Cambridge Quoining and Hagloe Crab …

Cambridge Quoining, Cambridge Queening or Cambridge Quinning. Named not after the Fenland town that hosts the finest university in the world but after the hamlet of Cambridge, Gloucestershire.

Cambridge Quoining, Cambridge Queening or Cambridge Quinning. Named not after the Fenland town that hosts the finest university in the world but after the hamlet of Cambridge, Gloucestershire.

We're often asked, by potential customers as well as members of the public, what makes our cider different. Well, aside from the fact that every cider-maker has their own way of doing things and we're the only ones making Bushel+Peck cider, we hope that the way we go about things makes us just a bit different. It's become a bit of a mantra … we only use UNSPRAYED apples from GARDENS and TRADITIONAL ORCHARDS …for good reasons. Many other cider-makers do the same thing, in British Columbia, in Asturias, in Normandy, we hope wherever cider is made. We only use fruit from GLOUCESTERSHIRE, as it's our home county, and of other cider-makers in Gloucestershire, we know of some who are equally committed to the environment to use only UNSPRAYED fruit from TRADITIONAL ORCHARDS: our friend Tim Andrews of Orchard Revival, for instance. Anyhow, we don't necessarily see ourselves as being in competition with our fellow Gloucestershire cider-makers; sure, our products may be for sale in the same shops and we may be trying to get them into the same pubs, but we are - for the most part - helping to keep Gloucestershire's fruit growing traditions alive, however we go about things and whatever our different motivations might be.

That said, when BBC Radio Gloucestershire paid us a visit earlier this week , we were able to show them fruit that had come from Alston, Ashleworth, Chaxhill, Eastington, Longney, Rodley, Tetbury, Upton St. Leonard, Westbury on Severn and Winchcombe. Today we added a load of apples from Uckington, on the outskirts of Cheltenham, to that list. Can't be certain, but we think this makes us unique; our cider is an expression of Gloucestershire in all its geographical diversity, not just a small part of it, in a way no other cider is.

The orchard in Uckington is both interesting and valuable. It's a reference orchard, a “mother orchard”, an orchard that is a repository of most, if not all, of the apple varieties that come from Gloucestershire. Little more than twenty years ago, many of these were on the verge of extinction, reduced in some instances to a single tree. Now, thanks to the herculean efforts of people like Charles Martell and Jim Chapman, a sample of each of these trees is kept in these few heritage orchards, helping to keep alive the unique sequence of DNA that each variety represents, a unique sequence of DNA that has emerged by accident or design, well-suited to the climate, soil and topography of a particular part of Gloucestershire. Who knows what the future holds? One of these varieties may be resistant to an yet-to-be-discovered disease, or be better able to withstand the changes in climate that are coming our way. That's why these orchards and these varieties are valuable.

One of the varieties we picked today was the Longney Russet. We've come across this before, in Longney (strangely enough). It's not one of our favourites; it has a thick skin, it's aroma is unappealing, it isn't particularly juicy and it tastes of nothing in particular. But it grows well and crops abundantly. One day, these qualities, possibly merged with another variety, may be more useful than they seem today.

On a chirpier note, this small orchard provided us with a kaleidoscope of colour and taste that we've never experienced before. Cambridge Quoining, Hagloe Crab, Hunt's Duke of Gloucester, Tewkesbury Baron, Corse Hill, Over Apple, Foxwhelp (yes, Foxwhelp, a Gloucestershire variety first recorded in 1653, notwithstanding Herefordshire’s attempt to claim it for itself!!), Nine of Diamonds, and others. We're almost certain no other cider-maker includes all these varieties in their repertoire.

We will include such fruit, not to be different for the sake of it, but to demonstrate, to gardeners and farmers and land-owners as well as to ourselves, to our customers and to those who drink our ciders, that this diversity of fruit is valuable, has practical use, that they are all still worthwhile. Dabinett and Yarlington Mill may help to make wonderful cider - and we use these apples in abundance, because that is what is available - but our ambition is to make a single variety cider from Cambridge Quoining, because it’s such a good looking apple, it has a robust flavour and it deserves to be recognised and appreciated.

That really would be different.

And thank you for indulging us, if you've read this far, and THANK YOU to Martin Hayes for obtaining access to the Uckington orchard. The not-for-profit Trust Juice apple juice brand will benefit from our use of the apples from this orchard and, in turn, the Gloucestershire Orchard Trust will receive funding from sales of Trust Juice.

