A variety of varieties ...

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How best to describe lichen? Not beautiful, at least not in a conventional sense, certainly not colourful, not exactly hidden but often unnoticed. Perhaps they should be compared to all those people in large organisations who actually get most of the work done but don’t seek or get the credit, in contrast to more visible but less useful colleagues. Unsung heroes.

Advantages …

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Anyway, lichen are useful. For a start, they take care of their own food production so are net contributors to their ecosystems. They give rather than take. It’s always good to have stuff (and people) like that about.

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More significantly, they add nitrogen to ecosystems; many (not all) types of lichen absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere and secrete it into the soil, from where it will benefit the host tree. Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plant life and not many organisms add nitrogen to an ecosystem, but lichen do. They are important in the formation of soils - the acids they secrete help to break down rocks and minerals. They are colonising organisms, meaning they are often the first organisms to live in a new ecosystem. They provide homes for insects, arthropods and other small invertebrates. Some birds use lichen to build their nests and that which is ignored by birds is used by small mammals to furnish their burrows, as it’s absorbent, flexible and soft (so rather like a leading brand of loo paper). And if not used for construction or furnishing, lichens are a source of food for some birds and small mammals.

Not a bad curriculum vitae for something so unobtrusive. And that’s just the natural world. Lichen are used for medicinal purposes in some parts of the world, and also as dyes. Moreover, they are canaries; being intolerant of pollution, their absence or demise is an indication that air quality is poor or declining.



Lichen and traditional orchards

There is lots of evidence that different lichen live on different varieties of fruit trees. For example, one study showed that Laxton’s Fortune attracted, or hosted, more and different types of lichen than Cox’s Orange Pippin. The greater the variety of fruit trees, the greater the variety of lichen; the greater the variety of lichen, the greater the variety of life that depends on, or uses, lichen.

Being cider-makers, we like orchards, to the extent that we may even say that there’s no such thing as a bad orchard. But some orchards are better than others and best of all are traditional orchards with old, gnarled trees and containing a variety of fruit varieties; the antithesis of monoculture. The sort of place where we like to get the fruit we use to make Bushel+Peck … and that has lots of lichen.

And if you’ve read this far, thank you.

English village names

We’ve already touched on the subject of place names in an earlier blog - how Winchcombe gained an “E” but lost its orchards - and England is well known for the fascinating variety of names it attaches to its villages; Pucklechurch, Barton in the Beans, Matching Tye, Steeple Bumpstead, the list goes on and on and on and on. The variety reflects the people and languages that have washed over the land and often talks to the local geography. So, “tun”, Old English for homestead or estate, appears everywhere, often corrupted to “ton”; Brighton, Stockton, Hampton, Southampton, Northampton (“hamm” being Old English for water meadow).

Bad picture of a lovely pup, The Plough in Cold Aston / Aston Blank

Bad picture of a lovely pup, The Plough in Cold Aston / Aston Blank

We deliver cider to a lovely pub in an old village with not one name, but two; Cold Aston (Aston Blank). And by old, we mean old. In Saxon times, it was recorded as Eastunæ between 716-43 and in the Domesday Book as Estone, the influence of the Normans perhaps being felt in the change from East- to Est. From there it’s a short hop to Aston and by the middle of the 13th century is was known as Cold Aston. The derivation of “Cold” is not certain but it almost certainly has nothing to do with local climate; our Celtic-Roman-Saxon-Viking-Norman forebears weren’t daft enough to name their towns and villages over a snap of chilly weather and there’s no indication that Cold Aston is any colder than Turkdean, Notgrove, Naunton or Lower Slaughter that surround it. It’s probably derived from an old Saxon word meaning an old settlement, perhaps referring to a disused Roman camp that was related to the nearby Fosse Way. And in this age of rage and certain opinions, how refreshing to come across a something where the genuine answer is “who knows?”.

For some reason - again, who knows why - Cold Aston became Aston Blank in the 16th Century, the “blank” probably derived from the French or Old French blanc, “ white” or “bare”, referring to the white oolitic limestone of which the Cotswolds are formed, or the acres of open farmland that surround the village (probably the former, as the land would have been more wooded 400 years ago). And then in 1972 it became Cold Aston once again, with Aston Blank relegated to parentheses on the village signs.

Cold Aston, Aston Blank, call it what you will. It’s a typically charming and pretty Cotswold village, with a church, a primary school, sadly no shop, but it does have a lovely pub, The Plough. Eat, sleep, drink (proper cider, preferably, Bushel+Peck better still), enjoy the peace and tranquility of the Cotswolds, and reflect for a moment on all that has gone on before us.

And if you’ve read this far, thank you.

#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!