Something’s Rotten in the Garden Centre

Something has been happening in our garden centres. This blog post, I’m afraid, is a bit of a rant.

Recently, I had the most depressing experience. We were out and about, and with seed sowing season upon us, we needed to pick up a few bags of peat free compost for the garden. As it happened, we knew there was a garden centre just up the road – the glossy signage at the roadside bragged of it having won awards, and the car park, on a sunny February Saturday, was crowded.

Garden CentreThe bad omens started at the entrance. ‘No dogs’, said the sign. This was a nuisance because Dave dog was with us, of course. So he would have to wait outside with Hubby while I popped in to pick up the compost. And maybe one or two other bits and bobs. Even better, I had some National Garden vouchers in my wallet, so it was the best sort of shopping, the kind that doesn’t feel like it involves spending ‘real’ money.

The ‘information’ desk at the entrance (‘This is Not a Till’) was a bit odd, but the man in a suit standing behind it was able to confirm that they would indeed accept my vouchers. Oh goodie! I looked around. A few BBQs. A chimnea or three. A garden swing. Nothing really unexpected, and surely the good stuff would be just through there…

The sight that greeted me through the door, instead, was rather startling. A large hangar of a space, it was filled from side to side with tat. Not so much as a houseplant, as far as the eye could see. Instead, nick-nacks piled up on tables like some sort of demented car boot sale. I’ll admit, it took me a few moments to take it all in. A second adjoining cavernous space seemed to be filled with even more of the same. But where on earth were the plants?

Garden centre tat

In the distance I spied a door that seemed to lead outside. Perhaps, this was where I might find what I needed? After weaving through tables piled with clocks, picture frames, porcelain rabbits, and oversized tea sets, I stepped out into the sunshine. Here, finally, I found the plants, set out on staging. I could have danced. And there, against the fence, half-hidden by heaps of discarded wooden pallets, were piles of promising looking plastic sacks. At least I’d be able to pick up the compost I needed, and escape from this very perplexing place.

Compost SacksI couldn’t spot the peat free compost we normally buy, so I walked along the row looking to see what they had instead. It dawned on me, slowly, that the answer was ‘nothing’. Not a single bag of peat-free compost. I walked back along the row, slightly disbelieving, and checked all the labels carefully. But apart from the topsoil, wood chip, and the farmyard manure, all the potting mixes contained old-school peat.

Now, I’m not a peat free zealot. I understand that some gardeners, familiar and comfortable with its properties, find it hard to give it up. A bit like fossil fuels and global warming, it can be hard to link the bag of compost in your shed to the destruction of rare and fragile wetland habitat. I’ve made the personal decision to finally make the break, and our new garden will be peat free as far as it possibly can be – but I understand that not everyone is ready or able to make that jump just yet. It is surely a remarkable moral failure, though, to be denying your customers even the possibility of making the right choice.

Rather shocked, I turned around and tried to find the exit. On my way out, I spied the seed racks – the ultimate impulse buy for any keen gardener, and my personal retail kryptonite – hidden so far out of the way that I wasn’t even tempted to browse, let alone buy. A tiny range of cheap plastic propagating trays was piled haphazardly nearby, almost hidden behind a giant selection of multi-coloured welly boots.

I left, gift vouchers resolutely still in my pocket.

What has gone wrong when a garden centre can’t part a keen gardener with a pocket full of gift vouchers from even a penny their cash?  The failure to stock even one peat free multipurpose compost is beyond disappointing – actually I think it’s unconscionable; presumably it result from some bean-counter’s profitability analysis but surely it’s the bean growers’ needs that should matter?

Discussing this with friends on Twitter, I’ve been asked to name and shame, but that’s not my style. And depressingly, I don’t really need to – wherever you live in the country, unless you’re very very lucky, it’s likely your local garden centre, be it a chain or an independent, is somewhere rather like this. Some make a better job of pretending to care about the gardener than others, but a cursory look at the square footage is enough to make clear that the cafe, food court, interior decor, ‘giftware’, crafting supplies, pet shop, outdoor clothing (and indoor clothing for that matter), garden buildings, children’s soft play areas, and fishing tackle are more important than seeds, plants, and essential garden provisions.

This sad state of affairs appears to result from a nasty loophole in planning law which allows horticultural businesses – which real plantsman (and woman) nurseries absolutely are, but these garden centres are not – to be developed on agricultural land where permission would never be given for an out of town shopping centre. It’s the worst of both worlds, then – over-development of inappropriate sites, and the horticultural purpose, sadly, long forgotten. Instead, we get this rambling, low-rent, mixed-retail mess. And a mess which, to add insult to injury, now often fails even to fulfil its original purpose, of offering plants and horticultural supplies for gardeners.

