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!

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.

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.


Ciders No.3 & No.4 – “Half Cock” & “Cock On”

It’s a bit of a random post, as it was so hectic here grouting tiles and working on the kitchen extension before Christmas hit us, that I totally forgot to write up the last two ciders, or even take any photographs of the pressing day!

In a nutshell, our third cider was meant to be the trusty “Sydney Camm’s Marvel Machine” – a mix of Dabinett, Rosemary Russet and Newton Wonder. When I came to pick the apples from the three trees, the Dabinett was bare! Scratching my head, I can only surmise that in all of the chaos life had thrown at us, that I had seen some on the floor and decided to plop them all into the Tally Ho! cider! Shock! As it was, the resulting third cider was a mix of Rosemary Russet, Newton Wonder, and as many dessert apples as I could scrump from our neighbours (again).

Again, I thought this was the cider I was going to attempt to carbonate naturally, measuring the sugar levels until we’d reached 1.005 and then bottling it, allowing the resulting CO2 given off by the yeast to stay within the cider. But, business again meant the 30 litre tub, sat behind me as I worked, fermented to dryness. No fear – I bottled half of it as a dry still cider – calling it “Half Cock” in tribute to the fact it wasn’t quite what I’d wanted to do. The other half I innoculated with 5g of sugar melted into water as a solution as I bottled it. After a two weeks in the kitchen where the remaining yeast could get going on the sugar, I moved it to the cooler garage. This one is a corker! It’s got a lovely ‘mousse’ as they call it – a fizz with gentler, smaller bubbles than you’d get in can of Coke or Pepsi, and cold it’s really refreshing! I just now wish I’d made all of it this way!

Cock On, Tally Ho!, Half Cock and Pickled GooseThis is the final line up of this year’s ciders – next year we’ll hopefully not have Half Cock or Cock On again, but the Sydney Camm’s will hopefully be fizzy at last!

Globe Artichoke Hearts in Oil

Now in their third year, we can safely say that globe artichokes do well at Merrybower! The first year we had a handful, and last year we steamed some, then the rest went to flower as the kitchen extension meant we had no preparation space to cook! This year we finally have a kitchen where more than one person can stand and prepare food – something invaluable when you grow and prepare an awful lot of your own food, so we attempted to preserve the globe artichoke hearts in oil.

Last year we steamed them, served them on a plate with a knob of butter melted on top so it ran between the leaves. This was the only way I knew how to eat them, it was one of those messy delicacies I remembered from childhood years in Naples, a dish a child couldn’t resist – butter, mess and a gorgeously delicate flavour. We’d pull each leaf off individually by the spiky end, and draw the fleshy bit between clenched teeth, pulling off the tender flesh. Then came the best bit – the revealed globe artichoke hearts sat in a pile of butter!

To the matter in hand – this year we have a bumper crop of lovely artichoke globes and didn’t fancy wasting them, so I decided to make globe artichoke hearts in oil. I lopped off around twenty of them, even some that weren’t as tight as the rest, and sloped up to the house. I then cut off all of the stem, and the spikey leaves, and scooped out the fluffy internal fibres with the handle end of a teaspoon after halving the globe. Some globes were so large I had to quarter them. To test if I’d taken enough off, I’d chew the ocassional piece – I’d never done this before so was going purely on what you see in the jars of artichoke hearts you can buy in the shops.

Note of warning – just like walnuts, the cutting process leaves your hands a striking shade of nicotine brown! Gloves are your friend.

As I prepared each heart, I dropped it into a saucepan of cold water with lemon juice taken from about a third of the lemon – this helps to prevent the hearts going brown before you cook them.

Once all were cut, I rinsed the globe artichoke hearts under a cold tap and lay them out in the bottom of a deep frying pan, covering them with olive oil. I’m going to guess that any oil would do – but flavour is king!

Then I added the rest of the lemon, thinly sliced and sea salt and mixed Italian herbs to taste. You can use anything here in terms of herbs – possibly even nothing would be fine!

Next I covered the frying pan and heated the whole concoction for around 30 minutes on the lowest heat setting – testing them to see if they’re done is the best bit! Once the test pieces had passed muster, I poured the whole concoction into a screw top Mason Jar, any sterIlised jar will do, and allowed them to cool down slowly before plopping the jar into the fridge. I’ve been reliably informed they’ll keep fine in there for a month, unless opened, but I don’t think we’re going to find out!

For the simple recipe – go here!

Cider No.1 – “Pickled Goose”

We have a new cider – Pickled Goose! Cider No.1, as it has been fondly known since pressing it in early October, is a mix of Tremlett’s Bitter, Lord Derby, Ellison’s Orange and Forfar. It fermented reasonably quickly, over the course of four weeks, and is now bottled – ready to drink! I have to admit, I haven’t drunk it in anger yet, and feel the need to drink a bottle of it alongside cider No.2 (Tally Ho) is in order, to compare flavours. Again, as every other time, I’ve missed the chance to bottle it with some reserve sugar still unfermented, so it’s a flat dry cider. It didn’t help that I was away when it finished!

