Rhubarb Gin

Rhubarb gin?! Anyone reading this blog of late will no doubt come to the conclusion that were a bunch of lushes! In reality, we don’t drink a huge amount, but it’s a rather convenient way of preserving produce in a way that’s appreciated when shared 🙂

The rhubarb is on the wane, but our stalwart late season plant is still giving, so we extended its life by slicing down each stalk’s length, and then dicing it. This method means we don’t have to peal all the beautiful red skin off but we expose as much of the flesh as possible to the gin, to aid in the infusion process. The red skin, being intact, will turn the rhubarb gin a lovely pink colour.

As simple as any fruit-based gin drink, it’s a question of matching the weight in fruit to that of sugar added, then topping up with gin. We added about 600g of fruit to the jar, then 600g of white sugar (brown would ruin the delicate pink colour), topped it up, shook it and put it to one side. Every day gets a good shake to help the sugar dissolve, and after about a week of that we’ll pop it in the garage and forget about it for several months, bottling it at Christmas. A fruity gin actually tastes better the year after you’ve made it – we have two large bottles of damson gin the garage from last autumn, which will help relax everyone at Christmas time 🙂 Next year we may have a rhubarb gin left too!

Shropshire Prune Gin

shropshire prunesOkay – everyone else calls it Damson Gin, but we’re calling it Shropshire Prune Gin because for the first year since planting it seven years ago, our Shropshire Prune has finally produced fruit! In fact, we had enough for a large jar of damson gin, so it was a lot less work than the usual foraging.

muscavado sugarslice the damsonsAs per usual, we matched the sugar weight to the fruit weight. We don’t bother de-stoning the fruit – but we do slice each one to expose the flesh. The Shropshire Prune is actually a damson, which in turn is a plum, and the particular variety goes back to 1676 in written records. Damsons themselves go as far back as the Romans, who introduced them to our shores as a way of creating their version of ‘lunch on the go’ for their foot soldiers as they marched their way up and down our countryside.

cheap ginjus de salopOnce you’ve added equal weights of the fruit and sugar, filling the jar, pour over enough gin to cover it all – the sugar will dissolve, leaving a sugary solution filling half of the jar, and the fruit filling the rest. Don’t really, don’t bother using expensive gin – the fruit and sugar will obliterate any subtle flavours it might have, and time will smooth out the harsh edges.

What we have noticed about the Shropshire Prune is that it seems a bit larger than our local hedgerow plums, which is always a good thing. There seems to be more flesh on it, and its flavour, although no sweeter, seems more ‘plummy’ than its larger cousins. To help the plum flavour along we’ve used muscavado sugar rather than plain white – so this is a posh shropshire prune gin with heritage. So posh we’ve given it a tongue-in-cheek french name “Jus de Salop” – Salop being the old name for Shropshire, which makes any French friends chuckle. If you don’t get it – look it up 😉

Cider Plans for the Future!

As I mentioned in my cider plans and thoughts post last Sunday, we have gaps in our tree rows where cherries and plums failed to grow, and we have gaps in our apple varieties when it comes to cider making. I don’t like gaps, they make things look mussed up and untidy.

Cider No.1 – October Pressing

Putting together Cider No.1 this year, our October pressing, it was painfully clear that we are missing early bitter varieties to give a cider that elusive body. We have one, Tremlett’s Bitter, and as its blossom this year was nobbled by a late frost, we had no fall back. To that end, we’ve ordered an Ellis Bitter and a Major, both bittersweet trees, to complement the plethora of cookers and eaters we have, early in the season.

Bear in mind that there are a few thoughts on a good balance between the three main qualities you need from an apple to be used for cider – sugar, acid and tannin.

For cider apples, a 50% bittersweet and 50% bittersharp is a figure bandied around. Others mention 50% sweet, 35% sharp and 15% bitter. Also bear in mind that cookers tend to be acid (sharp), or subacid (weak in acid) if they also make good eaters – like the Peasgood’s Nonsuch, eaters tend to be high in sugars (sweet), and tannins (bitter) are the rarest in that they make your mouth pucker when you eat them, so you tend to need cider apples for that, or some crab apples.

My initial deliberations for the potential apples for Cider No.1, from our orchard, are:

  • Lord Derby – acid
  • Warner’s King – acid
  • Slack ma Girdle – sweet
  • Yellow Ingestrie – sweet
  • Ellison’s Orange – sweet
  • Ellis Bitter – bittersweet
  • Major – bittersweet

Until the Ellis Bitter and Major start producing well, in 5-6 years, we’ll have to rely on the Tremlett’s Bitter, or if that fails, just make the Kentish style cider with only cookers and eaters. With a bit of fizz this may well be a nice light refreshing cider.

