Sunday, 20 January 2013

Green Apple Cider

The view from my kitchen window

I’m drinking tea in my kitchen, watching the snow fall in my garden and pondering some of this week’s goings on.
Tony and I were lucky enough to be invited to a fancy boardroom type meeting that took us back to our IT days for an hour or so. One of the subjects that came up concerned the environmental credentials of cidermakers. I felt as though there wasn’t enough time in the meeting to address the issue fully, so I thought I’d have a quick stab at it here in the old bloggaroo. Before I start, I’d just like to say that the following details apply only to the way in which we work at the The Little Orchard Company and that I totally can’t speak for other orcharders/cidermakers.

The orchard in autumn 2012
Well, first of all, we have an orchard. Environmentally speaking, this is both good and bad. We have essentially changed a sheep pasture into lowland woodland, thus attracting a different set of flora and fauna to our acreage. We do, however, feel a little less environmentally guilty about travelling in fossil-fuel-guzzling vehicles as our trees are busily sequestering carbon as they branch out into the future.
We haven’t had to spray the orchard very much so far, although this might have to change if we have many more wet summers! The fungal diseases that love our trees are discouraged with sodium bicarbonate, very occasionally with topically applied copper sulphate, and with good fallen leaf management. 
We think that our orchard insect life is equilibrating too; for example, there were a couple of years when I stubbornly refused to spray insects (insects are bird food and I love birds – OK, OK, I’m a namby pamby IT townie that hasn’t quite gotten to grips with the harsh cruelty of country life – I’m sticking my tongue out at all of you as I write) and, therefore, had to walk around 500 baby trees squishing aphids… lovely! Then, the ladybirds found us. Hoorah for lady birds. We now have loads of them and very few aphid problems. 
Loads of lovely ladybirds

The key here is that because our orchard produces apples for cider and juice, we don’t worry at all about fruit size, colour or imperfections and we don’t, therefore, need to dowse the trees every few days with pesticides.

Apples that think they're lemons
Apples that are a funny shape
So what about the actual cider making then? Well, we all do a lot of moaning about supermarkets don’t we? The prices are too high, the quality is rubbish etc. etc. To the cidermaker, however, the supermarket is king! Not only do they sell our produce, but they also cast out so many apples that we get to pick them up and make cider out of them. 

And apples with a dual core!
;-)  a little joke there for the IT people
Here’s how it happens; the apples that make it onto the shelves at your local supermarket have been chosen for their looks and their size and shape (how shallow!). The fruit that doesn’t make it is perfectly decent, but  a little too big, too small, too pock-marked by that hail storm that hit just prior to picking and so on. This not-quite-glamorous-enough fruit makes its way to the cider makers and juicers of the UK, where it is milled and pressed to make drinks. So, hats off to the supermarkets for being so picky about their fruit. Rumour has it that almost half of the apples grown in the UK go to make cider and juice.

Me with Bertha and her piglets
When all of the juice has been extracted from the apples, we are left with dry apple pomace. Our cidery is on a farm, so the farmer collects the pomace regularly and uses it to feed his pigs and cattle. No waste there then.
All of which gave me a warm glow of possibly-a-tad-arrogant self-satisfaction… until I just looked out of my kitchen window again and noticed that I have melt-water rather than snow for a good metre or so around the house. Obviously I need to wind my neck in a little, turn the heating down and apply some of my environmental work ethics to the way in which I run my household! The dish washer and the washing machine also seem to be running. Ho hum… there’s always something more that you can do to reduce your carbon footprint!

Saturday, 22 September 2012

And when you wake up it's a new mornin'

Let’s begin with a little nostalgia shall we? In 1978, when “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty was released, I was only 12 years old. It seems only yesterday that I was sitting in my friend, Bethan’s living room, listening to the Rafferty album and rocking away on her rocking chair, wishing that we had such a wonderfully comfortable thing at my house. There was no talking. Just rocking, listening to the music and silently praying that her older brother wouldn’t catch us playing his LPs.