So what are we to do? Well, you could do as we did, and visit the good guys.

Nursery PolytunnelIndependent local plant nurseries are the gardener’s friend and still hang on in most places despite competition from the big boys of the garden centre and DIY warehouse worlds. They probably don’t sell BBQs  – they may not have a cafe – but what they know, and excel in, is plants, and the knowledge and gear that you need to grow them successfully.

Fresh from our disappointing experience at the garden centre, we went along to Bodmin Plant and Herb Nursery. We immediately found the compost we needed, along with a very nice selection of pots, right outside the entrance. In the small inside space (into which Dave dog was welcomed), a good selection of seeds, seed potatoes, pea and bean seeds sold loose by weight, little bunches of snowdrops ‘in the green’ ready for transplanting, and a good selection of tools, along with tree ties, rabbit guards, and so on. Second-hand module trays, too, saved from landfill and a bargain addition to our potting bench. And not a nasty nick-nack in sight.

Plant selectionOutside, even in very early spring, a great range of fruit trees and bushes, and a really good selection of shrubs and bedding plants. I can’t wait to go back in a month or two when I expect a riot of colour and fresh growth. The staff don’t wear suits; they were helpful, knowledgeable and clearly cared about the quality of their plants and the needs of their customers.

I went home with my peat free compost, and a couple of other little bits that caught my eye (yes, there might have been a seed packet of two…) and left a nice bundle of gift vouchers behind me. In fact, the only slight cause of sadness was the relative emptiness of the car park, with only a handful of vehicles parked when we arrived.

Honourable mention also goes to Burncoose Nurseries near Redruth, which we visited last week on the way back from an outing to the Lizard. A great ‘pure’ plant nursery with a fabulous selection of specimen plants and shrubs, where I finally found the Tasmanian Snow Gum I’ve been looking for for about a decade. Don’t expect to find tools or supplies here, but for plant selection it’s one of the best I’ve seen.

So, even if you’re not ready to go peat free, why not reject the tat-merchants and DIY barns and make it your resolution to go garden-centre free this growing season, and instead, give your support – and your hard-earned cash –  to your local independent nurseries?

[The photos used in this post are Creative Commons licensed images sourced from Flickr (see image pages for details) – they are for illustrative purposes and do not represent the products, nurseries or garden centres discussed in this blog post.]

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New Year, New Home – our plans for the garden

Crikey, we’re half way through January 2015 already – how did that happen?? It seems like only last week we arrived here, but it’s been over six months now since we moved, in the height of summer.

The house

It’s going to be an exciting year for us, and hopefully plenty of opportunities to showcase new skills and techniques here on the blog, too! Those of you who read here regularly will know that we were forced by the HS2 rail project to move from our lovely little cottage near Banbury. We decided to bite the bullet and make a big move – the move to the South West that Hubby and I had always told ourselves we would make ‘one day’, when the right opportunity arose. I have to say I’d always suspected the ‘right time’ might well have ended up being be 20 or 30 years from now, when we were thinking about retirement, so while it was a scary move, and stretches us financially, I’m delighted that we find ourselves here in Cornwall now, while we’re still young (well, relatively, hah!) and fit and able to work and build a life here and contribute to our local community. Even if it means we’re skint working-age folk rather than comparatively well-off retirees!

After an initial 6 months doing temporary contract work to keep our heads above water, I’ve started a new, permanent job for the new year, closer to home and with saner hours (occasional days off!) which will hopefully allow me to draw breath from time to time and spend a little more time making, doing and writing too!

So, as today is one such day, I thought I’d share a little about the projects we have coming up here at our beautiful new home in the course of the next year.

In the garden –

We’re amazingly lucky to have five acres of land with our new home, and in due course we hope to slowly build it up into a productive smallholding. For the time being we’re renting the pasture land to our neighbours for their sheep to graze, while we concentrate our time, effort, and resources around the house and gardens.

Dave dog on the paddock

Yes – gardens. I never thought I’d have gardens in the plural (well, if you ignore a scrap of front driveway!) but we have two, three if you count the old sheep fold where we’ve planted the orchard trees that we dug up and brought with us from our last home.

South gardenTo the south of the house, sloping away gently, we have a triangular garden with Cornish hedges on both sides which is going to be our ‘pretty’ garden. It has gorgeous views over Bodmin Moor and will be perfect for relaxing in on summer evenings if we ever get any time to rest!

The fish pondHubby has dug a pond here for our fish, who are settling in nicely, but otherwise this patch of land is likely to have to take a back seat for a while while we concentrate on more productive projects! With a bit of time and attention (ten years or so should do it!) I have high hopes for it being an even more beautiful place to be.