Cider No.2 – November Pressing

This month we have quite a few bittersweet and sweet apples, but nothing much in the way of decent acidic apples. We do have the Bramley, but we have so many sweets and bittersweets that we could possible make two different ciders in November, or press quite a lot of one mix. So to add to the acid quota, we’ll plant a Brown’s and another Bramley. The potential list of candidates looks a bit like this:

  • Bramley’s Seedling – acid
  • Browns – sharp (acid)
  • Yarlington Mill – bittersweet
  • Tremlett’s Bitter – bittersweet
  • Dabinett – bittersweet
  • Medaille d’Or – bittersweet
  • Marriage Maker – sweet
  • Barnack’s Orange – sweet
  • Ashmead’s Kernel – sweet

Cider No.3 – December Pressing

I don’t know the reason, but this pressing is my favourite. Maybe it’s something to do with the impending winter, when the gatherer instinct is at its height. Or maybe it’s the satisfaction of having pressed the last of the apples, a sense of closing the year’s last chapter before settling down to cosy up in front of the stove and the winter ahead. I do know it’s great to wake up to a foggy, chilly and damp day, knowing that some manual work will soon get the blood pumping.

To the matter in hand. This month is the month of cookers and the hardiest of eaters, the russets. However, we do lack the pure sweets, and this is where another specialist sweet late season cider apple will be planted – the Dunkerton. The list of potentials looks like this:

  • Newton Wonder – subacid
  • Egremont Russet – sweet acid
  • Rosemary Russet – sweet acid
  • Dunkerton – sweet
  • Vilberie – bittersweet

Whilst we have no pure acid apples, I’m hoping that the combination of subacid Newton Wonders and relatively acidic russets will be enough. I’m terribly excited about this cider because:

  1. it uses our local apple, the Newton Wonder
  2. it uses the Vilberie, which I learned to love when we visited Normandy two years ago
  3. there’s an apple with my name in it!
  4. my rudimentary calculations shows a certain mix of the above apples gives a sweetness/acidic/tannin result near to that which is regarded as the ideal mix for the perfect cider.

Of course, it’ll probably fall on its face, but it’ll be fun trying!

Pendragon Apple – Red Fleshed Fruit

Pendragon Apple

Pendragon Apple

Our Pendragon tree has borne its first Pendragon apple – in fact, four dark red fruit with amazing coloured flesh. The taste is okay – it’s fair to say these are grown for their ornamental looks first and foremost, but they’re not a bad eating apple. Maybe one day we can squeeze some pink apple juice!

I learned to graft with this tree, the scion taken from Nigel Deacon’s tree at Sutton Elms. Nigel was the chap who kindly taught me to graft, and I keep meaning to ask him if he’ll teach me other methods – he’s an absolute whizz with the genetics of trees, and specialises in collecting red flesh varieties and varieties native to Leicestershire.

Hopefully we’ll be using this next year!

Cider Thoughts 2017 & Cider No.1

As the orchard matures, new trees become available and the choice can be overwhelming when it comes to choosing which to press together. Liking to keep things simple, as life can be complicated enough as is, I prefer the idea of pressing apples in batches – those that have ripened and been picked at the same time. This is how we’ve pretty much done it since day 1, and at our scale with one tree of each variety, it makes sense from a logistics point of view; no hassle with multiple single varieties all bubbling away only to be blended down the line when they’re all ready.

So every year I sit down, assess which trees are currently ready for picking and pressing, which category they fall into with respects cider making – sweets (for the sugar content), sharps (for the acid content) and bitters (for the tannin content), and how much we then need to pick from each. As is usual in the early season, we have plenty of sweet dessert apples, and the early cookers, like Queen and Peasgood’s Nonsuch, tend to be subacid, so not particularly acid. The term ‘subacid’ seems to be an old left-over description for the qualities of an apple variety that is neither particularly sweet or particularly tart – a dual-purpose for want of a better word. The Peasgood’s Nonsuch is classed as a cooking apple, but is not a bad eater in my opinion, although you’d be hard pushed to find a lunch box to pack it in to as they can larger than a baby’s head!

We have only one apple tree that falls into the “bitter” category that is ready early, and that’s the cider apple Tremlett’s Bitter – a Bittersweet apple (having both sweet and bitter qualities). However, this year it failed to fruit due to a late frost killing off the blossom, so it looks as though our Cider No.1 will be more along the lines of the South-East England method, using sharps and sweets (cookers and eaters) in a typical 2:1 ratio. It will, in theory, turn out lighter, crisper but with less body than a cider with more tannins, but that’s also something we’ve ended up with over the years from Cider No.1. It does lead me to think we’d be wise planting some other early bitter varieties as a safety measure. More on that later, as we have a few gaps in the orchard to fill, and I’m sure some serious pondering over one or two of last year’s ciders is in order!

