Tag Archives: cider

Guy’s blog: cider & nuts

We have cabbage plants ready and waiting for a break in the weather, with lettuce due next week. The ground is too wet and with the outlook unsettled we must be patient and be sure to take our chances when they come. Purple sprouting broccoli is finally getting going in volume, but we are still suffering from last summer when the deluge leached out nutrients and stopped the plants growing the large frame that is needed to support a good crop. Even the rye, which we sow as a green manure in the autumn, is half the expected size.

Most of our agricultural crops are highly bred annuals, bred to grow, flower and seed quickly; in a ‘normal’ year they can be extraordinarily productive. However, yield is not everything. As our climate becomes less predictable and energy scarcer, perhaps we should be looking to more resilient crops, reducing the need to plough and create new seed beds each year. When my father took on Riverford in 1951, a good part of the farm was cider orchard, with sheep grazing the pasture underneath; an integrated system of two perennial crops. Each farm had its own press and it was reckoned that cider would pay the rent. 

Walking around the farm, I am struck by how resilient perennial plants are in this dreadful year, especially the natives that are happy in our cool and damp climate. Temperate agriculture is 99% dependent on annual crops (sown and harvested in the same year and not regenerating from roots). In nature, annuals are relatively rare, thriving on disturbed ground where they grow and bear seed quickly before being forced out by perennials, which take their time and prefer more stable conditions. An oak tree may take 20 years to produce acorns but is still producing them 200 years later. The result is that as farmers, we are constantly creating the instability that favours our annual crops; ploughing is costly in energy, CO2 emissions from oxidation of soil organic matter, erosion and loss of biodiversity. I would dearly love to ditch the plough, grow perennials and create stability but we would all have to live on hazelnuts, lamb and rhubarb washed down with cider; it could be worse.

Finally, today is the last day to vote in the Observer’s annual Ethical Awards. If you like what we do, please vote for us in the Retailer of the Year category.

Guy Watson

Pumpkins + cider

This week will see the last of the squash safely in store, apart from a few that we will leave for you to harvest on our pumpkin days this month. A sunny autumn has helped to set hard skins and develop their full flavour. For squash fans we are doing a mixed box with recipes for £7.95 on the extras list. Squash generally store better in a warm dry home than in our barns, with the harder-skinned varieties like Crown Prince often keeping through to spring. I know the hard skins can pose a problem, so this week’s ‘What’s what in the box’ video gives tips on how to get to that wonderfully sweet flesh, without losing a finger in the process.

When my father took on Riverford as a Church tenant in 1951, a quarter of the farm was made up of derelict cider orchard. Local varieties like Butterbox, Golden Bittersweet, Slack Ma Girdle, Whimples Wonder and Spotted Dick were under-grazed by sheep and the occasional pig. He was advised by the neighbouring tenants to keep his orchards; it had seen them through the depression, when they had been able to survive by part-paying their men in cider. By the 70s, the advance of bitter, then lager and wine, plus the import of cheap sweet juice from the continent, had seen the orchards shrink back to odd corners and steep slopes inaccessible to modern machinery. My brothers and I would earn about £10 for collecting a tonne of apples and delivering them to Hills cider works, where the one remaining press in the parish made traditional murky cider of varying quality but reliable strength.

Thanks to the modern rise in cider drinking, which mercifully is not all satisfied by Magners and Strongbow, my boys now spend their October weekends collecting apples. The price has gone up to £70 a tonne. Hills cider works got converted into desirable dwellings and the last cider making Hill emigrated on the proceeds, but Luscombe drinks bought the press, combined it with a modern bottling line and, along with Heron Valley and Sheppy’s, are at the forefront of a new breed of small and medium scale drinks makers using traditional varieties to make more traditional cider. We have replanted a few acres of traditional varieties, but I’m not sure anyone, except perhaps my 14 year old, would accept their wages in cider.

Guy Watson