To the west side, we have an almost square, level garden with the house to one side and Cornish hedges to the other three sides, which essentially makes it a walled garden and the most protected growing space we have. This is an important factor as we’re nearly 900ft up on the edge of Bodmin Moor, and the winter weather and winds here can be a bit ferocious!

First raised bedsThis is going to be our kitchen garden, and as you can see the work has already started, the hens are settling in nicely, and the first three raised beds are planted with winter veggies.

We’re going to build a shed and a small seedling greenhouse here and add some more growing space as we go along. The soil is quite stony as we’re on granite and slate bedrock, but seems good and fertile so with a bit of luck and lots of patience and stone picking this should make for a lovely productive working garden. As long as we can keep the rabbits & mice at bay…

We plan to build a polytunnel outside the gardens to the side of the pasture paddock, to allow us to grow more tender plants like chillies, tomatoes, peppers and maybe even melons, and take even greater advantage of Cornwall’s lovely mild climate (well, by and large – it’s blummin’ chilly today!) and long growing season. The hens might even enjoy hanging out there in future winters, in the dry and out of the wind.

The hens nicely settledThe hens are doing OK now, after a disaster back in November when a stoat broke into the run and slaughtered three of the five girls we’d brought with us from Banbury. Of course, it killed my favourite, Midge, and I was completely heartbroken over the whole thing. We managed to find four new pullets to make up the numbers and all of them seem to be getting on really well now.

We’ve had far less trouble than on any previous hen introductions so we’re obviously getting the hang of this process. The new girls all have their own characters and temperaments and seem very chilled out around Dave dog, which is lovely.

There’s so much to do, but it’s so exciting! I’ve got some chillies in the heated window sill propagator (and rapidly realising I need a much bigger one!) and the first have germinated during the past few days. It won’t be long before every window sill in the house is full to bursting with seedlings – at least they’re nice thick walls, over two feet of solid granite for the most part, so I have plenty of ledge space.

Green shoots!

We missed out completely on last year’s growing season, which was torture. So even though we really should probably be focusing our time and efforts in other places, I refuse to let another whole growing year go by the wayside – it’s so very exciting to have seeds in compost again and to be seeing the very first green shoots of what should hopefully be our first great productive Cornish growing season!

Recycled cold frameIt’s a very conscious decision to concentrate our time and expenditure on the productive aspects of the gardens first – after all, the kitchen garden will go some way to feeding us. Landscaping and decorative planting, no matter how attractive, doesn’t help keep the larder stocked or reduce our food bills. We’re very much doing this on a budget, too – our rather lovely pair of cold frames are made from the glass out of the shower cubicle we had to replace when we got here.

Over the next few blog posts I’ll share with you some of our plans for the house – especially the kitchen – and for our outbuildings. Buckle up – it’s going to be a busy year!

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April Showers Bring May Flowers

It’s finally feeling like summer is coming. But a time of year that would normally see me full of excitement and plans for the garden and kitchen is instead leaving me feeling bereft!

It’s not something I’ve been talking about here, but for the last six months, Hubby and I have been negotiating the frequently infuriating, frustrating, and quite honestly heartbreaking process of surrendering our beautiful home to the Department for Transport so that their friends at HS2 can build a high speed railway line through it. In some respects our entire time here –  in this beautiful piece of rural England, in the cottage that we hoped might be our home for the rest of our lives – has been overshadowed by HS2, which was announced six months after we arrived, ironically on the very day that a huge box of bare-rooted saplings – the orchard I had always wanted – arrived in my kitchen.

So, this year, there have been no window sills full of seed trays. No greenhouse full of tomatoes and chillies (no greenhouse at all, any more – it has gone to live with a friend in the village). No cut flower patch. I’ve had to sit on my green fingers, and it’s been the worst kind of torture.

My poor potted orchard!The only thing we’ve done that could be considered to be ‘gardening’ has been the heartbreaking task of digging up my beloved orchard trees – which will otherwise end up under three metres of backfill – and transferring them into pots, and which felt like nothing more than an act of vandalism.

Of course, just to make me feel worse, everything has decided to blossom this year, most of them for the first time ever! I’m assuming this year’s fruit harvest is a write off, but hopefully my precious trees will survive the abuse, and go on to thrive in their new home.

In six weeks time (fates willing!) we – with the hens, and the trees, and Dave dog – should be just starting to find our feet in our new home in Cornwall. We decided to take the plunge, and make the move we’ve been talking about for years as ‘some day’, to make an opportunity out of what could so easily be a small personal tragedy.

Elderflower buds, just breakingFor now, though, the elder is starting to burst into flower, and yet another highlight of my culinary year is about to pass me by. I could cry!

While there will almost certainly be no elderflower champagne for me this year, there’s no reason you should miss out!