Today we’ve picked:

  • 5% Slack ma Girdle (sweet cider)
  • 5% Elton Beauty (sweet dessert)
  • 10% Yellow Ingestrie (sweet dessert)
  • 35% Warner’s King (sharp culinary)
  • 45% Ellison’s Orange (sweet dessert)
Slack ma Girdle

We’ve included this variety purely for the sweetness factor. If we had other earlier cider varieties to complement it, I’d rather it went in there. As it was, it was ready and would otherwise be wasted!

Elton Beauty

Again, another one at the end of its shelf-life on the tree, it’s one of my personal favourite eating apples we have, along with the Ellison’s Orange below. It would have been a shame to lose the sweetness it brings to the cider.

Yellow Ingestrie

A tiny apple that people seem to find too unusual to eat fresh, though they’re actually missing out on something wonderful!

Yellow Ingestrie

Yellow Ingestrie

Once ripened properly, it turns a lovely warm buttery yellow. The shock in eating is the assumption it will be a bit anaemic in flavour and soft – like an over-ripe Golden Delicious. Nothing could be further from the truth – the flesh is fine, not gritty, almost buttery smooth, and it’s firm and sweet. They are the perfect apple for a young child’s lunch box to be honest! However, we had a good crop, so in they go to Cider No.1!

Warner's King

Warner’s King

Warner’s King

Our earliest culinary apple, over half have fallen off the tree – and these things can be huge! It didn’t look like many and I assumed I might have to pad them out with another cooking apple, but as it was they easily filled a third of the truck, leading me to look for another sweet apple to help balance out the ratios!

Ellison's Orange

Ellison’s Orange & Marsh Daisies

Ellison’s Orange

These have been a favourite at Melbourne Deli, our local customer whose customers appreciate the unusual and scarce varieties we grow here. However, they are at their best right now, and we have the Allington Pippin ripening right next to them which is also a great eating apple, so we’ve decided to pick the rest and add them to the cider mix. I’m hoping, as they’re an offspring of Cox’s Orange Pippin, that they’ll bring some of their complex flavours to the cider, although they are juicier than the Cox, in my opinion, so maybe that might come out a bit diluted. We’ll soon see!

A Full Cart

A Full Cart!

Penny the Guard Dog

No one touches Penny’s apples!

We’re leaving them outside to sweat for a couple of weeks before pressing. The press is booked for this coming weekend for plain non-alcoholic juicing, and then the weekend after for cider-making – then everyone’s happy! Even Penny, who might bag the odd apple to chew on.

Mystery Post

Mystery Post

Dismantling a greenhouse over the weekend, I discovered this mystery post. I’m pretty sure I found it in an old hedge round the back of the pig sty – and I have absolutely no idea what it is – so if anyone stumbles across this Mystery Post post and has an idea, please do get in touch!

Mystery PostIn a nutshell – it’s oak, which would suggest something built to last. It’s about 4 feet long, has no signs of ever having been in the ground. The one end – let’s assume the lower half – is square section, about 4.5 inch square and has a squared off base. The top half is shaved on the sides, to make a rough eight-sided length that feels a bit like a handle. The very top is carved into a pyramid shape – pointed – and has two holes drilled through, at right-angles to each other.

Now oak isn’t something that’s shaved easily, and you simply wouldn’t bother doing it for no reason, especially given the age of this. I would imagine it’s 50 years old or so.

First Possibility

My first thought was ‘fencepost’. But then if so, why the shaved edges? And there’s no signs of rotting, which we get in posts at ground level here due to the water table. A corner post would make sense as the two sets of holes could take a bar or rope at right-angles, but then why bother to shave off the edges (they’re not neatly shaved either, so not particularly decorative)? And why the pointy top – the worst shape for the top of a post.

Second Possibility

Another thought, given the flat base and rounded top end, was a tamper for post holes – but again, why the perpendicular holes? One pair of handles might be useful, but two?

Like I said, any ideas, please get in touch! It’s a mystery!

Winter Squash Knife

Yellow Lemon Squash PieCasually chatting to Andy next door about the virtues of Winter Squash, specifically the Tonda Padana we so love here at Merrybower, we happened upon the issue of cutting the tough blighters open – I was yet to find the perfect winter squash knife.

To date I have broken two knives attempting to slice open the green and yellow peril you can see to the left in the background (that’s Suz’s scrummy Lemon Yellow Squash Pie by the way – recipe here). One steel kitchen knife, and another a ceramic knife bought by little sister – gutted! (Me – the squash remained intact).

