I must be one of the world’s worst vegetable gardeners. Every year I walk around my in-laws’ fantastic plot and promise to do better. Every year I respond enthusiastically to various management directives and plant increasingly exotic and disastrous crops. For every couple of disasters there is always a massive glut, which is even more hopeless. There are only so many giant yellow courgettes you can eat. This year we also had huge quantities of rhubarb (as ever) and raspberries (I wish I hadn’t bought an autumn fruiting variety), with a good crop of plums too. Previously this would have resulted in a lot of head scratching and shrugging of under-gardener shoulders, but now salvation is at hand in the shape of Pam Corbin.
Pam runs courses on preserves at The River Cottage and has also written a book you should buy immediately – Preserves also published by River Cottage. Our life has been transformed. Courgettes and rhubarb? Mix with ginger to make jam (delicious). Raspberries – jam and vinegar. Plums – jam and chutney. Not only have we actually been using the produce of my useless vegetable patch, but we have also been foraging to good effect. We’ve always made Elderflower syrup and Sloe gin, but now we have Rose Hip syrup, from all the Field Roses I’ve planted to gap up the hedges, and Elderberry vinegar. How very bucolic.
When we moved to Somerset in 2001 picked apples falling into buckets was the defining sound of autumn. We live opposite a traditional cider orchard, and for weeks from the beginning of September farmer and father-in-law picked for the local factory. The road to Shepton was full of tractors pulling apple carts. Then one year it was quiet; the factory had started to import concentrate from China, and there was no market for any local apples at all.
It seemed a shame, not just economically. The orchard, typical of local cider orchards, has a good mix of mature trees and is a real asset, not least in terms of its biodiversity value. In 2007 a group of us decided to form a village co-op and turn cider makers to keep it alive. We chose the name of the cider from an ancient local legend; the Bullbeggar of Creech Hill (which overlooks the village) is a restless spirit who waylays folk late at night. The history of human settlement on the hill goes back to the neolithic, so no-one’s quite sure where he came from.
Every year now we invite everyone to come along to pick on Apple Day and lay on a little spread for helpers. In 2008 we harvested about two and a half tonnes in no time at all, as we had half the village turn out. We don’t have our own press – yet – so we haul it off to Hecks Cider Farm for pressing, then bring the juice back to our own cider barn to ferment and rack. Some we then carbonate and bottle, some we leave in the wood for local events.
We’ve nearly recouped our investment now, thanks largely to the indefatigable Nick Smallwood, and we’ll be donating any profits to the village hall and church. The cider’s not bad either.
We live round the corner from Shepton Mallet, home of Babycham and now Brothers Pear Cider, so you might think that perry, to pears what cider is to apples, is big around here.
It’s not. The new pear ciders are either made from imported concentrated pear juice with sugar added, or they’re cider with synthetic pear flavouring. Traditional perry is actually pretty much impossible to produce commercially as the trees are difficult to harvest and the juice difficult to ferment. The pears are inedible and crops erratic. In any case the trees are too big to spray. So why bother with it?
Perry is part of our heritage. It was most likely introduced to the Gloucestershire-Herefordshire border by either the Romans or Normans. Local conditions suited the trees; rain and sunshine, and deep soils. Its long history means that there are estimated to be over 100 varieties in Gloucestershire, with many more synonyms rich in local meaning. Thus Yellow Huffcap is also Black Huffcap, Chandos Huffcap, Green Huffcap, Kings Arms and Yellow Longland. Other varieties are Mumblehead, Merrylegs, Lumberskull, Drunkers and Devildrink, Pint, Ducksbarn, Green Horse, Holmer and Nailer.
The trees are beautiful. We have planted Thorn, Butt, Brandy and Parsonage in our orchard and they are all very healthy looking trees, even given recent wet summers. No disease and good strong growth; Parsonage is the biggest variety we have, which will grow to the size of a reasonable sized oak. Even if you completely disregarded the fruit, they are worth growing for their blossom alone, which is early and fantastically plentiful.
It’s not just the blossom (great for our bees!) that makes them a really good tree for biodiversity. They are typically much longer lived than apple trees, and – as a rule of thumb – veteran trees will support more species. Traditional apple orchards are themselves great havens of biodiversity, but Jon Ardle quotes a 2004 survey of just 13.3 acres of three traditional perry orchards which recorded an amazing 1,800 species of plants, animals, and fungi.
Lastly, the perry itself. To be honest, I’ve tasted some pretty indifferent perry – but then I’ve tasted some pretty indifferent cider over the years. And I’ve tasted some lovely perry too. The shows are a good place to sample it; I had a lovely drop at the Royal Welsh and there is a Festival of Perry at the Malvern Show, 26-27 September.
We currently sell a perry tree collection and will be selling individual varieties later in the year – do let us know if you might be interested.
Ern’s sheep have grazed our field and orchard forever but he’s found himself short of ewes and long of pasture this year, so it was a good opportunity for us to tentatively diversify by buying some new stock. Sheep are important to us as we need their tidy grazing to keep the grass under control, but they are also increasingly helpful to open up our meadow sward after mowing and before growth restarts in Spring. Wildflowers need help if they’re not to be overwhelmed by grasses.
For this reason Poll Dorsets suggested themselves; the breed is unusual in that they will lamb at any time of year, so if we get our timing right we will have have lambs ready to graze the meadow aftermath from September next year. Not only that but they’re a good looking quality local sheep known for their wool, and bred from the historic Dorset Horn.
Ern currently has 20 odd Mule ewes, so we thought we could add another 5 Poll Dorsets to the flock. First port of call was the Breeder’s Association, which led us to Graham Langford’s Blackdown Flock. We were smitten – and impressed by the economic potential of such immaculately bred sheep.
They’re now helping graze our existing meadow area and a new section of field, which has been chain harrowed and sown with seed we have collected. The plan is to have lambs for next Autumn, ready for market in early 2011 – once we’ve found a good quality ram. We’ll keep some to increase the flock size and, over time, maybe even persuade Ern to get into the pedigree sheep business.