Zested citrus & elderflowersElderflower ‘champagne’ was a great favourite of my grandmother’s, and a few years ago, just after we moved to the cottage, I decided to explore it for myself. It’s been my gateway to a great adventure with all sorts of home-brewing, and is still one of my favourites. It’s so simple, everyone should give it a go!

However, there are two little ‘gotchas’ that I’ve come across with elderflower champagne. Firstly, this live-bottled brew can over-pressurise and create ‘bottle bombs’. Not something that has happened to me personally, thank goodness, but this is mostly because I absolutely insist on using only plastic soft-drinks bottles for this feisty little number. Secondly, if you make this brew with whole flowerheads (and I usually do – it’s a lot of hard work otherwise!), rather than hand-stripping the flowers first, it has a very short shelf life.

Ready to drink!While it’s still actively fermenting in the bottle, all is well, but after three or four weeks, as the brew is ‘fermented out’ and starts to drop clear in the bottle, the flavour begins to turn bitter. Insidiously at first, but pretty soon it will be undrinkably unpleasant. So don’t try to lay this stuff down – enjoy it at its fresh best, start drinking just as soon as you like, once the bottles have pressurised, and enjoy the batch as the sweetness diminishes (and the potency increases!) over the next couple of weeks.

Elderflower cordial, steepingElderflower cordial is another great favourite, and my larder will be the poorer for not getting a batch laid in this year. Again, home-made is the simplest of things. There are no gotchas here, and since I found out about using a little campden powder (wine-makers sulphite), I’m quite happy to lay it down in wine bottles in a cool dark place, where it keeps perfectly for at least a year. If you’d rather not use sulphites, then make a small batch and keep it in the fridge, or freeze a larger quantity using well washed plastic milk bottles or tetra-packs that have held fruit juice.

Diluted with sparkling water, with a handful of ice, it’s a wonderful refreshing drink on a hot day, and a taste of summer in the depths of winter. And the leftover citrus fruit makes a wonderful elderflower-infused marmalade, too!

Last year I made a small experimental batch of elderflower and lemon gin, and some elderflower vinegar. I can report that both of these were excellent – though the lemon gin would have benefited from having the rind removed after a couple of days, leaving just the elderflower to infuse for longer, as the citrus overwhelms the floral character a little.

The elderflower vinegar has amazed me (and the very small number of people I’ve shared it with!). It captures absolutely all of the beautiful sweet scent of the fresh elderflowers, without sugariness, and makes a quite remarkable simple floral vinaigrette! It’s so good that I may just try to make some this year, even if I can’t manage anything else with the house move imminent!

While I’m on the subject of flower vinegars, I absolutely must mention (and heartily recommend to you!) chive flower vinegar, since chive flower season is here or just around the corner. This is remarkable stuff – for a start, just look at the colour!

Chive flower vinegar

The flavour is great – all the fresh onioniness of chives, but without the ‘hot’ character that often comes from raw alliums. It is the simplest thing to make – even a jam jar quantity with a dozen or so chive flowers will be worth your effort – and keeps at least a year in a cool dark place (do beware light – the colour will degrade very quickly even if it’s not in direct sunlight!).

So there you go – May flowers; the figurative ones are hopefully just around the corner, and as for the real ones, they not just for looking at, but for eating too! So enjoy them! And while you do, spare a little thought for us poor up-rooted souls..?

More of this to come!This wonderful little cottage has been so good to us – we have learned so much from being here, and this blog undoubtedly owes its existence to our having made it our home. It’s going to be a real wrench to leave (and heartbreaking to think about what will happen to this little patch of heaven soon) but hopefully, for us, it’s a step on the way to another, bigger adventure!

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Getting In A Pickle – gorgeous spiced plum chutney

Accidents in the kitchen always seem to happen when everything’s just at that critical point… and any cook worth their salt, when scalded by a volcanic eruption of boiling sugar and vinegar, is likely to think ‘never mind my arm, have to save the chutney!’

So it was Thursday evening.  The chutney is fine, incidentally, thank you for asking!

Red plumsAs well as bringing some beautiful French apricots back from their holidays, my lovely in-laws also arrived with a couple of kilos of fabulous red plums.  This put me in a real quandary, let me tell you.  Plum jam is one of my favourite things in the whole world.  But then this spiced plum chutney (originally Delia’s, credit where credit’s due!) is my very very favourite chutney.  It has a lovely fruity character topped with just a subtle hint of Christmas spices, and is wonderful with a lovely sharp mature cheddar, or a slice of home-cooked ham.

What eventually made my mind up was my jam jar situation.  I’ve done a lot of preserving in the last few weeks – it is that time of year after all! – and the jars I have left are a motley bunch.  Quite a lot of them have held things like sauces, curry pastes, and even pickles and chutneys.  The sorts of aromas that ‘hang around’ jars and lids, despite your best cleaning and sterilisation efforts.  It’s not really the flavour sensation you want with your breakfast jam!

