#RethinkingCider, #RethinkingBread

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When we were asked by bread-makers Haddie & Trilby if we could supply them with some cider to use in some of their bread our initial reaction was one of surprise. And then we saw the bread - it isn’t everyday that one is presented with a loaf of black charcoal, cider and honey bread.

Wine is commonly used as an ingredient, and not just cheap plonk, so why not cider? No reason. In fact, just the opposite: why wouldn’t we want to supply an ingredient to people at the peak of their craft who make their living from it? We’ll find a way to make it happen.

Clearly Haddie & Trilby are taking bread-making into new arenas and that is what the cider industry needs to do if it is to escape its past. Although more cider is drunk in the U.K. than in any other country in the world, more than half of adults in this country don’t drink cider at all. Not a jot, not one bottle all year. There are still too many memories of getting completely plastered on cheap cider as teenagers, which evidently resulted in hangovers so bad they’ve lasted a lifetime. Or of summer holidays rolling around the West Country drinking rough farmhouse scrumpy that is often compared to paint-stripper.

Independent cider-makers have started to #RethinkCider; blends, single varieties, sour cider, hopped cider, Pet. Nat., Méthode Traditionelle, Keeved, tannic, sharp … For ourselves, we make #SimpleCider from unsprayed apples gathered from gardens and traditional orchards in our home county. We make it well, we make it with a concern for the environment and for biodiversity, we make it with care and attention, we don’t cut corners and the result is a range of 2 fine ciders and a perry.

And as a small part of the #RethinkCider movement, we’ll be very pleased to work with bread-makers who #RethinkBread. Whose bread, by the way, is utterly delicious, no matter what colour it is.

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Red Mason bees

Nesting tubes

Nesting tubes

Understandably a lot of attention is directed towards the plight of bumblebees, honeybees and colony collapse; a serious situation requires serious minds to pay serious attention, just one reason why we support the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. But there are other types of bee - there are about 250 species of bee in Great Britain - and they need our help too. One of those is the Red Mason bee (Osmia bicornus).

Father and son team Chris and John Whittles were the guests of the Gloucestershire Orchard Trust at their Annual General Meeting last Saturday and introduced us to their business and the fascinating life of the Red Mason bee. The Trust has been working with Chris about establishing Mason bees in the orchard at Longney.

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Mason bees are gentle, solitary creatures; there is no bossy queen bee, no worker bees or class division, just individual bees going about their business. And unlike honeybees, they don’t sting. In ways that sound familiar, the role of the male Mason bee is to have sex and die, leaving the female to do all the work of gathering nectar and pollen, laying eggs and building a secure chamber with adequate supply of pollen and nectar in which the eggs can complete the metamorphosis from egg to cocoon via larva. In spring, once the temperature reaches 12 degrees C, the next generation of Mason bees emerge from the cocoons.

And here are just some of the fascinating things about Red Mason bees; both generally and in relation to orchards;

The gender of each egg is determined by the female bee. It is not left to chance. Eggs are laid in tubes and the eggs at the back of the tube will be female, eggs at the front will be male.

Mason bees are much better pollinators, quantitatively, than Honeybees or Bumblebees. Honey- and Bumblebees are after nectar, Mason bees are after both pollen and nectar, and so have a higher success rate in fertilising the blossom of fruit trees.

The detailed science and molecular biology behind it isn’t yet understood - almost zero research funding is directed towards Mason bees - but there is growing evidence that Mason bees are better pollinators, qualitatively, than other bees;

  • the shelf life of fruit pollinated by Mason bees may be longer;

  • the size of the crop pollinated by Mason bees may be larger;

  • diseases, such as Bitter Pip in apples, may be eliminated in fruit pollinated by Mason bees.

Chris will be doing more studies on these aspects of Mason bees this autumn but from what was said at yesterday’s meeting it’s a powerful example of what could be achieved in a low intervention / low intensity / no chemicals method of agriculture.

Get involved - it’s really easy

Chris Whittles in the Longney orchard, inspecting nesting tubes

Chris Whittles in the Longney orchard, inspecting nesting tubes

Mason Bees UK https://www.masonbees.co.uk/bee-guardians runs an interesting and no-hassle scheme which enables you to establish Mason bees in your own garden. For a fee of around £50-60 - it can be more, it could be less - you’ll be sent nesting tubes, a cocoon box as well as some cocoons. Each autumn, send the nesting tubes back to Mason Bees UK (all included in the initial price) and they’ll look after the cocoons when they’re dormant during winter. In the spring, they’ll send you the cocoons for you to put in the cocoon box, in time for you to see them emerge when it gets warm enough, and in time for them to pollinate all the flowers in your garden.