2016 cider 1e Pickled Goose

Pickled Goose cider

The name? Well, we have animals here as you know, but we’ve never used them on a label to date. These two chaps are Barty and Harold, our resident Pilgrim males – who are always acting up, deciding which bit of any unsuspecting human they should sample first. In fairness, Harold has a bit more about him and realises that the humans bring water and corn, so he tends to nip Barty on the back when Barty attempts an attack. During a chat with a friend from abroad, he misheard me and thought I’d mentioned ‘Pickled Goose’, and wrongly assumed it was some sort of thing the English did! Knowing how our two chaps behave, it seemed an appropriate name for a new cider, and there we have it! And before anyone mentions it, yes I know they’re ganders, but it’s just a matter of semantics 🙂

Cider No.2 – “Tally Ho”

Back on the 26th October we pressed our second cider, under the name “Tally Ho”, as this is the year’s random cider (you dive in and never sure whether you’ll come out the other side…).

For the record, we used Harvey, Sanspareil, Ashmeads Kernel, Barnack Orange, Ribston Pippin and Wyken Pippin. We also threw in some randoms donated by Mick at No.1, and a few off the good old Bountiful tree next to the house. Also, much to my chagrin once I’d realised what I’d done, we added a tree full of Dabinett. These were meant to be used in the third cider, mixed with our Newton Wonders and Egremont Russets, but alas this is not to be. I fear it was a bit too early for the Dabinetts, but hey ho, Cider No.2 worked.

2016 Tally Ho Cider

Tally Ho cider

I say worked, the specific gravity began at 1.046, and we had no bubbles whatsoever. So I moved it into the house, into a room which stays around the 16-17 celcius mark, and after a week still nothing. So I took a litre of cider No.1, which was happily bubbling away, and this seemed to get things going, albeit slower than a drunk slug. After a couple of days of slow bubbling, it all stopped again. I left it, thinking it might kick in after a week or so, and after two weeks finally tested the SG to see how bad things were. To my astonishment, it sat at 1.000, meaning the darned thing had fermented to dry without me noticing! I can only assume there’s a leak in the fermentation bin somewhere, but it’s bottled and ready. Again, it’s another 6% cider, and again, I missed the opportunity to bottle it before it had finished, meaning no chance of bubbles in the bottle. Ah well, next year!

Cider No.1 of 2016

2016 cider 1d

With the Ellisons Orange in the truck, it was time to pick the Tremlett’s Bitter

2016 cider 1c

The Forfar are in the foreground, with the Lord Derby in the far left of the truck

Around a week ago we picked the apples for the first cider, which would allow them to sweat for a week outside. This would give the starch time to convert to sugar prior to pressing, and a quick test with iodine tincture proved that they were indeed ready after one week. Typically I would wait for the apples to begin to drop, and I do remember a seasoned cider maker stating that he tended to use one third of the apples from the ground to two thirds from the tree. I think this was partially because he knew they were ripe in general, and also because those on the ground were busy picking up the necessary wild yeasts that would later help with fermentation. I’m not sure of the validity, but I do it anyway, in case!


2016 cider 1b

The 2016 Milling Station!

Today was the day we made our first cider – No.1 of 2016. The specific gravity was 1.046 at the start, 60 pints scratted and pressed into one large plastic fermentation bin. I loan the scratter from our local transtion group, and this time it came with no supports. Luckliy, two spare pallets hanging by, a few nails and a random piece of wood leant themselves to a scratter stand which also aided the back due to its bespoke height! Eat your heart out Heath Robinson!

2016 cider 1a

60 pints of fruit juice waiting to metamorphosize.

The cider was, as almost predicted, a mix of 33% Tremlett’s Bitter (cider), 33% Lord Derby (culinary), 20% Ellison’s Orange (Dessert) and 13% Forfar (Dessert/Culinary). Of course, to mess up the percentages there wasn’t quite enough to fill the fermentation bin, so I ended up adding 5 litres (mixing units now too I see!) of Bountiful, another culinary/dessert. The heaviness towards the culinary/desserts might help explain the relatively low SG, though it’s still within the bondaries of acceptable, for storage. It might just come out tart – we’ll soon see (hopefully)!


First Walnut Harvest

2016 walnut harvestContrary to the doom and gloom of various people telling us we’ll never see a walnut from the tree we planted in the centre of the acre, today I picked 30 nuts from the floor and tree itself in our first walnut harvest! Who’d be daft enough to plant a full-sized walnut, which would take years to fruit and even then be ridiculously tall to harvest! Nope – our mini-walnut (about 30ft full grown) has started giving back the love. Shelling them was easy enough once in the swing of it, and I dried them out for a few hours on a low 100c heat. Rather than trying to preserve them, they’re just foil wrapped in the fridge, where I believe they could keep for a few months if needed. However, as I eat them every morning for breakfast, they won’t see the week out!