This chutney is full of big flavours, and will swamp any faint ‘eau de korma’ residue it might have to deal with!

My well thumbed 'bible'The recipe is somewhat modified from the one in my very well thumbed copy of the Delia Smith ‘Complete Cookery Course’, reprinted from the 1982 edition.  Conveniently, it’s also available at ‘Delia Online’, here.  I’m not going to duplicate the recipe, since it’s freely available for you to read, but I changed the quantities and slightly modified some of the ingredients to suit my 2kg batch of plums, and what I had in the cupboard.

This is a BIG batch of chutney, producing 9 jars about 1lb in size, and a further eight small kilner-type jars, plus a bit extra which wasn’t quite a full pound jar.  I estimate in total it makes about 12lb, or 6kg.  It needs a very big pan – my large stock pot was over half filled, before reducing, and has a capacity of about 15l.  Unless you’re planning on eating an awful lot of chutney, giving lots of it away, or selling it (I think it would go really well at a farmer’s market!) I’d probably suggest scaling these quantities down to half or even a third (Delia’s original quantities are for 1.3kg of plums, which is still a very big batch).

I used the following –

  • 2kg of dark red / purple plums.  The tart / acid ‘cooking’ sort are probably better than sweet eating plums for this recipe.
  • Four smallish Bramley apples, totalling about 800g in weight.
  • 5 large-ish onions
  • 5 cloves of garlic
  • 3 teaspoons of ground ginger
  • 750g of seedless raisins
  • 750g each of soft brown and demerera sugar
  • 3 pints of malt vinegar (excuse the switch to imperial measures – this is about 1.7 litres, malt vinegar comes in pint-bottles in these parts, so it’s a measure of convenience).
  • 3 desert spoons of salt
  • a large cinnamon stick, 15g of whole allspice berries, and 20g of mixed peppercorns (the mix was about 1/3rd allspice berries, oddly), and a tablespoon of whole cloves, all tied up in a muslin parcel.
  • A giant stock-pot, food processor, and enough jam jars to contain your chutney (lots, and lots, of jam jars!), which should have plastic-lined lids to help resist the vinegar.

Whole spices with muslin

First wash, then stone and quarter all your plums. I find the quickest way to do this is to first slice along the line of the plum, down the visible ‘seam’, and divide the plum in two. The stone will cling to one of the halves, and especially with the smaller firm-textured cooking plums, won’t want to come out easily.

Stoning plums - 1   Stoning plums - 2   Stoning plums - 3

Take this half, and slice in half again, across the sort axis of the stone this time. The stone will now be sticking conveniently out of one of your quarters, and can easily be pushed free.  Cut your other half into quarters, too, and you’re done.  Incidentally, stoning plums can stain your fingers and fingernails a rather attractive nicotine brown colour, I think as a result of the tannins, so if you care about this, consider wearing gloves!

Chopped apple in food processorThe recipe calls for minced onion and apple.  I put mine through my food processor in batches, but left some nice texture in both.  The first time I made this recipe I didn’t have a decent food processor and diced all the apples and onions very finely by hand.  It works, but I can’t say I can recommend it!

Mixed ingredients in panAfter your fresh ingredient preparation, it’s very simple really.   Add all the other fresh, dry, and liquid ingredients, and toss in your spice bundle (Delia recommends tying your bundle of spices to the pan handle, but I really can’t see any benefit to this!).  Bring everything to a simmer, stirring to mix as it all comes up to temperature.  Your kitchen will smell rather like Christmas-gone-wrong about now – festive spices mixed inexplicably with onion and vinegar.

Cooking away nicelyThen let it bubble, stirring occasionally, for about three hours (my mixture was about six inches deep in my very big stock pot – a wider pan, or a smaller batch, which would allow the mix to sit in a shallower layer will reduce noticeably faster) until the mixture is reduced, glutinous, and the vinegar mixture has thickened so that it doesn’t immediately flow back into a channel cleared with a spoon.  I had to ladle out a couple of spoon-fulls into a bowl to check this.

As it starts to reach this stage, it will tend to ‘glob’ with really big bubbles, particularly when stirred, so learn from my experience and take care to protect your hands and arms from scalding!  This is the point that it’s at risk of sticking and burning, too, so keep stirring when you think you’re getting close.  Once it’s ready, fish out the spice bag, and bottle straight away into your hot sterilised jars.

Bottled chutney

It will be at it’s best if you allow it to mature for at least three months before eating – just in time for Christmas, then! – though I had some of the ‘extra’ today with some bread and cheese, and it’s already very good!  It will keep very well, too – I’ve eaten this chutney after at least four years’ storage.

