Wednesday, 29 September 2010

New Apples and Extinct Plants


Two apparently unrelated pieces of news are doing the rounds. First comes a cheering cider-related story: according to The Guardian, 29 new cider apple varieties are being harvested today. Under the watchful eye of consultant pomologist Liz Copas, a quarter-century of R&D is bearing fruit (sorry). Liz kindly contributed a Q&A piece to The Naked Guide to Cider, and allowed us to pillage her fabulous 'Somerset Pomona' for our section on cider apples. It's quite good, if only for that reason.

One new apple, Lizzy, is named after her. The others also mostly have women's names, and don't really have the ring of apples past. Would you take Sops of Wine or Tina? Yarlington Mill or Naomi? Porter's Perfection or Fiona? One, Prince William, isn't altogether new, since Thatchers have been making cider from it for a while.

But it's good news, more or less. The story gets a little murkier when you start thinking about the orchards these new fruit will be grown in, not the standard orchards of yore, but modern, commercial, high yield orchards. Not that there's anything wrong with this - cider has to be commercially viable just like any other business - but...


Well, let's hear about the second news story. According to new research, a fifth of the world's plant species are threatened with extinction. Analysis by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, the Natural History Museum and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) suggests that 22% of the world's 380,000 plant species could be under threat, mostly because of deforestation.

You may wonder what that has to do with us here in the UK. After all, our countryside was thoroughly deforested before the Normans invaded and introduced us to the joys of good cider. But just as damaging has been the spread of intensive farming methods, which has led to 97% of our unimproved grassland being destroyed since World War II.

'Unimproved' is a curious kind of word, suggesting inferiority. 'Unimproved' grassland is not pure grass, but is contaminated with all kinds of weeds and whatnot. To improve it, you plough the land, plant one or two dominant grass varieties, fertilise liberally and spray thoroughly with pesticides. You now have a grass larder for livestock.

What you don't have is wildflowers, bees, butterflies and other insects. The unofficial denizens of the countryside - which is mostly farmland - have retreated into smaller and smaller pockets of unimproved land. And one particularly fine oasis - a nature reserve in effect - is the traditional orchard, planted with widely-spaced fruit trees and grazed by sheep or cattle.

When the People's Trust for Endangered Species acquired Rough Hill orchard in Worcestershire it was badly neglected and had been overgrown with brambles. Yet they still recorded over 110 species of plants, including agrimony, black knapweed, wild carrot, quaking grass, and the great dodder. These plants and numerous species of insect, bird and mammal, had coexisted with livestock and fruit trees for years, but, had it not been for PTES, they and the orchard would almost certainly have met one of two fates before very long.

Either the orchard would have been grubbed up for housing or another crop - possibly a new, high-yield orchard. Or it would have been taken over increasingly by brambles and scrub, until it disappeared.

We control our countryside in a way that would have seemed impossible a hundred years ago or even less. A large meadow can be stripped of 99% of its life almost overnight. An orchard can be full of plants, birds and insects one day, and be gone the next. It isn't enough for the National Trust and other organisation to buy up odd farms here and there and preserve them. We have to put the same kind of energy and thought into preserving plants and wildlife that we put into developing new crops and new methods of growing more, quicker.

A BBC interviewer seemed astonished that Liz Copas had spent 25 years developing new apple varieties. It takes far longer for a meadow to return to life after a single ploughing.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Cidermaking for Beginners



Today's ciderheads aren’t content just to drink other people’s cider (and perry); increasingly they are making cider for themselves, and we’re not talking about rough old scrumpy. With a little money and rather more effort, anyone can make a delicious, old-fashioned Somerset cider at home…

It’s often said, in fact, that the best cider you will ever drink is the one you make yourself. Why is this? There may a little personal bias, but there are two other more important reasons. First, people who like cider tend to have a particular taste and, with practice, you can create a drink that suits your taste better than anyone else’s. Second, cider is much more than a glass of delicious amber liquid. It’s a process – a way of life to some people. The making, perfecting and drinking of cider is a year-round activity and one that is often sociable. Start making cider with a couple of friends, or as part of a community project, and you will be seeing plenty of your colleagues.


You start before the autumn apple harvest. As the first fruit – like the Bristol favourite Morgan Sweet – fall from the trees in September you need to make a plan. How much cider do you want to make? Where are you planning to find the fruit? Are you going to press your own apples or get someone else to do it for you? What are you going to store the juice in? Perhaps you’d like to start out by helping out with a community venture or a National Trust project, and take it from there.

In the Bristol area it isn’t hard to find either apples or equipment. Homebrew shops like Brewers Droop on Gloucester Road sell plastic fermenting vessels, airlocks and so on, or you can look online for gear. Look around and you’ll be amazed how many apples are left to rot on the ground every year, though if you want real cider apples you’ll need to do a bit more research. There are small farm orchards all over Somerset and Gloucestershire, many of them neglected or underused in spite of growing demand. If in doubt you can always press eating apples, with a few handfuls of crab apples thrown in to give the cider a bit of bite and to help it keep.


A number of cidermakers will press fruit for you, for a fee; you just go along with your apples and go home with the juice. Somerset cidermaker Neil Worley won first prize at the Bath & West Show one year with cider that he’d made in this way; he didn’t want to invest in pressing equipment so he had his apples pressed and focused on making the best cider he could.