Well, that song has had a lasting influence on my life! As the apple pressing season gets into full swing this year, I can’t help but reflect on my blog from last year and my pre-cider-making life. There’s no doubt about it, in many ways my corporate life was great! I mostly worked with lovely people; I was a freelancer and did something different every 6 months so I was rarely bored; my work paid the bills and allowed me to buy fancy things and take nice holidays. But, the one thing that let it all down was commuting to London every day. 
My tea towel cupboard!
I’m a real home girl. I love my partner (don’t tell him though, otherwise he’ll get ahead of himself), and my house and my books and, in particular, my tea towel cupboard (but that’s another story… what? They’re all pressed into neat squares that smell of clean linen – what’s not to like???). 
And I hate staying in hotel rooms even for one night (also another story… has someone recently died in the hotel room bed? Just exactly how many other-people-mites am I breathing in from that pillow? Who’s bottom was on this loo seat yesterday? Why do people like hotels? Beats me!). All of which only leaves one option. Commuting. Misery me! The train arrives at London Marylebone and I walk down to Baker Street to get the Tube over to the other side of the city. Cue Gerry inside my head…

Windin' your way down on Baker Street
Light in your head and dead on your feet

That’s about the size of it, having gotten out of bed at 5.30 to make it to work on time.

Another year and then you'll be happy
Just one more year and then you'll be happy

I knew what I wanted. Knew where I was going to. Knew I had to work really hard to get together enough money to get to where I wanted to be. Surely just one more year!?

He's got this dream about buyin' some land

Did I ever! Buy land. Plant trees. Start cidery. Buy land. Plant trees. Start cidery. Buy land. Plant trees. Start cidery. You get the picture; I won’t go on.

When I speak to people now, and tell them my orchard story, they often tell me how lucky I am. NO! As my other half frequently says to me, “The harder I work, the luckier I get”. So true. Well, OK, maybe there was a little luck involved along the way, but most of it was and still is hard work!
Having finally decided that I could continue with the “just one more year” refrain for the rest of my days, I stopped commuting, persuaded Tony to help me buy that land, plant those trees and set up the cidery.

Sittin' on the orchard gate

And when you wake up it's a new mornin'
The sun is shinin' it's a new morning
You're goin'
You're goin' home.

You see what I did there? New, shiny life = happy verse in the Gerry song? Excellent! Suffice to say that although I’ve put fancy clothes and posh holidays behind me, I’m feeling a little better than I did this time last year. Probably because I’ve cajoled Tony into doing the hard labour while I do the marketing ;-)

A little knitting in my rocking chair
Just for the record, I’d told Tony the Gerry Rafferty story so many times that, some years ago, he finally bought me a rocking chair (to shut me up), which is where I’m now sitting, writing my blog (and intermittently doing some knitting, drinking tea, surfing the Net etc.). Cool bananas!

Monday, 14 May 2012

Heggarty the Ford 4000 tractor

10 acres is a whole lot of grass! More than you realise when you work behind a desk all day just thinking happy thoughts about the next picnic you're going to have in the field. Really though. When the field was newly ours, we had some serious size-denial issues. We were used to managing a back garden barely bigger than the size of a pocket handkerchief, so when the meadow grass started to grow in our first April/May, we bought a big strimmer, thinking that we could strim a path through the now chest-high pampas grass from the roadside to the top of the field. As I’m writing, I totally can’t believe how ridiculously stupid we were (although our idiocy and naïveté seems to be becoming a thread through this blog). Respect to those farming types who used to scythe their meadows in th’olden days. 
Me, posing with Farmer Tim, but not actually
doing anything scary like driving
After strimming for several hours, overheating the strimmer, overheating Tony and still having only achieved a 5 metre pathway, we realised that we needed a more sensible solution. Obviously. Duhhh!
Hello Farmer Tim! And hoorah for tractors! We were pretty excited when Tim and co. came to flail and dry our grass, thistles, and nettles to make hay; felt like proper land-owners with big yellow, sun-ripened hay bales sitting around in the field. 