Now, I wonder if I can get hold of some more plums to make some jam, too …

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This Is My Jam – French apricot with kirsch

We had a visit from my in-laws this week, on their way back from holidaying in France.  It’s always lovely to see them, but this time was particularly special – they brought with them 2kg each of beautiful French apricots and plums.  So today, my day off, was always going to be about preserving!

I wanted to make some really nice authentic French apricot jam, so this is as simple as it comes – apricots, sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice… and just a little ‘twist’!

For this jam, you will require –Fresh French apricots

  • 2kg of French apricots (well, OK, anyone’s apricots will do, I suppose!) not too ripe.
  • 2kg of golden caster sugar (as a general rule, I prefer to use the least-refined sugar that I can get away with in any given situation)
  • 3 slightly sorry-looking lemons from the fruit bowl (the sorry state is not compulsory, and two nice big fresh juicy lemons will do well here!)
  • Half a pint of water
  • A couple of tablespoon measures of kirsch (or other eau-de-vie of your preference)
  • Generous sized preserving pan, not aluminium
  • Enough jam jars to contain your batch.  I always wash and sterilise more than I think I’ll need, as it doesn’t do to run out at bottling time!

IngredientsObviously you can scale the quantities to suit your apricot supply – they’re very nice convenient multiples!  I find 2kg of fruit is a good useful batch size, easily manageable with the equipment I’ve got, and makes enough jam to generously repay the investment in time and effort.

Apricot halvesWash your apricots, then halve them and remove the stones.  Don’t throw the stones away just yet!  Put all your half apricots into your pan, and add the half pint of water, and bring this to a gentle simmer.  Stew the apricots very gently until they’re just soft, and the juice has run.

Apricot kernelsWhile your apricots are stewing, take your nutcracker (if you have one) and gently crack about a dozen of the reserved apricot stones.  Inside you’ll find the kernels – they look like little almonds, and this is no coincidence, as almonds and apricots are closely related, so closely in fact that you shouldn’t grow apricot and almond trees nearby one another!  You can add these to the jars of jam at bottling time (about one per jar), which will infuse a lovely subtle bitter-almond flavour into your jam – this is completely optional, of course, if you can’t be bothered with the faff (or can’t lay your hands on a nutcracker!).

Gently stewed apricotsPut your clean jam jars and lids into a cold oven and set it to 150C.  Now add the sugar and heat gently until it’s all dissolved – you might find adding it in portions is easier and results in less trauma to the apricot pieces.

At a rolling boilNow turn up the heat and boil the jam until it reaches a set.  This didn’t seem to take very long at all for me (though I have to admit to being distracted by sorting and cleaning out the *next* batch of jars at this point) and the natural pectin in the apricots seemed to be adequate.

Cold saucerI tested the set using the cold-saucer technique (I often forget to freeze the saucer, so this is my usual approach – placing a saucer on top of a freezer block, the sort you’d use to keep a chill bag cool).  I’m not after a firm set for this jam so I was satisfied as soon as I got a bit of a wrinkle on top of the sample.   Once it looks like you’re getting there, juice the lemons and stir the juice into the jam.  Get the first batch of jars out of the oven ready to go.  Finally add the kirsch and stir in briskly.

Bubbles at bottling timeNow start bottling your jam immediately, using a large-aperture funnel if you have one.  If you’re doing this right, you’ll be able to see bubbles rising in your jam as it hits the hot glass of the jam jar.

In the jar with the apricot kernelsFill a small number of jars at a time (2 or 3), don’t forget to add a kernel or two to each jar before adding a wax disk (if you like).  Secure the lids down tightly, before getting the next few jars out of the oven.

I was pleased with the yield of this batch, five good big jars with about a half litre capacity, five little mini-kilner-alikes (it would have been six, but one developed an alarming crack during sterilising!), and a cruet-worth for my breakfast over the next few days.

Finished batch

It’s gorgeous jam, too, with the subtle note of the kirsch just evident against the lovely deep rich apricot.  The balance of sweet and acid is very pleasing.  The set seems to have come out as I wanted – not a firm set, but not runny either, just like a traditional French apricot jam should be!

Now all I want is a crusty baguette, some unsalted butter, and an excuse to really tuck in!

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Sinfully Simple Cider – yes, you really can brew this at home!

Home-brew has a bit of a mixed reputation, it’s fair to say!  This is my method for making great, simple, real cider (hard cider, for those of you West of the Atlantic!) with almost no investment in special equipment.  Sounds too good to be true? Follow these instructions, and in just a few weeks time you can be drinking great cider (at least as good as most commercial bottled ciders you can buy!) that you’ve made yourself, and all for only a few pence more than the cost of cheap retail apple juice.  I just wish I’d known how to do this when I was a student – it would have saved me a fortune and quite possibly made me rather popular, too!

