Apples

Mark has some roots in the West Country, having grown up mostly in Devizes with a Cornish mother. I think that a mix of these Western origins plus some very fond teenage memories have given him an interest in Cider. And I have to admit, it’s an interest I’m coming to share. The thing that interests me personally about cider-making, is the idea of growing and breeding exciting apples and working with live foodstuffs and yeasts.

When I was doing my BA in Dun Laoghaire, there was an old, unmanaged orchard on the grounds of the University. Every year, strange apples would fall from the trees. Misshapen, brightly coloured and difficult to identify, they were so characterful that I created ceramic casts of many of them and tried to discover which varieties they may be. Around the same time, I became aware of the work of the Irish Seedsavers, and the fact that hundreds of varieties of apples used to be grown in Ireland, before being replaced in shops everywhere by the ubiquitous Golden Delicious and Granny Smith varieties. The same story applies here in England and though our varieties are naturally different, both countries share a need I think to revive interest in our agricultural heritage and to bring back varieties of apples that were once important to specific regions.

I am not sure what the situation is now in Ireland with apples, but in England there appears to be a growing trend away from over-engineered, imported Supermarket fruits and back towards locally distinctive apples and their many advantages and traits. This year I have become aware of Apple Days springing up all over the country, and small businesses – like Cross Lanes Farm near us, here in Reading – selling local apple varieties to the public at various times. This is most encouraging for the preservation of interesting apples, but as we learned on Saturday from Michael Pooley at a cider-making workshop, 85 – 95% of traditional English orchards have been destroyed in recent times and so the need to revive interest in regional apple varieties and community orchards is very great.

Michael Pooley is one of those people whose passion for their work is totally infectious. Some years ago he wrote – along with the late John Lomax – this book about cider-making, which is thorough, practical and inspiring. Running course in cider-making and a very well-attended annual apple day, he works hard to change the perception of cider as a foul, overly strong brew, and to impart his knowledge to the masses on how to produce good quality cider and apple juice. He made the point at the workshop that knowing something and not doing anything with that knowledge is the same as not having that knowledge in the first place, and urged us to take our newly acquired cider-intelligence home with us and work with it. I especially enjoyed his description of building cider-making into the regular tasks of running a household and regarding picking, milling, pressing and bottling apples as annual, seasonal activities. We tasted many apples and talked about the blend of tannin, acid and sweetness that is necessary for a good cider. I personally like Yarlington Mill best as a basic cider-apple. Mark prefers Kingston Black I think, and we were both impressed by a lively, acidic miscellaneous apple that Michael found growing in his garden.

We had purchased some Ellison’s Orange and Greensleeves apples for the purpose of the workshop, but in retrospect we have decided these are probably too sweet for future cider-making endeavours. The aim is to make a cider which is not ridiculously strong; something in the region of 4 – 5% alcohol rather than 6 – 7% and masses of sweet apples can raise the alcoholic content and also lead to a bland flavour in cider. This is because the yeasts eat up all the sugars and turn them into alcohol. Therefore, to make a tasty cider, you need plenty of acids and tannins to remain flavoursome after the yeasts have done their business with your apple juice and turned all the sugars to booze.

Luckily to balance out the potentially fatal sweetness of our heritage variety dessert apples, we had also picked a box full of Mark’s very tart Bramley apples, so hopefully our contribution to the overall cider-apple selection was a well-balanced one. I was very happy to learn that it is tannin in apples which affects how quickly they turn brown and that if you are short on tannin-rich apple varieties, you can balance your cider blend with an extremely concentrated tea solution. Tea-enhanced cider; what a marvellous idea.

Everyone else at the workshop had also brought apples with them; some were of known varieties, many were random apples picked from gardens and hedgerows. We identified apples according to their flavour and loosely organised each batch of apples into a well-blended mix of acid, tannin and sweet flavours. These were then washed in a very dilute solution of sodium bisulphate to clean off any bugs on the apples, and milled in a giant apple mill which can apparently mill one ton of apples per hour.

The resultant bucket of clean apple slop was then loaded into a nylon mesh bag and placed inside the sturdy press that Michael built.

The nylon bag goes into the slatted, round tower; this then sits in the tray in the press, and a great handle is turned, exerting pressure on the apple pulp and pushing the juices out of it. These juices then run down into the tray and out through a tube, into the waiting demijohn.

At the end of the afternoon, our workshop group had 10 gallons of fresh apple juice stashed away in demijohns.

The cakes of dried fruit were put in bags, ready to add to the compost bins at the amazing Greenwood Centre where the course was held.

Driving home with our two demijohns of booty, we resolved to immediately establish a cider-making corner in the formerly derelict studio. We decided that for our smallscale purposes a food mixer would do for milling the fruit, and that a selection of tupperware containers and jugs, properly sterilised, would be excellent for our purposes. We set about organising a production line. I washed apples, Mark cut them into eights and pulped them, and together we wrestled with his small press to squeeze juice from the resultant slop.

Thus we spent a happy couple of hours yesterday evening, producing a further demijohn of apple juice to ferment. I was especially delighted to pluck the largest apple from the top of his apple tree, and to see that this year we have had very few windfalls or apple waste, owing to a glut of crumbles, puree-making sessions, and now apple-pressing.

We shall know in a couple of months whether our endeavours have been – excuse the pun – fruitful.

10 Responses to Apples

  1. Pingback: The Domestic Soundscape » Blog Archive » FO and Happy Christmas!

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