RG 2007 December
| This page is part of The Cidermaking Year by Rose Grant
In the last week I've been putting everything to bed in the ciderhouse. This has entailed much cleaning of the equipment, the weather now being warm enough for the task of pressure washing. I had put off the final cleaning of the press cloths and racks. It was so cold during the last pressing that afterwards I just dumped everything to soak and repaired to the fireside. The cold of the pomace had chilled my hands to the bone. The juice was in the tank and enough was enough for the time being. Pressure washing on a cold day is a thoroughly miserable occupation.
Usually I finish the season by putting the press cloths through the washing machine. This is fine for the nylon net cloths that belong to the small press but it is a long job for St. Em's heavy cloths. It takes four cycles to do these as the machine can only hold three of them at a time. This year I've found that the pressure washer provides a quicker solution when used in conjunction with our rotary clothes drier. The first cloth was pegged to an inner line within a quadrant of the drier. After blasting it all over with the pressure lance, the drier was rotated to the next quadrant and the process repeated for cloth no.2. This continued until the drier contained all 12 cloths in 3 concentric rings, there being 3 cloths in each quadrant. Next day after a good blow in the wind they were all dry, sweet smelling and a distinctly lighter shade of khaki. It was particularly pleasing to see that the blasting by water and wind had removed all the clingy little particles of pomace within the weave of the cloth.
The press racks had also received a good blasting and had been propped against hedges and walls in the garden to dry. They looked a lot better for the treatment and were definitely a lighter shade of grey, but I'm not happy with these old relics from St. Em's past. I'm going to get a new set made for her next year which I intend to keep well varnished.
The tipping trailer I bought this year has been a great blessing. It has saved me a lot of hard work in transferring apples to the washing tank. I rewarded it too with a good wash before towing it to the barn in the orchard, for storage over the winter. It's been so busy back at the cottage with the cider that I'd hardly so much as looked into this barn for ages. As I uncoupled the trailer inside the barn, I was startled by a great flapping of wings. To my amazement I looked up and saw a barn owl emerge from above a stack of bales and soar away and out into the orchard. This was a wonderful sight because I've been hoping for years that owls would come to the orchard. Ten years ago I made an owl box in the south gable of the barn. This has been the home to several broods of kestrels but I've never seen an owl anywhere near it. My recent lack of activity in the orchard must have encouraged the visitor. I hope he returns, but soon I must spend more time working there. There is plenty of pruning to be done and I really must get the grass cut before Wassail. I also hope to put in a few more trees.
It has been a splendid pressing season all in all. As I cleaned and put things away in the ciderhouse, I reflected that the weather had been ideal throughout. The long dry and sunny autumn had ripened the apples well, my last pressings being 1060 plus. Dry orchard floors have made apple picking straightforward. How pleasant it has been to process apples that were clean and dry without lots of soppy leaves and mud adhering to them. Then with perfect timing in early November came the cold spell for my keeving. Now with the keeved cider safely fermenting, lo and behold it is mild again to make the clean up job tolerable. It is a national pastime to moan a lot about our weather, but sometimes it is just perfect, well for cidermaking anyway!
We have discussed varnishes and their suitability for use with apple juice fairly often here and most people seem happy with using polyurethane. I have used polyurethane varnish for a good few years without any problem at all. I think that even the little Vigo barrel press I bought 15 years ago was coated with it. In recent years I've used polyurethane varnish on the racks of my small press and on the new juice tray of St. Em. Furthermore I've felt confident with using polyurethane since Andrew once mentioned that he also gives his racks a coat of it every so often.
Apple juice turns everything black after a while. A well maintained varnish coating prevents this happening to wooden components of the press and the mill, but in my view the most important advantage of it is cleanliness. St. Em's racks are black from many years of being 'pressure treated' with apple juice. This means that the juice has impregnated the wood and that it has not been possible to completely remove it by normal cleaning methods. The juice that has remained in the wood could become a source of bacterial infection. As a precaution against this possibility I soak the racks in sulphite solution in between pressings. However I would feel a lot happier using racks that are varnished. The varnish seals the grain and this means that the juice and apple particulate can be easily washed off.