Chilled and ready to drink!

Last autumn, I made real ‘Real Cider’ from fresh apples.  I promised then I’d post quicker and simpler instructions for a short-cut brew.  Well, rather belatedly, here they are!

First a brief note on the law – I have no idea if home brewing is legal in your country or jurisdiction, or what restrictions might apply.  If you’re restricted (by age, local religious observance, or otherwise!) from buying, possessing or consuming alcohol, it’s very likely local law enforcement may take an interest in you brewing it yourself, so please take appropriate advice!  In the UK, I believe home brewing is legal for personal consumption, however sale and distilling are tightly restricted.  

The minimum set of ingredients and equipment you require are –

  • The necessary parts5 litres of ‘pure apple juice’ (the clear, cheap, from concentrate variety from your local discount supermarket is fine, but it should contain no additives or preservatives)
  • Half a mug of very strong tea (use two tea bags – plain ones unless you fancy an unusual experimental flavour sensation!)
  • Wine yeast (this is widely available online or from your local friendly home-brew shop, and is cheapest in small pots rather than individual sachets – you could use bakers yeast as an emergency substitute, but it’s prone to producing strange flavours!)
  • A glass demijohn, or an empty 5l mineral water bottle
  • Home-brew steriliser (you could use Milton fluid as an alternative)

In another couple of weeks, you’ll also need to have gathered together –

  • A length of syphon tubing (between 1m and 1.5m or 4ft to 6ft in length)
  • Bottles, sufficient to contain your cider.  These must be able to take pressure.  Empty plastic screw-top fizzy drinks bottles are great for a first effort, and free.  The plastic will be somewhat gas permeable, so the cider won’t keep terribly well in them, but I doubt you’ll be laying down your first brew long-term!  Beer or champagne bottles are fine, but require special capping tools and equipment.  Please note that SCREW TOP GLASS WINE BOTTLES ARE COMPLETELY UNSUITABLE and are very likely to result in dangerously explosive bottles.
  • A few teaspoons each of sugar, and of a non-fermentable sweetener such as ‘Splenda’.

You might also like to add the following, which are not essential but will make the process simpler or more reliable –

  • A drilled rubber bung (or grommet) & bubbler airlock, to fit your bottle or demijohn.  If you don’t have these, you’ll need enough cotton wool to firmly plug the neck of your fermenter. [How to set up and use a bubbler airlock]
  • Yeast nutrient (This contains all the trace elements and minerals required for healthy yeast growth.  Apple juice is already pretty good for these, however, so it shouldn’t be necessary.)
  • A kitchen funnel
  • Bottle brush
  • Hydrometer [How to use a hydrometer]
  • Racking cane and tap or bottler attachment for your syphon tubing.
  • Capping device and / or appropriate caps, gaskets, stoppers and closures, if you prefer to use recycled beer or champagne bottles.

If you’re lucky enough still to have a local home-brew shop, now is the time to go and make friends!  You’ll get tons of helpful advice and guidance, and while the item costs are likely to be higher than from web retailers, you save on postage which can be a big consideration with small purchases.  There are also lots of home-brew suppliers on the Internet, of course.  I tend to use http://www.the-home-brew-shop.co.uk/ for most of my home-brew purchases, Amazon and eBay are also full of useful retailers for odd bits and bobs.  Freecycle is the best source I can find for old-fashioned glass demijohns, and people are often giving away bottles, buckets, and other unwanted brewing items, it’s well worth posting a ‘wanted’ notice, these have served me very well for supplies in the past.

A quick totting up suggests you can get all you need for less than a tenner, and nearly everything except the apple juice is re-usable over and over (or at least, in the case of yeast and steriliser, for a good few batches!).

The process is really very straightforward, and divides neatly into four –

  1. Fermentation
  2. Bottling
  3. Secondary fermentation, and
  4. Drinking!

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Stage 1 – Fermentation

First, wash out your demijohn very carefully, and sterilise it following the instructions on your steriliser solution.  Second hand glass demijohns have often been abandonned in a slightly grubby state and will need a little TLC to get back into a usable state (a cranked bottle brush will be helpful if so).  Pay close attention to the instructions that come with your steriliser solution, particularly where it comes to strength, contact time, and rinsing, since lack of attention to sterilisation and rinsing are responsible for most home-brew failures.  While you’re at it, sterilise anything else you’re going to be using – including the bung, bubbler airlock, and a funnel if you think you’ll need it.  Don’t neglect cleanliness, it’s critical to the success of any home-brewing enterprise.  Sometimes I think home-brewing is really just washing up with benefits!

