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.
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.