If this was a dog …

We have to be just a bit careful when we write what we're about to write. We don't own any of our own orchards and aside from the crop we get from the few trees we have at home - which may make 3 litres of cider, in a good year - every apple we mill and press comes from someone else's apple trees. And we're very fortunate in getting the fruit we do. We visit some lovely parts of Gloucestershire, meet some lovely people and our whole arrangement of “you give us apples, we give you cider (or apple juice)” is based on trust. On the one hand, we trust people when they say the fruit in unsprayed. On the other, they trust that we won't disappear over the horizon, trust that we'll keep track of everyone's fruit properly and weigh it correctly, trust that one day we'll pitch up with the promised cider, trust that the cider will taste good enough to make it all worthwhile. So far, for 4 years, it has all worked very well and we trust that it will in the future and will work hard to make sure it does.

Looks can be deceptive …

Looks can be deceptive …

A “usual” ratio of leaves to apples is 40 to 1, but this week we visited a tree where the ratio appeared to be more like 4 to 1. “Hooray!” one might think, a bundle of readily accessible, easy-to-pick ripe fruit at hand, what’s not to like? And whilst that is part of the story, it’s by no means all of it. A few of the upper-most branches may have been populated with well-formed fruit, but closer inspection revealed a mass of golf ball sized fruit on the lower branches, instead of the cricket balls one could expect. And there was rather more scab on the fruit than one would want to see, from a variety that is known to be scab-resistant.

Our previous blog, “It is what it is”, suggested that there is, or should be, a symmetrical, symbiotic relationship between us and our fruit trees. In return for some care and attention, particularly in their early years (the arboreal equivalent of Sure Start?) fruit trees will provide us with a lifetime of delicious nutrition … as well as the ONLY meaningful ingredient of cider that should really be allowed. But in this instance, we haven’t been keeping our part of the bargain: in the 15 to 20 years of its existence we could see no evidence of this tree having ever been pruned. It needs light and air, it needs some TLC and unless something changes, this tree will soon lose limbs, and scab, canker and disease will invade it. It is already in distress - the mass of puny apples is a sure sign of that - and it will suffer.

We have no idea how long this particular tree has been under the stewardship of the current owner and we attach no blame; knowing how to care for fruit trees isn’t part of the national curriculum (and nor should it be - but we hope he listened to our advice). But it does go to show how important it is, for those who own fruit trees, to know what’s what. So, we applaud those gardeners who know, we salute those who teach, we encourage people to learn … and we’ll join the cause by offering to share our knowledge, in and around Gloucestershire in early 2020, with our own “Look after your fruit tree” workshops (we’ll come up with a snappier title closer to the time). Because, as Martin Hayes, an orchardist with 40 years experience, said, as we surveyed a hedge of golf balls, “If this was a dog you’d call it neglect. If this was a dog, you’d call the RSPCA.”

Looking like a hedge rather than an apple tree …

Looking like a hedge rather than an apple tree …

Fruit trees give so much to the ecosystems in which they live - they are Givers rather than Takers - so it saddens and upsets us when we come across neglect, particularly when the remedy isn’t particularly time-consuming or expensive or difficult.

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

A mass of scabby-looking golf balls …

A mass of scabby-looking golf balls …

It is what it is ...

It’s a feeling we often get when we visit orchards but it’s particularly visceral in the autumn, when we’re harvesting the generous quantities of fruit that Mother Nature delivers. And we know it’s Mother Nature that is responsible because we only use unsprayed fruit, by which we mean trees and fruit that haven’t been inundated with chemical fertilisers or inflicted with any insecticides, pesticides, fungicides, herbicide or any other -cide one can think of. It’s not the boffins at pharmaceutical firms or the high-tech wizardry of modern agricultural equipment that is responsible for what we harvest; it’s nature. And the feeling we’re talking about isn’t sophisticated in any way, it’s very simple; just a sense of wonder. Wonder that the combination of leaf and root and soil and sunshine and rain and wind and chlorophyll delivers several hundredweight** of fruit every year, year in, year out, with little or nothing given by way of help from us. Just wonder … and gratitude.

