Category: Orchards

| Apples, Books, Cider, Orchards, The Apple Orchard

Apple Porn

The simple pleasures of tramping round an orchard.

Autumn is a season of two halves. Both are definitely autumn, but one is summer’s older sibling, looking back fondly, while the other is winter’s harbinger. The change comes almost overnight some time late in October, just before the clocks go back. By this time we’ve all been remarking for several weeks that the nights are drawing in and it’s getting a bit chilly, but then, around the 21st – which is, coincidentally (or not) now celebrated as Apple Day – the season finally shifts its weight to the other foot.

Before the change it’s all about crisp blue skies with a chill at the edge, the leaves turning and sweaters coming out of the wardrobe. After, it’s mud, rain, bare branches and those recently beautiful golds and yellows and browns clogging the drains and flying in your face. In short, Autumn Part One is a time to be outside. Part Two is the bit where you rediscover the joys of open fires, home baking and soup.

Every year, it’s a panicked rush to make sure I enjoy Autumn Part One as much as I can. It’s a very busy time of year with festivals, events and trade shows, and from early September to mid-October I’m invariably living out of suitcase most of the time. So when Thatcher’s Cider invited me down to Somerset for a walk in their orchards – with no other agenda than simply catching up with each other – I jumped at the chance.

Thatcher’s has grown at an incredible rate in the last few years. Many locals still remember when it was a small cider farm, but now it’s a national brand. Thatcher’s Gold is pretty much a mainstream cider now, dismissed by purists but superior to the likes of Magner’s, from which it seems to be soaking up a lot business. It doesn’t appeal to me personally, but there are other ciders within the Thatcher’s range that do, particularly the crisp, satisfying oak aged Vintage. The new special vintage blends of apple varieties, such as Tremletts and Falstaff, are also really interesting.

But for me, the most exciting thing Thatchers has done recently is to create a periodic table of the apples they use.

 

I can’t really post a big enough picture of it here to do it justice, though you should hopefully be able to enlarge it.

Apart from it being ridiculously clear and informative, and fascinating if you’re an apple nerd like me, this is what the whole cider industry needs to be looking at. Good cider is made from apples. Obvious I know, but bad cider is made from cheap, imported apple concentrate of indeterminate origin.

Different apples have different characteristics, just like different grapes or hops. Wine became popular in the UK when people began to discover their favourite grape varieties. Craft beer exploded when people started to learn about different hops. It really doesn’t take a genius to see apple varieties as the key building block for a stable, established premium quality cider market.

Martin Thatcher is genuinely fascinated by apples, after having spent his whole life around them. Walking around the massively expanded cider production facility at Myrtle Farm in the village of Sandford, he points to the house where he was born. “I’ve moved house six times in my life,” he says, “And I think they’re all within about 600 yards of each other.”

Between these houses there are over 500 acres of orchards.

Martin is currently experimenting with the effects of terroir. He’s planting stands of the same apple varieties in different types of soil and monitoring the results, and is convinced the fruit will show significant differences.

You can see where this hunch comes from down in the Exhibition Orchard.

Here there are 458 different cider apple varieties. When the Long Ashton Research Station’s Pomology and Plant Breeding programme was disbanded in 1981, Martin’s father John took cuttings from as many different trees as he could and grafted them onto rootstock in his own orchard. It’s just as well he did: the Long Ashton orchards were bulldozed soon afterwards, and a library of old cider varieties could have been lost for ever.

Walking around the Exhibition Orchard in a brief but wonderful interval of clear blue skies, I’m compelled to take photos like some kind of apple ticker. My cider comrade Bill Bradshaw always says that when he was commissioned for a photography project about apples and cider making, he found he couldn’t stop afterwards. I now see why. He’s a professional photographer. I’m a bloke who can just about work out how to point a smartphone in the right direction. But the apple demands to be captured and recorded. It’s the centre of still-life art. The artists who create Pomonas – the visual guides to apple varieties – obsess over capturing their beauty far more than they need to for simple identification purposes.

 

At various points, Martin stops and points to groups of trees bursting with life and fruit, and to others next to them, small and wizened, like the last kids to get picked when a school games lesson splits into two football teams. “These were planted at the same time, in the same soil, and given exactly the same watering, pruning and spraying regime,” says Martin. “Look at the difference.”

 

If you’re a grower, that’s fascinating. But if you’re a lucky tourist in the orchard at harvest time, you have eyes only for those that have decided this particular soil type, this precise elevation and position,  is just right, and have shown their gratitude in the best way they know.

My new book The Apple Orchard is out now. This week’s BBC Radio 4 Food Programme is about the book, and is broadcast for the first time on Sunday 9th October at 12.32pm.

| Apples, Orchards, The Apple Orchard, Writing

Say hello to The Apple Orchard

Part two of my Year of Writing Dangerously…*

Today my seventh book, The Apple Orchard, hits the shelves (hopefully. Please God let it hit at least some shelves.)