Tony sitting on one of the hay bales
And then we found Andy too. He’s a part-time shepherd with not quite enough land. It’s a win-win situation; Andy gets land and we don’t have to worry about managing the grass. Until we planted the trees, of course. Unfortunately, sheep like to rub up against things; they also eat trees, so our happy not-worrying-about-the-grass/thistles/nettles situation didn’t last for long. We knew that we had to smash our piggy-banks and buy a little tractor of our own.

And here she is…
Heggarty Tractor is delivered
Our very own Heggarty Tractor. She’s a 1972 Ford 4000. We think of Heggars as an aging film-star type (can’t remember how that one came about – giggling over a drop too much cider I suspect); she's stroppy, pouting, unreliable, usually a little the worse for gin, still fancies herself, but well past her prime; you know the type. Sshhhh. Don’t tell anyone, but last month, she was at a private “clinic” having a big end re-bore and tightening up of those saggy, leaky seals. Joking aside, it cost about as much as a real plastic surgeon!
You want to see something funny (pathetic)? Here’s a video of me driving a tractor for the first time...

Tony and Heggarty mowing the orchard (spring 2012)
Go ahead, laugh all you like (everyone else has)! I’m a lady of nervous disposition and driving a monster like Heggars was a truly terrifying experience for me! And here’s a photo of Tony (taken last week), cool, calm and in charge. Driving a tractor? No problem. Smarty pants!

Henry Ford launched the first Fordson tractor (a sibling of the Ford) in 1917. He hated the drudgery of farm work and intended to “lift the burden of farming from flesh and blood and place it on steel and motors”. Thank goodness. After trying to strim a path through 10 acres, I’m all for that!

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Raggedy Hobo Cat and the voles

A little wood vole
Those of you that know me personally will realise that I'm unhealthily preoccupied with voles. When we first owned the land that is now our orchard, we took a photo of this little chap sunbathing and warbled on among ourselves about how cute he was and what a joy it was to have such wonderful wildlife in our field.

A pair of softy nitwits!

What a pair of softy nitwits!
Voles are a major pest of apple orchards but we were so green that we had no idea. It's not the sort of thing that a pair of IT contractors would be likely to know is it?
Several years later, and marginally wiser, I now fantasise all the time about how best to kill voles (what's happened to me? I used to be so nice). Well, maybe not to kill all of them outright, but to bring about some kind of equilibrium where their numbers are kept in check. Our current scheme involves installing roosting posts to attract kestrels; the only problem is that there are so many buzzards around that they're putting off the smaller birds of prey. Bother. We could set traps, but we have 500 trees, so that's not a very practical solution. And even I fall short of one of the documented methods of vole control, which is to leave an un-mowed strip of grass between each row of trees; when the voles get used to hiding out in the long growth, mow it! And the voles too! That's a step too far for a softy nitwit.
Tony doing manly stuff
If you just drew a sharp breath, appalled at the cruelty, don't worry too much, the voles outwit us most of the time. For example, Tony is a manly fellow, strongly built and not scared of very much; last summer, while working in the orchard I jumped out of my skin when he squealed like a little girl, flailed his arms wildly and ran off down the hill. I thought he'd maybe stumbled across a swarm of bees and been soundly stung; I prepared myself to administer first aid. But no, apparently a vole had jumped out at him in a menacing way and tried to eat him! Yup, OK, Tony!

Even when we accidentally run our tractor at speed towards an out-in-the-open vole, it just seems to ride the tractor's bow wave and then jump off to one side. Maybe we're unintentionally nurturing a breed of gnarly, tricky, surfer dude voles with malign carnivorous tendencies!
Raggedy Hobo Cat
So, within the last few months, we've been delighted to see a cat in the orchard. He (she?) is there all the time doing catty things; pouncing on stuff, digging the voles out of their burrows, and chasing bunnies. He’s a little the worse for wear, hence his name; there's a book, "The Orchard Cat" by Steven Kellog, where mama cat dies of "mumps, warts, chicken pox, gout, and several other ailments brought on by an evil life". Our new friend looks as though he suffers from at least those afflictions, and a few more besides. Here's a photo of him. We can't get any closer than this. That's fine. We don't want to tame and molly-coddle him. He's a lean, mean killer of voles. Go on Raggedy Hobo Cat! Do your worst!
And just for good measure, we're installing an owl box in the woods too. Hoping owls’ gastronomic preferences run to voles and not cats.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

What do IT consultants do on New Year's Day?