I gave up barrels several years back, for fear of what could be lurking within the grain of the staves. Having put as much stainless steel and polypropylene into the process as I possibly can, the old racks of St. Em look more and more like its Achilles' heel. They are going to have to go! ( I wish Ray would set up a production line with his polypropylene racks ).
Timing of the harvest and specific gravity
With regard to harvesting I like to wait until the apples start to fall and when those that remain on the tree need only the slightest shake to bring them down. That way you know they have soaked up the maximum possible sunshine. I find that the mid to late season apples generally last longer on the ground without rotting. Often the later apples are quite badly damaged by birds whilst still on the tree and by other wildlife when on the ground. I see nothing wrong with using apples like this if they have not rotted, providing of course, that they are well washed. After all, those little beaks and teeth are only the forerunners of the blades in the mill.
Bramley or Crimson King
Early season apples are often quick to rot when fallen, which reminds me of a curious thing this year that I noticed this year. A friend in this village has a large and ancient apple tree in his front garden. It is always loaded with big green apples that we have both assumed to be Bramley. He lets me collect them every year to add to my blend. They tend to start falling in early October, bruise easily and go bad very quickly. So in order to make good use of them without having to throw lots of bad ones away, I knock the rest of them down and process as soon as I can. They are the typical Bramley type, very juicy and sharp with an Sg of only 1045. I did not want too many of this sort, so this year I didn't bother to climb up and knock the apples off the higher branches. A week ago when I had been doing my last pressings, I passed the big tree as I drove out of the village. The higher apples that I had left 'for the birds' were now yellow and red striped and looked very appealing. Quite a lot had fallen. I went to have a look at them, expecting that those on the ground would be rotten. Surprisingly they weren't, even though some were well and truly bird damaged. They seemed to have become a different variety altogether. I looked in Liz when I got home and convinced myself that they must be Crimson King. The red stripes were a perfect match to the apples in her Pomona. I gathered a wheel barrow full and pressed them. The Sg had now become 1055!
They apples now seemed to be altogether more attractive. I felt as if I had discovered an old treasure. Perhaps I could envisage the history of the tree. A lone tree in a garden suggests that it may have been planted as a dual purpose variety. Many cottagers in Dorset planted Tom Putt for apple pies as well as cider. I wondered if I had just discovered the same intention, but with Crimson KIng. I have to say though, that I don't think I would enjoy a single variety cider made from it.
Reflecting once more upon the year's process improvements
Now that pressing is over I have the time to consider how things worked out with the machinery. I thought that maybe some of you would be interested to hear more about this, especially as I made such a song and a dance about the Mono pump at the start of the season.
Same amount of juice from less pressings
This time last year I was still doing my last few pressings. This year the last main pressing on St. Em was on 13 th November and I've just been doing little batches on the small press since then. Why the difference? Partly it was due to Ni's generous help with three of the main pressings, but also because of the improved method of pomace handling throughout the season. The Mono pump has made a remarkable difference. When I first used it I began to realise that not only was it saving a lot of hard work but that it was also improving the throughput. I estimated that I would only need to do 15 pressings instead of the 22 of the previous year. This was not far out, as I actually did 16. I've calculated that each cheese on St. Em held the pomace of 650kg of apples, whereas last year it was only 470 kg. The average yield was the same as last year at around 140 gall/tn, so what has been going on?