Perhaps perry pears engender most wonder. In spring, it’s the all-encompassing blossom on these magnificent, stately trees, visible from miles around. In autumn, it’s the sheer volume of fruit. It’s said that an oak tree spends 300 years growing, 300 years resting and 300 years declining gracefully and whilst not of the same antiquity, perry pears are the oak trees of the fruit-growing world; a hundred years growing, a hundred years producing and a hundred years declining gracefully. There are perry pears where we harvest five hundredweight of fruit and leave the same quantity on the tree. That’s half a tonne of fruit, each and every year for at least a hundred years; more than 50 tonnes of fruit in its lifetime. And what have we done? Almost nothing. Someone who came before us planted a seed or a sapling 300 years ago and then nature took its course. We’re grateful to that forebear and we’re grateful to nature (and it may be, of course, that the tree is a gribble, it may be a feral tree, it may have seeded itself, in which case that forebear is in receipt of unearned gratitude).

Our rôle? Almost - but not entirely - nothing. At some stage, 300 years ago, someone looked after that young tree. Someone made sure the sheep or cattle or deer didn’t eat it. Someone cleared the weeds and grass and ensured it wasn’t choked to an early death. Someone, somewhere along the time-line, made sure it wasn’t ploughed into the ground or grubbed up to make way for an homogenous field of wheat (with or without a former Prime Minister running through it). Someone may even have pruned it. It may not be much, and perhaps the equation is a bit lopsided, but that intervention, small and irregular and haphazard though it may have been, was an adequate sufficiency of effort to deliver 300 years of life and 50 tonnes of perry pears. So, thank you forebears.

One plants trees not for oneself but for the next generation. Planting an orchard is a commitment to the land in the way that planting a crop of wheat or cabbage or kale isn’t. It might be a bit of an effort to begin with - planting, guarding, weeding, pruning - but with just a bit of a longer lens the rewards far outweigh the work; reward in fruit, reward in the gratitude of future generations, reward in the emerging sight and sound of birds and bugs and bees and wildflowers. We’re not etymologists and we’re not philosophers, but when gathering fruit from traditional orchards it’s impossible not to notice the plethora of insects, on the fruit, in the trees, down one’s back and in one’s hair (cue, “what hair?” from members of the family). All there, because someone planted an orchard.

It is what it is. It’s a phrase we often use in the autumn, because whatever the crop, bounteous or thin, beautiful or scabby, it is what it is. It’s a phrase that engenders a certain calmness. It’s an acceptance of what nature is offering. It avoids a sense of disappointment … and it isn’t fatalistic. There are reasons why nature serves us what she does - climate, weather, geography, aspect, gradient, luck - but she also responds to what we do … or don’t do. Keep the grass and weeds more or less under control, keep the tree in good shape, let light and air into the canopy and we’ll be rewarded, more often than not, with copious quantities of good-sized, well-formed, healthy fruit. No need for chemical intervention, just a bit of effort and nature will generally take care of the rest. Neglect the orchard and in due course one will be rewarded with smaller, scabbier, cankerous fruit. A mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship? Or a parasitic relationship? It’s up to us. It is what it is.

** Hundredweight

Given that both bushel and peck are old measures of volume (a bushel being equivalent to 8 gallons and there being 4 pecks to a bushel), it’s perhaps appropriate for us to refer to this old imperial measurement. A hundredweight is 112 lbs (pounds, for those not familiar with imperial nomenclature) or 8 stone, there being 14 lbs in a stone. A hundredweight is abbreviated as cwt. Twenty cwt is - or was - one imperial ton, making one ton 2,240 lbs.

Typically, the USA had to do things differently. Over there, a hundredweight is just 100 lbs, so their ton - still made up of 20 cwt - weighs just 2,000 lbs. This cwt is referred to as a “short hundredweight” in the USA and a “cental hundredweight” in the imperial system; the bigger British cwt is called a “long hundredweight” in the US, and is just called a “hundredweight” in the UK (or “imperial hundredweight”, more formally).

So, a hundredweight / long hundredweight is equivalent to 50.8 kgs. That’s two full sacks of apples, the quantity we could get from a good crop on a small tree, that we can handpick easily. We’d hope to gather 2 cwt from a large tree, that might require us to get out a ladder and our panking poles. A very large tree with large apples, perhaps a mature Newton Wonder or Bramley on M25 rootstock, may even yield 3 cwt. And, of course, a 200 year old perry pear will deliver us 4 or 5 cwt, each and every year, which really is a thing of wonder.

And in the unlikely event you've read this far, thank you!

A variety of varieties ...

Lichen 3.jpg

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 …

Lichen 4.jpg

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.

Lichen 1.jpg

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.