When I wrote World’s Best Cider in 2013 with Bill, that book required the short, sharp, snappy sections typical of the guide book: 60 words on a cider here, 500 words on that cider maker there, 1000 words on the history, and so on. My books are normally long-form narrative, and I found much of my best writing was on the cutting room floor, so to speak, because it didn’t really belong in the cider book.

More importantly, the best stuff – or rather, the stuff that interested me the most at any rate – wasn’t about cider at all, but about apples, the people who grow them, the places they’re grown, and especially the history and mythology around them. Once we finished researching the cider book, I found myself missing orchards, and desperate to find a way to spend more time in them.

 

So I decided to write about apples themselves. Not just cider apples, but eating apples and dessert apples too.

 

I wanted to trace the history of what we believe to be a quintessentially English fruit through both our real and imagined past. Because I quickly  realised that the apple is the the most symbolically laden of any fruit – indeed of any food. Across many different mythologies and religions, in popular culture and phraseology, the apple dominates. And it does so out of all proportion to its actual importance to our diet. Sure, we eat a lot of apples, but if symbolic importance was proportionate to dietary importance, the Beatles would have released their records on the Wheat label, and New York would be affectionately known as The Big Loaf.

 

I lost the whole summer of 2014 to the seemingly simple question of whether the Forbidden Fruit in the Bible was an apple or not. Genesis never specifies what the fruit was, but the Western World has believed it to be an apple since the Middle Ages.

Pieter Paul Rubens’ depiction of Eden and the Forbidden Fruit

And yet when Michelangelo painted the roof of the Sistine Chapel, he clearly depicted it as a fig.

Michelangelo’s Forbidden… er, Fig

This could have been a whole book in itself – I read many on the subject. And they brought me, via the Middle East, South America, The Himalayas, the North Pole, the Happy Isles and the Moon, back round to the birth of modern horticulture.

 

I decided to follow the apple through the course of a year. It has its big showtimes at blossom in May and harvest in October, but as with anything in horticulture and agriculture, apple growing is a year-round activity.

 

I learned how to graft and prune fruit trees. I picked apples in an orchard on the slopes of Glastonbury Tor, beneath which King Arthur sleeps, immortal thanks to the magical apples of Avalon.

 

I also discovered, on my very first orchard visit with Bill, that I’ve developed a very serious allergy to eating apples. Thankfully whatever is causing the problem is left behind in the solid, or ‘pomace,’ when apples are pressed, because I can drink cider, and also, happily I discovered I can drink fresh apple juice. There are 4000 named varieties of apple cultivated in Britain, and a tasting of single variety juices revealed to me the astonishing array of flavours they possess.

 

The book ranges from myth to genetic modification, from wassail to the economics of the modern apple growing industry through meditations on soil. It’s a personal journey though the subject rather than an exhaustive history, but that’s what my new editor at Penguin felt the book needed to be. We cut a lot of stuff out about mythology and history and how this supposedly English fruit was originally born in Kazakhstan, because the book would have been rambling and unfocused and 500 pages long if we’d left it in. But my journey through orchards still gives chance to touch on all these points.

 

I wrote some more about all this stuff in a piece for the Daily Telegraph’s weekend section last week. I’m going to be doing as many events as I can to promote the book though the autumn – another excuse to get back into orchards and near trees. (Now, I have a physical response to entering an orchard. I can feel my heart rate slow, my breathing deepen, my mind settle.)

I’m delighted to be recording an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme about the book next week, which is provisionally slated for broadcast on Sunday 9th October. (More details to follow when confirmed.) And I’m doubly delighted that BBC Radio 4 have also picked up The Apple Orchard as Book of the Week, to be read out every morning w/c 5th December.

I’m nervous about this, my first book that has no link at all to beer or pubs (although cider is made and consumed in the later chapters). I hope that even if you’ve never really thought that much about apples – as I hadn’t until I first entered an orchard with a notebook in my hand – you’ll find this fascinating and diverting. The apple is a complicated, mysterious treasure hiding in plain sight and trying to look boring, and its history shines a different light on the history of humanity, and what we believe in.

 

The photos in this blog were taken by me primarily as aides memoire while I was writing. the book is not illustrated.
* The first of the three books I very stupidly signed up to write simultaneously was The Pub: A Cultural Institution, which was published in mid-August 2016. The third and final book is my journey through the nature of beer – an exploration of hops, barley, yeast and water. I submitted a complete first draft of this to my publisher two weeks ago. This is the one through Unbound, which uses rewards-based crowdfunding to cover publication costs before publishing books in the usual manner. The book is due out in May/June 2017, but subscribers will get their copes as soon as it’s back from the printers, which will probably be a couple of months earlier. Even though the book is fully funded, if you want to get a copy of it before publication as well as other rewards, you can still subscribe here.