The pump is a press
I suspected that the Mono was acting as a first stage of pressing. The results have confirmed this. The milled pomace is being pulverised by the pump as it builds up the high pressure needed to force the pomace up the pipe to the top of the press. This releases more juice within the pomace which on arrival at the press runs straight through the cheese, into the tray and thence into the tank. The solid matter that remains still contains juice but the individual apple particles are flaccid and occupy less volume due to the juice that they have lost. The pomace looked the same as ever but it felt much softer than usual. This became very obvious at the end of the season when I stopped using the mono to do the keeving. I needed to mill directly into plastic boxes so that the pomace could be allowed to macerate over night. The next day I noticed that in spite of the maceration the pomace in the boxes felt much harder and grittier than the pomace that had been pumped to St. Em. This was the final confirmation of why the mono pump has dual benefits. As with everything else 'there is nothing new under the sun'. I feel sure that a similar situation exists in the use of an old fashioned scratter of the type that contains the stone rollers, except of course it cannot pump the pomace to the press.
It was actually quite a relief to me that the mono worked as well as it did. Alex Hill had recommended the use of a Mono with a bore of at least 3 inches diameter. The one I bought is only 1.5 inches, so I was not optimistic. However It was soon obvious that a helpful synergy could exist between the mill and the Mono if their speeds are matched. I found that the 1500 mill could produce a continual 'tongue' of pomace when feeding into an auger hopper, rather than just splattering into a box in the way that I had always used it before. The tongue is about 12 ins wide by 3 ins thick. It is without cavities has considerable weight and a momentum of its own. It proved to be ideal for feeding the auger of the Mono pump and was fascinating to watch. The auger could not be seen, so looking down into the hopper it appeared as though the tongue was continually being swallowed down a hole in the floor. It almost seemed to have a life of its own. All I had to do was to adjust the speed of the pump to suit the throughput of the mill, as determined by the type of apples being milled. I got pretty good at this and after a while began to think of the two machines as sisters, Millie and Minnie, that I was cajoling to work in unison. Sometimes I managed to nudge Minnie Mono up to 200 rpm whereupon Millie needed to have scoop after scoop of apples flung into her hopper in rapid succession, to maintain the essential 'tongue'.
There has only been one problem. A Mono pump needs a motor and gearbox that can deliver a high starting torque. The rotor screw is a tight fit in the nitrile stator tube and so is hard to get started. I was making things worse by having to stop and start the motor in between each layer of the cheese. Eventually the gearbox started to wear and the gears began to grind and slip on start up. It lasted just long enough to see out the season, but I will have to repair or improve things before next autumn.
Winter Orchard Work
The orchard has been in need of care and attention for quite some time. The grass has taken root again in the once cleared circular beds around each of the trees. Although most of the trees are still fairly small, many are also in need of some more formative pruning. December is the perfect time to have a really good go in the orchard. The cider has all been made and is slumbering, though gently fermenting in the cold of the ciderhouse. The trees that gave birth to it it have also begun their winter rest. Now I have time on my hands at last; time for pruning and cultivating. It is pleasant but tiring work so I have to view the job as a programme, covering all the 120 trees and extending over a number of weeks. A few hours each afternoon seems about right. It is the nicest part of the day at this time of the year and with darkness setting in about 4 pm, it prevents me getting carried away and ending up with backache. There is also a limit to the number of hours I can fiddle with tree ties etc with numbed hands!
The present spell of cold and dry weather is ideal, so I started this week gradually working my way though the orchard. All sorts of little horrors that had gone unnoticed have come to light. Rabbit guards full of couch grass have been hiding unwanted, energy sapping, little side shoots. Tree roots undermined by rabbit borings. Tie bands that are now too tight and are cutting into the trunks. Branches broken by the weight of fruit and strong winds..... there is much to be done. Fortunately, as the area around each tree has been cleared previously, it is not difficult to fork around and remove the accumulated grass and weeds. I then check the tie and the guard followed by any pruning that is needed.