Tony with his trusty bow saw

At the top of our orchard, we have about an acre of boggy ground that's fed by the limestone springs coming up from Edge Hill. One of our neighbourhood farmers once tried to find the bottom of one of the springs in the woods by putting lengths of connected drain rods into a bubbling hole. He tells us that he never found the bottom.
 Now, the willows that were planted years ago to soak up some of the water have grown so tall that they've started to collapse under their own weight. What with the sinking, sucking mud and the falling trees, we call it Widow-maker Wood! (Maybe I should stop wasting time writing this blog and start up a horror novel.)

Jo with a cold toastie and hot tea and whisky

Anyway, the point of this story is that, the week before Christmas, a willow tree fell onto our neighbour's barn, so while everyone else in the Universe was enjoying New Year lunch in front of a cosy fire, Tony and I spent the day sawing willow wood by hand and eating cold toasted sandwiches. (I did have a nip of whisky in my tea to ward off the cold. Brilliant.)
Still, I guess that in these times of austerity, at least we don't need to pay for a gym to burn off our Christmas calories, and who needs poncy canapes etc. when you can have a cold toasted sandwich in the great outdoors???

Thursday, 5 January 2012

2011, a retrospective

2011 was a big year in my cider-making schedule. After years of deliberating, I am now a proper, professional cider-maker. Cider-making is one of those things that takes a lifetime to perfect, so I'm in it for the long haul. I'm anticipating steep learning curves and a good mix of glitches (opportunities to improve!) and successes (opportunities to gloat!). I think that, despite my first few glitches, 2011 was a hit...
Having ordered a brand new apple mill and press, and installed them in a container at our friend's farm (thanks so much for your support Emma and Martin), I was a little nervous, but enthusiastic and keen to get going.

The boys installing the apple press
By September, I had about a ton of apples from our orchard and those of friends and neighbours, and I'd made contact with other orchards for the rest of the fruit.

No problems so far.

In fact, the only real issue was my state of fitness. I think we can award a big ZERO to this. I'd been sitting around doing my fancy IT job for 20 or so years and couldn't summon up even one set of muscles bigger than a ladybird's bicep (do ladybirds have biceps?).

After the first day of apple pressing, I dragged myself home and told Tony (my partner in life and in business) that I simply couldn't do it and that we should sell the orchard and put our fab new equipment on eBay immediately. The following morning, I could barely get out of bed, never mind walk or lug apples around.

I have a friend, Kerry, who has a properly stressful job as a high-flying accountant. Being logical and analytical in nature, she has a theory that when you're starting a new project, you go through several defined phases; a "can do" bit when you're full of enthusiasm to begin with, the realisation that it's harder than you originally thought, the weepy "don't think I can do it actually" bit, the "giving yourself a stern talking to and kick in the pants" bit, and the final "just GET ON WITH IT" bit.
Making a "cheese" from the apple pulp

Well, I thought about Kerry that morning and hauled myself out of bed and into a hot bath. A cup of strong tea and a couple of Paracetamols later and I was sorted and ready to go (although still a bit whimpery and sorry for myself on the inside). It took two months to make this year's cider and by the end of it I was properly "hench" and truly proud of myself for just getting on with it (thanks Kerry - maybe you should write a self-help book)!
The cider is currently undergoing its long, slow, cold fermentation over the winter months. It'll be ready in the spring and meanwhile, I have the next slew of uphill battles to be getting on with. Marketing, sales, branding, bottling, distribution... It's OK, I'm still in the "can do" stage at the mo, but Tony's getting the hankies ready for the next, weepy part!