But the more common solution is for like-minded people to get together and invest in a small fruit press and scratter. This rustic-sounding piece of equipment is a great labour-saving device, a bit like a heavy-duty kitchen blender, with a rotating blade that reduces apples to pulp very quickly. You then press this pulp in your fruit press and the sweet juice flows out. Be warned, though. Apple juice stains hard, and you will be covered in it by the end of a pressing session, so wear overalls or clothes you don’t care about.

The top supplier of cider-related equipment is Vigo, which you can find online, but at the Totterdown Press here in Bristol we use a Fruit Shark scratter, imported from the Czech Republic. It takes us, incidentally, two weekends of fairly hard work to gather and press enough apples to make 25-30 gallons of cider. Then again, a lot of that time is spent getting to orchards, cleaning equipment, and so on, so we could potentially make more in the same amount of time.

The cleaning part is especially time-consuming but absolutely vital. Ask a successful cidermaker for tips and they will insist that hygiene is essential. You can make cider out of any apples, on as large or small scale as you like, but you must ensure that equipment is sterilized and fruit washed; a plastic bin with holes in the bottom is perfect for hosing apples clean.

Think of it like this: each batch of fresh apple juice is a kind of world – an eco-system if you want to be technical. It is full of delicious sugars from the inside of the apple and, from the skin of the fruit, wild yeasts. In an ideal environment, the dominant yeast will spread rapidly through the juice, converting sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide; dirty equipment is likely to harbour bacteria that will do nasty things to the juice. By the same token it is also essential to keep air out of the fermenting juice. Microbes called acetobacter live in fruit juice, and given the opportunity will turn ethanol (alcohol) into acetic acid, or vinegar to you and me. But they need oxygen to do this, and you can keep air out of the juice by filling containers to the very brim and fitting an air lock.

If you don’t fit an air lock you will find yourself with an extremely sticky explosion on your hands, as carbon dioxide builds up in the fermenting vessel. An air lock lets gas out, but not in.

So you plan over the summer, pick and press fruit during the autumn, keep an eye on the fermentation through the winter, rack cider into barrels in the spring, then drink the cider while you’re planning the autumn’s adventures. Then of course you might want to think about planting an orchard, or making different blends of cider, or improving your blend in some way. Before you know it, you’ve fallen into cidermaking. And it’s very hard to climb out again.

This article first appeared in The Bristol Magazine.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Britain's Oldest Cidermaker


Being a writer I'm acutely aware that people tend to look at the pictures in a book before the words. I do this myself, come to think of it. On numerous occasions I've handed somebody a book, only for them to flick through, look at the photos and say, 'This is great!'.

Which is fine, as far as I'm concerned. If a reader can be enticed into a book by good pictures they're more likely to read the words. I want my books to be as visually exciting as possible, not just because people are more likely to buy them, but also because I think a book - I mean a real book, made of paper - ought to be a thing of beauty, or of wonder.

But how do you go about matching pictures and text? Often photographers are commissioned to illustrate particular aspects of the text, but I prefer pictures - or series of pictures - that stand on their own. Photo essays, I suppose you'd call them.

When I came across Neil Phillips' pictures of Frank Naish, the Somerset farmer dubbed Britain's Oldest Cidermaker by The Sun newspaper, I knew they were exactly what The Naked Guide to Cider needed. They don't illustrate anything I wrote, but they are gorgeous pictures in which the character of the men shown, and the place where they live and work (and the photographer, who loves orchards and cidermaking), shines through.

Friday, 3 September 2010

BBC Secret Britain, Paul Nash and a Ruined Church


It doesn't have the coherence or quality of Coast, but the BBC's Secret Britain series is fascinating nonetheless. Some of the locations seem to have come from someone's Little Black Book of Amazing Places Not Many People Know About, but the personal stories have been interesting. I particularly liked the chap in episode 2 whose parents enjoyed wartime trysts on a Shropshire common.

He got me thinking. The most remarkable thing about his Special Place is that it has hardly changed in sixty years, while the countryside generally has changed dramatically. Yes, the much-loved patchwork of green fields and hedgerows survives outside the grain-producing areas of the east and south, but the detail of landscape and village has in many places been altered by cars, changes in farming and a modern taste for tidiness.

Knowlton Church
When I was a child I used to play around a site we knew as the Ruined Church - a tumbledown old building surrounded by a circle of grassy chalk banks. We used to roll down the banks, clamber on the stones and chase butterflies. An austere old sign told us it was an Ancient Monument, but beyond that it was always just the Ruined Church.

I went back in adulthood to find that this old haunt had been adopted as part of the national heritage. A signboard informed visitors about the history of Knowlton Church and the earthworks encircling it - part of a complex that was once perhaps more extensive than Stonehenge. It was interesting to find this out, but I wasn't too happy that my Special Place had acquired an official status and was now visited by strangers who drove into deepest Dorset instead of popping over at playtime.

Then I found an old book of Dorset history that belonged to my grandfather. Knowlton Church was in there and the picture, taken a few years before I was born, showed a very different place, overgrown with brambles with only the church tower visible. It had been cleared around the time I was born so that the public could appreciate the site. So my ancient and unchanging place had actually changed very recently.


I was reminded of this by something the artist Paul Nash wrote about visiting Avebury. He first went in 1933:

The great stones were then in their wild state, so to speak. Some were half-covered by the grass, others stood up in cornfields or were entangled and overgrown in the copses, some were buried under the turf. But they were wonderful and disquieting, and as I saw them then, I shall always remember them. Very soon afterwards the big work of reinstating the stones and avenues began, so that to a great extent the primal magic of the stones' appearance was lost. 

Paul Nash, Landscape of the Megaliths, 1937