Suddenly I have a renewed interest in my little orchard and have ordered more trees to extend it further into the top paddock. I look forward to seeing it all looking neat and productive, with each tree ringed by a chocolate mulch of horse manure. I am lucky there. My friend who keeps her horses in the neighbouring field has loads of the stuff, rotting down to full goodness in boarded clamps. It is just what is needed to feed the impoverished chalk downland that I am daft enough to grow apples on! The older trees are producing quite well now and I'm convinced this is a result of what has been bequeathed to them over many years by my long lamented jersey cows. It is heavy work flinging the muck around each tree, though bodily warming at this time of year. Finally of course, there is the very warming work that comes of collecting up all the prunings and feeding them to a good crackling bonfire.
Why am I so optimistic about all of this when I know only too well that a spell of prolonged wet weather could hijack my plans and kill my enthusiasm? The truth of the matter is I'm on a high just now. Not only is it great to be doing things in the orchard on dry sunny winter afternoon but I have a new orcharding companion, another black labrador! I had not expected to have another one so soon after the loss of Benji, especially as Frances now has a lovable but rascally Westie pup rampaging about in the cottage. Henry a 3 yr old labrador came 'out of the blue' last week. Word had got round in the village that I had lost Benji with the result that the niece of a lady who lives here, asked me if I would like to re-home her brother's dog. There is an underlying sad tale that I will relate only because it is an example of the hurt that has been done to small farmers in this country. Henry's owner was a smallholder who had to give up his cattle because they made him no money. To keep up his mortgage he turned to contract dairy work on larger farms. He starts work at 4am, then after a short lunch break does another shift until 7pm. Keeping a dog does not fit in with such a grueling lifestyle. Henry had to be left alone in the house for most of the day. I was of course delighted to offer to have him, all the more so when I saw that he greatly resembles Benji in stature, with the same wide eyed smouldering expression on his face. I've got another appling dog and I'm over the Moon!
More orchard work
The pruning and weeding work has continued more or less on a day by day basis since I last wrote. There are now only about twenty trees still to receive the long awaited benefit of having the choking grass removed from around their trunks. As each tree was attended to, I removed the rabbit and deer guard and cut away all the unwanted little shoots that had sprouted from its stem. It was surprising how well the guards had camouflaged this unwanted activity. The worst by far was a 5 year old Redstreak that had grown as two stems inside the guard, like identical twins. It was sad to have to cut one of them away, as it was like cutting out a whole tree. I'm afraid this speaks volumes about my neglect over the last 3 or 4 years. I am mortified to think that Liz Copas probably noticed horrors such as this when she wandered around the orchard during her visit in May! However I'm determined that things will look more promising from now on. Sounds like a New Year resolution could be taking shape here!
It does need a lot of self discipline to keep an orchard in good shape. I've had to make myself stick at it and not go home until I've done about 15 trees on each occasion. Fortunately I have had my new mate with me to keep my spirits up. Unlike Benji, Henry does not chase rabbits, which is rather strange for an ex farm dog. Perhaps he is already thoroughly bored with them. Henry's purpose in life is to be the overseer. He sits stolidly a few feet away from each tree that I'm working on, just watching everything I'm doing. It is great to have his company though.
My Japanese 'Silky Fox' pruning saw, ( recommended to us by Stephen ), has been really useful of late, when coping with branches too large for my Felco Secateurs. I can now add a tip that my recent orchard work has highlighted. It is no fun to work with cold feet and although I've always splashed out on the good Hunter wellies, they always madden me by developing a leak after a while. This results in the dreaded damp socks and sheer misery! I have now discovered the wonderful 'Muckboots'. These have an inner lining and keep your feet as warm as toast. Best of all the outer wellie material is breathable, like Gore tex, so they are much nicer to wear for long periods of work. I've also bought the 'Muckboot' shoes version. They are even more comfortable and also warm for use when working conditions are cold, yet not so wet that the full boots are needed.