On hearing the news of the sad demise of two knives, Andy piped up:

“I’ll make you a knife.”

Me: “Eh? A knife for slicing Winter Squash?”

Andy: “Yep. What kind of things does it need to have?”

Me:  “Well – hefty, these things are tough on the outside. But there’s not much give in them, so a narrow blade too.”

Andy: “So a tall blade then? Right-oh.”

Winter Squash KnifeA few weeks later, this beast of a winter squash knife was passed over the garden fence – reclaimed British steel and an oak handle made from a small oak I felled a year ago. What a sight! Well-balanced for someone of my height, a keen edge and perfect grip size – made to measure! All we need now is to grow some Tonda Padana as this year was sparse in the patch due to having no kitchen at the start of the year, and try it out. Can’t wait!

Initial Thoughts on a Grandpa’s Feeder

The video below is our initial thoughts on a Grandpa’s Feeder, from New Zealand, that just moved here using a moving company for this.

Anyone who has ever seen a rat get into their poultry feeder knows that feeling that something must be done. I’m a firm believer in prevention is better than cure, and to that end we invested in galvanised treadle feeders a few years ago. The best thing we ever did (along with galvanised auto drinkers and plastic coops). However, the two feeders made in Britain were great, and still are, but the one we suspect is an import (thinner metal, rusting already and never quite sat straight) has started to allow the chickens to scrape all the pellets from inside. The lid that covers the eating area until the chicken stands on the treadle has always been a bit temperamental, getting jammed every so often for no reason I can see! I suspect the device is so wonky that it slips down its axle gradually and sticks to one side.

Our new Grandpa's Feeder

It will never look this good again

Fed up of this, we decided to invest in a new British-made treadle feeder but alas, the only one we could find has now had a plastic lid and plastic tread plate fitted! Plastic does not last as long as metal – fact. No matter what they do to it, it will always become brittle with exposure to UV light. Also, plastic is simply not rat proof – I can vouch for that personally – and a rat will gnaw through anything it can to get to a stash of food it can smell.

So we ended up buying a large Grandpa’s Feeder, available from www.grandpasfeeders.co.uk. I’d heard of them, and thought “crikey – they’re expensive!”, but with no reasonable option around, and following my other mantra “buy good, buy once”, or something along those lines, I (we – though Suz had no idea it was happening) bought one.

This video is the first impressions video – I’ll add another post and video after a few weeks, when it’s a bit more lived in and our Marsh Daisies have had their wicked way with it.

Merrybower Heritage Orchard fruit can now be bought at our local Melbourne Deli!

What a week! With the fruit in the orchard ripening well in the current weather, Melbourne Deli have decided to stock our apples and pears – wow! It’s fantastic to see seven years of hard work of planting, pruning and feeding, finally coming to fruition (pun well and truly intended).

Melbourne Deli's amazing stock of hand-made and locally grown produce

It’s also extremely gratifying that there are like-minded people who not only want to buy locally grown fruit, but relish the idea of trying some of our country’s older varieties. After all, we planted everything we have in order to be as local as possible, and there are flavours here in Merrybower Heritage Orchard you will never find in a supermarket, or even an old-fashioned outdoor market! We have everything from the apple variety bred purely to make the best apple puree to accompany a Sunday roast pork, to an old 1600’s French variety for making authentic French-style Tart Tatin.

Merrybower Heritage Orchard fruit display - beautiful!

Each piece of fruit is hand-picked on the morning we deliver, checked for bruising and insect damage, washed, dried and lovingly packed into towel-lined wooden boxes or reusable plastic trays. Even the boxes are made here from wood we’ve kept, then sealed with a food-safe hard wax oil.

Shown are some of our early varieties:

Elton Beauty – from 1952, one of our more modern dessert varieties (and one of my personal favourites) which failed commercially as it missed the August markets – its sweet and juicy characteristics only really coming to the fore in September. Having said that, all of our fruit seems to be a week or two early this year, which is lucky for August buyers at the Melbourne Deli!

Worcester Pearmain – a classic popular dessert apple, nothing really to dislike about it. From 1873, it has a slight hint of strawberry in a good year, and also makes a decent stewing apple.

Yellow Ingestrie – the oddball apple from the 1800s, a small yellow variety that develops a distinct pineapple backnote as it ripens. It has Orange and Golden Pippin as parents.

Queen – an extremely handsome culinary apple from 1858 – once a very popular garden apple, especially in its native Essex, but rare to find today. It cooks to a brilliant yellow puree with a sharp and powerful flavour, but is also decent enough for baking.