The colour of spring

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There is perhaps an assumption that, as cider-makers, we’ll write lyrically about springtime and blossom (assuming, of course, we have the ability to write lyrically about anything at all) and whilst we do get wildly excited about the emergence of buds and blossom on our fruit trees, my true love lies with the majestic beech tree. There is a week in each spring when the hue of beech trees touches perfection, lime-green that suggests both vigour and innocence, each leaf fringed with minute, delicate hairs; a week earlier it’s too faint and feeble, a week later it’s too dark and mature. This year in Gloucestershire, up on the Cotswolds, that time is now, so that’s where you’ll find me, making excuses to take detours to favourite squadrons of this eye-catching splendour. And I know that the collective noun “squadron” doesn’t do this queen-of-trees any justice whatsoever, so we’ll just enjoy the foliage, concentrate on making cider and leave lyrical invention to those with a true talent for it.

So there you have it. And if you’ve read this far, thank you!

The Woolpack

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One of our favourite itineraries - walk the Laurie Lee trail, followed by lunch at The Woolpack, and then pay one’s respects at Lee’s simple gravestone in the church bang opposite the pub.

The Laurie Lee Wildlife Way is a 5 mile walk through the achingly beautiful Slad Valley, up some heart-pumpingly steep slopes, down some knee-testing descents, over grasslands and through woods - the best of England. Lee’s poetry makes its appearance on 10 posts along the way, so by the time The Woolpack comes into view 2 - 3 hours later, one is invigorated mentally as well as physically and in need of a pint (sometimes there’s Bushel+Peck cider or perry available).

The Woolpack itself is, in some ways, a perfect pub. First and foremost, it retains that key element which all pubs should have - it still feels like a place in which to drink and in which locals do drink. But it also does what pubs now need to do in order to survive and that is provide great food for people passing through. The Woolpack manages to do both brilliantly.

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And when the sun shines and it’s crowded there’s a terrace on which to relax, overlooking the valley. Suggest you visit - it’s GL7 6QA if you use SatNav rather than an old fashioned map and if you use an old fashioned map the Slad Valley is north of Stroud, Gloucestershire.

So there you have it. And thank you if you’ve read this far.

Winchcombe: gained an "e" but lost its orchards

In 1921, Winchcomb (as it was spelled then) must have been a riot of blossom at this time of year, with orchards straddling the main roads into the town and peppering the surrounding countryside.

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Not so now. There remain the relics of just 4 old orchards, one of which is under threat of being submerged beneath 5 Executive Style Homes (not what the Town wants or needs).

Some of this loss was inevitable; the population of Great Britain has increased by 50% since 1921, from 44 to 66 million. More people living longer need more homes in which to live and the majority of the orchards lost around Winchcomb have been lost to new housing. That’s the price of development, of change, of progress. Of course, not all the old fruit trees have been lost. Some legacy trees can still be seen in back gardens; we gather pears from one such (particularly productive) perry pear tree, from a garden in what was land parcel 375, 2.682 acres in size, to the north of the town. But isolated legacy trees have nowhere near the same visual appeal or habitat value as several or many trees gathered together in an orchard.

What’s more striking to an orchardist (which is what we call ourselves when we’re not making cider) is the loss of the orchards to the east of the River Isbourne (the only river in England, we’ve been told, that flows northwards, in that its mouth is north of its source). None of this land has been developed (yet), it’s still all farmland and open countryside and yet all the orchards, bar one, have gone. The nation’s agricultural policies in the 1960s and 1970s saw to that.

It’s this loss that partly inspired us to start making cider in the way that we do, using only unsprayed apples from gardens and traditional orchards in Gloucestershire, our home county. It’s not the easiest or the cheapest way to make cider, but it is helping to save some of the remaining traditional orchards in the county.

Local history

When and how did Winchcombe gain its “e”? Was this a deliberate decision, made by the Town Council, after a public consultation, serious debate and a formal motion, proposed, seconded and approved whilst in session? Or was this a result of a sign-writer adding an “e” by mistake when placing a new sign on the edge of town?

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And when did Duck Street become Vineyard Street, and Chapel lane become Cowl Lane? And why? What happened to the town’s swimming baths, and outdoor affair in a meander of the Beesmore Brook (dangerously close to the sewage tanks)? With England’s propensity to record everything properly the answers, no doubt, can be found within the Town or County archives, if one had the time. We, however, have cider to make and orchards to save.

So there you have it. And if you’ve read this far, thank you.