It is 4 years since I cleared around each tree, yet the growth of weed has not got as deep a grip as it would appear. I found that in most cases I could prise the grassy growth from the soil around the tree by just levering it up with a long handled muck fork. Often it was then possible to continue rolling up the growth until all the previously cultivated soil around the tree was exposed. This was very satisfying and it put me in mind of what I had read about the restoration of The Lost Garden of Heligan. Tim Smit and his friends found that they could roll up the accumulated carpet of weed, brambles etc, whereupon they were delighted to see the emergence of the old garden paths and flower beds. I felt there was a certain similarity here. With the poor soil that I've got, it is as though every tree is in its own little garden, where the 3 ft diameter of soil it inhabits needs to be carefully cultivated and periodically manured.
Working in the orchard whilst physically demanding, is also mentally relaxing. There is so much time to be able to concentrate one's thoughts and make decisions. I listened to the birds singing and as I worked started thinking about the joy of owning an orchard. This led to the realisation that nobody really owns land. One can only be the custodian of it, in my case for perhaps another 20 years at most. The truth is that an orchard is created for posterity. It is such a long time before trees begin to bear abundantly. My oldest trees are 15 years old and these are beginning to get quite productive, but it will be another 10 years before most of the others reach this stage. I further realised that I must complete the planting of the whole orchard without delay if I want to be able to see the whole enterprise in full bloom and at least on the threshold of production. Roy kindly brought me 6 of his Dabinett grafts before Christmas, which will be great help towards this goal. Today I also rang John Dennis to increase the tree order that I have already placed with him.
I want to include some of the old Dorset cider varieties currently being brought to light by Liz Copas in her latest study. I've ordered a Slack Ma Girdle from John, but I can't get a Buttery Door. Can anyone send me a scion of it?
You may remember my plea for an antique Scratter for my friend Clive who wants one to go with his ancient twin screw press. Yesterday evening he turned up here with an enormous old scratter in his trailer. He'd just brought it all the way down from Stroud and couldn't wait for me to see it. I was thrilled to bits as I felt my way around and examined it in the semi-darkness of our drive. It is the perfect thing! It has the traditional large wooden hopper and a huge manual cranking wheel on one side. Below the scratting drum are two heavy looking granite rollers. I 'm looking foward to seeing it when fully restored by Clive. The big beast may well put my mono pump in it's place, but I wont be volunteering to crank that huge cast iron wheel round!
on the Culture of the Apple and Pear and On the Manufacture of Cider and Perry (2nd edition 1801)
This is an idiosyncratic classic - now, with the benefit of hindsight, some of it is just plain wrong but somebody had to set the ball rolling for the 19th century and Knight did it! You will find this at
I am enjoying a slow trawl through this old treatise by T A Knight. It is a pleasure to revel in all that old english phraseology and extract the pearls of wisdom. As Andrew has said there is a fair bit of it that does not stand up against what is known today but there are many things that tickle one's curiosity.
EG. A scion taken from the end of a fruiting branch will, on grafting, produce a fruiting tree much sooner than one taken from a shoot growing directly from the trunk. It sounds right doesn't it? Luckily I think this is what most of us do anyway. Tip pruning is always a handy source of scion wood.
Mr. Knight has given me tremendous encouragement with my current obsession to get the orchard sorted out. For years I've been thinking what a waste of time and effort it is to try and grow apples on top of chalk. Not so our Mr. Knight. He writes of the wonders associated with the red clay soil of Herefordshire but mentions that the finest ciders are produced in those parts of that county having the benefit of a calcareous sub soil. Oh goody good!
Then to my absolute delight he goes on to say "But the strongest and most highly flavoured liquor, which has hitherto been obtained from the apple is produced by a soil which differs from any of the above mentioned, - the shallow loam on limestone basis, of the Forest of Dean". How well this describes my own soil too.
I will beaver away with even greater enthusiasm when I get up there tomorrow!
Finally to encourage us all, it is heartening to see that Mr. Knight considers that "fine ciders might be made in almost every part of England" given that the right varieties are grown to compensate for defects of the soil.
Yes, but it does take a few years to work that one out! I'm still learning about varieties versus soil, by trial and error.