Cider Apple Picking

When we first moved into the village the noise of apples being dropped into buckets was, as much as Robins singing at dusk, one of the defining noises of autumn. Then the cider factory up the road stopped taking local apples and the orchard fell silent. Since when, though, inspired by traditional local cider makers like Hecks and Julian Temperley we have formed a village cider co-op. We now make an invigorating cider we called Bullbeggar, after our local spirit (every proper village in Somerset has a ghost). With Hecks’ help we bottle some for sale locally and in London, and sell the rest in the barrel at local fetes and festivals. The process starts with harvesting the apples, on an afternoon either on or close to the official Apple Day. Ern’s orchard is proper kit – a really nice mix of traditional cider varieties – so interesting to work in. The weather is aways glorious, as is the gossip and the tea. Community, local history, local food, habitat. Fantastic.

Apple Trees and Local Distinctiveness

Kingsley the ram
Kingsley likes Ribston Pippins

It’s September, and we’ve picked our early apples for juicing – despite the sheeps’ close attention. It’s funny to think of the generations of apple pickers there have been in our orchard. It was on the earliest map of the village there is, and we’re just up the road from a late Roman settlement; I can perfectly well imagine the Saxons having the same arguments with their sheep in the same place.

We’ve recently started to value traditional orchards for their ecology; since 1997 they have been Biodiversity Action Plan priority habitats:

Traditional Orchards are hotspots for biodiversity and have been shown to provide a refuge for over 1800 species from the plant, fungi and animal kingdoms.

Orchard Network

We’re also now valuing traditional local fruit varieties to eat (and drink!) of course, partly for environmental reasons and no thanks to the supermarkets, which aren’t set up to deal with localised purchasing. As for their aesthetic beauty, that’s never been in doubt – our Perry Pears are every bit as amazing in flower as any of the cherry blossom I saw in Japan when we lived there. The clincher for me, though, is the local and historic context of these old trees.

The fruite of apples do differ in greatness, forme, colour and taste; some covered with a red skin, others yellowe or green, varying indefinitely according to the soyle and climate; some very great, some little, and many of a middle sort; some are sweet or tastie, or something sower; most be of a middle taste betweene sweete and sower, to which to distinguish I thinke it impossible…
John Gerarde, 1597 (quoted in The Common Ground Book of Orchards)

No wonder; there are supposedly 6,000 varieties of apple in Britain. Like all the other varieties of traditionally grown top fruit here, they are all closely associated with their own areas and the history and social structure of their local communities. Where we are, in Somerset, the landscape is still dotted with mixed farm cider orchards full of local apple trees, many of them named after their villages. Originating within 10 miles of us, according to the Somerset Pomona we have Cadbury, Dunkerton’s Late, Honeystring, Neverblight, Norton Bitters, Pennard Bitter, Pig’s Snout, Porter’s Perfection, Silver Cup, Somerset, Sweet Pethyre, Yarlington Mill… And historical apple trees? You can still buy varieties dating back to Roman times. We sell trees grown from a graft of Isaac Newton’s tree and Hunthouse, the Yorkshire variety that Captain Cook took with him on his travels to fight scurvy.
One of the things I am most happy that we have done is to help Common Ground promote as many of these local varieties as we can and to help Ian Roger sell them. To my enormous pleasure we are now even selling Perry Pears and Mazzards (edible wild cherries) to add to traditional fruit trees like Mulberries, Medlars and Quinces and local varieties of Gages, Plums, Damsons, Pears, and Cherries. Beauty of Stoke, Claygate Pearmain, Cornish Gilliflower, Crawley Beauty, Keswick Codlin – there will be apple trees or other fruit trees which are local to you. If you had the choice – and they were similar prices – would you buy a sofa from Ikea or one designed by a local expert for your house? Even if you’re thinking about just popping a small fruit tree into your back garden don’t just pick up something from B&Q, but find a local variety. Chances are it will do better – and you’ll be contributing to a rich and ancient local heritage.

Apple Day

Apple Picking at Ern's Orchard
Apple Picking at Ern's Orchard

…is always bathed with sunshine in our village, and we always get a good turn-out of pickers. This year we had 30+ at one point or another, including a school of students from Bristol and a pod of investment bankers enjoying a bucolic weekend. The secret life of a village is intriguing. Although the yield on Ern’s cider apple orchard was down this year we must have picked over 2 tonnes of apples before the lure of tea and cakes distracted us. Fingers crossed for the 2009 Bullbeggar which will go for pressing later this week.