perry than we can possibly drink in a season, more than we're likely to drink in several seasons in fact. What to do with it all then...

Well, we do drink a bit, and give away a bit to those who also like to drink a bit. There's still a fair bit left though, so we're never afraid of adding a bit to the Sunday pot-roast, a soup or two, maybe the odd cake or pudding. That still leaves a fair bit though...

Other things that we have more of than we can deal with at the moment are Bramley Apples, Quince, Rosemary, and Leaves. Loads of leaves. All over the place. Which brings me to our latest garden glut-busting recipe, something tasty to go with the Sunday Lamb, and requiring three items from our current over-supply situation.

Quince, Perry & Rosemary Jelly

This recipe can easily be adapted to use apples of course, it's just we have Quince. Lots of Quince. Quarter 4-6 Quince depending on size, and remove the core. Opinions vary on Quince pips, some say include everything, others that they can give an upset tummy. I don't like the taste of pips and can see no good reason to include them.
Chop the quince up into chunks and put in a large pan. Pour in just enough liquid to cover your chunks, water is fine, Champagne might work, but we used our own Medium/Dry Perry for extra orchardy flavour. I wouldn't recommend using anything that's artificially sweetened though, and given that you'll be adding sugar later it's probably best to stick to something drier in style.
Add a Sprig of Rosemary and bring to the boil. Simmer for 30-40 minutes until the Quince is tender. Mash the whole lot until it looks like the mush below.

We're making jelly now, so you're going to need a jelly bag or some muslin to drain the Quince mush through, as shown below. Leave it to drip for a few hours, there's little point in leaving it overnight to be honest, it'll simply attract vinegar flies for very little extra juice gained. I'm sure there's something that thrifty jelly-makers could use the mush for, perhaps a batch of Membrillo, but we used ours to enhance the aroma of our compost bin!

You now need to add Sugar, 450g for every 600ml of juice you've got. We ended up with exactly 600ml. Heat the juice until it starts to boil, then add the sugar stirring to dissolve. Now opinion also vary on the type of sugar to add. Quince being fairly high in pectin already, many favour ordinary refined sugars. We erred on the side of caution and went for Preserving Sugar (not Jam Sugar, that's too high in pectin). At this point add another Sprig of Rosemary, leaves stripped off the woody bits and finely chopped.

Now for the difficult bit. You need to get your liquid up to temperature and hold it there for 10 minutes. 105C is the setting point, and if your cooker is anything like as crap as ours you'll struggle to achieve this. Persevere. Good luck!

It's at this point the dangerously hot syrupy jelly-in-the-making will turn a lovely shade of pinky-red, like an autumn sunset in a Worcestershire Perry Pear Orchard. Speaking of which, we made our jelly to the strains of Elgar's Symphony No.2 in E flatSir Adrian Boult conducting the Scottish National Orchestra. The album sleeve for this recording features a lovely photograph of a Perry Pear orchard in Worcestershire, overlooked by the brooding Malvern Hills. Seemed kinda appropriate...

Jar-up, push a small sprig of Rosemary into each jar, label, and wait for Spring Lamb to appear in the shops.

Sunday 21 October 2018

Having Your Cake, and Eating It...

If I'd known it was Apple Day, I'd have baked a cake...

Well I did and I have, so happy Apple Day everyone. Here's a cake which whilst not strictly appley in nature, is straight out of the orchard and bursting with the kind of local distinctiveness that set Common Ground on the road to Apple Day in the first place.

A couple of years ago I took the hard but necessary decision of removing our three grape vines, scene of a handful of very fine red wine vintages, but in recent years more of a crime scene as plagues of voracious Wasps beat us to the ripening crop. Their place has been taken by a strapping young Quince, a Meech's Prolific c/o piggybacking on an order from our friends at Torkard Cider of Hucknall-in-the-North.

Prolific! Not-half. This is only its second season in the garden and already we've got far more fruit than we can deal with. Hence the standard late-Summer greeting of "Hello. Would you like some Courgettes?" has taken a Quince-like direction.

Quince is a moderately versatile cooking fruit if you accept that everything you cook with it will be slightly dominated by its massive tart and tangy fruitiness. It's a lovely flavour, but I wouldn't pare it with delicate fish dishes for example, or anything delicate for that matter. A cake is ideal though, so...

Quince, Walnut, Honey & Perry Cake (Based on a recipe from 'Thyme' of Southrop Manor Est, Glocs)

Peel, core, and chop three or four Quince, depending on size, and poach for around 45 minutes in a whatever you fancy. I chose some of our own Perry, plus a dollop of honey and a couple of Star Anise. Drain and reserve the liquor.

You'll need 50g of chopped Walnuts, so if your nuts are shell-on as our were (another glut, this time from our neighbours), you may want to put some music on and begin the lengthy process of cracking and extracting. Incidentally, if anyone knows the secret to extracting Walnut innards whole and not in numerous fiddly bits, a 'comments' section is a available below...

Chop your nuts and set aside. In a food processor, blend 325g Caster Sugar with 125g Butter until fluffy. Add 3 Eggs and a dash of Vanilla Extract and beat until combined.

Measure out 360g Plain Flour, 1/2 tsp Baking Powder, 1/4 tsp Cinnamon, and 1/4 tsp Salt. Add half of this to the batter until combined. Add 120ml Milk, then the rest of the flour mix until combined. Fold in the Walnuts and Quince pieces.

Transfer to a greased cake tin and bake at 150C (Fan Oven) for around 1 hour, and 15 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, reduce the Quince Poaching Liquor to a thin syrup.

Check the cake with a sharp knife to ensure the innards are properly cooked through. Let it cool for a bit then turn out onto a rack. Poke holes all over the top of the cake and gradually spoon the syrup over so that some soaks in, some glazes the top, and some trickles down the sides onto the work surface

Phone all your friends, you've got Cake!