There’s a bit of a Cider and Perry revolution going on the West Country. We went to Wilkins cider farm this weekend. Tasted straight from the vat it’s fresh, clean and completely delicious. Unfortunately within a day of bringing it home it oxidises and starts refermenting. It’s not undrinkable but certainly not nearly as good as when freshly drawn. That’s because it’s natural and alive and not a heavily processed product.
It is often the same when you taste bulk wine – it’s full of flavour but if you bottled it unchanged you run risks of the wine having tartrate cristals, being cloudy or even exploding. This made me think about the debate raging (do wine bloggers have the energy to rage?) about “natural” wine. We have all heard about wine not travelling and drunk something great on holiday that is dull and lifeless when you get home – a bit like me. This must be to do with surroundings but also, when somebody knows that their produce whether it’s fruit, vegetables or wine is going to be consumed immediately and locally, they don’t have to pasturise, add sulphur, cold stabilise or use any other preserving method. With city life you are always going to have to accept compromises.
There are now many people including ourselves aspiring to bottling really great cider that has flavours unique to the region where it’s produced. So far, we haven’t used any preservatives but frankly, that’s only because we’ve been lucky – we have cider in barrels that were fermented with wild yeasts but, I don’t dare open them. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one of them was spoiled. That’s the risk you take.
What am I saying? Natural products are about where you consume them. They are always going to be the exception if you live in a city.
At one time virtually every farm in Somerset had its own cider barn where householders would make cider for themselves and their workforce. They were usually partially under ground and had a tree planted right next to them to keep them nice and cool in the summer. This photo was taken at Higher Plot sometime late in the 19th century and shows the barn on the left with its newly planted tree.
Sadly this year the tree didn’t show any signs of life and so will have to come down after more than 100 years. It may re-grow from the roots but if not, we will plant a new one.
A very small number of farms in Somerset still make cider in the traditional way and I went down the road to Beer Aller to help out at Nightingale Farm where they use an old press and crusher to mill local apples. Unlike wine making there’s no sulphur, cold stabilisation or anything like that just the natural yeasts from the apples. As they say, the force of the ferment will be strong enough to get rid of any impurities ( but not in quite such a polite way).
The way to make it is to build what’s called a cheese which is alternate layers of the crushed apples and straw inside a wooden mould. It is quite skilled and hard work which is lubricated with a supply of early season Morgan Sweet cider. It also helps being tall so that you can reach the top of the cheese which could be why they asked me.
Once finished, a heavy wood board is lifted on top and the screw lowered down. The weight of the apples will start the juice flowing and once the pressure is applied it becomes a dark brown torrent. Then all there is left to do is to occasionally turn the screw whilst having a chat and some more cider. We tasted the end of last years cider which locally is called Screech because this is what it makes you want to do. It’s completely dry and acid but is just about OK if mixed with the fresh juice.
The result can be delicious particularly when young and we are trying to pursuade Roger and Linda to do an extra batch for us to bottle. It would mean a cider that has been made for hundreds of years being sold for the first time which I suppose is a way of keeping it alive. I can’t help feeling that if this was being made in France or Italy us Brits would be raving about a traditional product and way of life and how wonderful it is. Because it’s on our doorstep we aren’t interested. Happily there are signs that enough people want to keep this alive simply because it’s unique and, most importantly, it tastes great.