Now I just need my finite improbability generator!Pour four litres of the apple juice carefully into your demijohn.  There will be some bubbly froth on top, this is fine (the juice will be nicely oxygenated).   The demijohn will not be full – this is intentional!  Add your half mug of very strong luke-warm tea, which provides some tannin for the cider, as apple juice intended for drinking will generally be quite poor in tannin.

Apple juice in the demijohn

Add a teaspoon of yeast, and one of yeast nutrient if you have it to hand, and fit the bung and airlock or stopper the bottle with your cotton wool, tightly enough to stop bugs getting in.

Can you see the family resemblance?Now put your demijohn somewhere safe at room temperature (18 – 21 degrees is ideal, warmer temperatures such you’d have in an airing cupboard will certainly speed the process up, but are likely to be too warm and can produce ‘off’ flavours) and wait for the magic.  If you’re lucky, this should start within as little as six hours or so, though this depends on how active your yeasty beasties are, and the prevailing temperature.  While you could put it in a dark cupboard, I think you’ll want to keep it out somewhere where you can see it!

Yeast added and bung & airlock fittedThe first thing you’re likely to notice is the pellets of yeast starting to float around in the juice. Within 24 hours, there will probably be bubbles coming through the airlock.  You can see the meniscus of the airlock water is pushed around in the photo on the left.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel compelled to stand around and watch it go ‘glug’.  The apple juice will become more and more cloudy, ending up rather a murky muddy brown colour, and will form a thick layer of frothy foam on top, which may also include some visible yeasty ‘crud’ – this is why we’ve under-filled the demijohn for now, you don’t want the froth trying to force its way out of the airlock!

Froth and yeast crud on the surface of fermenting ciderIf you’re using an airlock, timing the bubbles as they escape is a great way of gauging how fast your cider is fermenting.  The rate of fermentation will speed up as the yeast population multiplies, and then will start to fall again as the sugars in the mix get used up.  At peak activity, you can expect a bubble every two seconds or possibly even slightly faster.  For me this usually happens about a week after fermentation starts, though it depends on temperature, the sugar content of your apple juice, and how viable your yeast was in the first place.  You will notice a layer of yeast forming on the bottom of the demijohn, too, which is quite normal.

If you’re not using an airlock then you’ll have to rely more on appearances to judge when peak fermentation has passed.  As things start to slow down a little, you’ll notice the frothy crud on the surface reducing and being replaced by a layer of much ‘cleaner’ looking bubbles, and the contents of the demijohn will appear to be ‘fizzing’.

'Cleaner' bubbles on the surface, after topping-upOnce this has happened (and the rate of bubbles through your airlock has reduced to one every four or five seconds) carefully remove the stopper, without contaminating it, and top up with the rest of your apple juice, to half an inch or so below where the shoulder of the demijohn meets the neck, before re-stoppering.  You’re adding a nice dollop of extra sugar, so expect the fermentation to speed up again for a bit, but hopefully it shouldn’t foam the way it did to start with.

Apart from providing a useful gauge of fermentation rate, the airlock serves another important purpose – it allows the waste gas from fermentation out, so that the demijohn doesn’t pressurise (which would be extremely hazardous!), but prevents exchange with the oxygen in the atmosphere.  This keeps the cider bathed in carbon dioxide, which prevents oxidation of your cider – oxidation leads to spoilage, and even allows the accidental creation of cider vinegar if appropriate microorganisms are present.

Why, then, have I suggested you could go ahead without one?  Carbon dioxide, conveniently, is heavier than air, so while the cider is actively fermenting, it will form a protective blanket over the cider and should prevent oxidation.  The key detail here is ‘actively fermenting’.  With an airlock fitted, there’s no rush to do anything once fermentation finishes, as the blanket of carbon dioxide is retained in the demijohn.  This gives the option of a longer period ‘resting’ in the demijohn, either for convenience or maturation, once fermentation is finished.   The cotton wool plug will keep bugs out (at least it will if it’s fitted properly!), but won’t stop the progressive exchange of gasses from the atmosphere once there’s no active CO2 production forcing the air out, so accurate identification of the end of fermentation and rapid bottling at this stage is particularly important.

Fermented outNow you just need to wait for it to finish fermenting.  The rate of bubbles (and fizzing in the cider) should slow down progressively, and eventually stop.  When it does, there should be no visible bubbles rising in the demijohn, no layer of bubbles on the surface, and no activity in the airlock.  The cider will start to ‘drop clear’, that’s to say the yeast in suspension will settle to the bottom and the liquid will be clear again – and look surprisingly like it did in the very beginning. From topping up to dropping clear, in a 4.5 to 5 litre volume, tends to take about a fortnight to three weeks. Be patient here and don’t rush it, but also don’t leave things too long if you’re using a cotton wool plug (if you’re ‘under lock’, you can ignore it for as long as you like – I’ve left cider at this stage for several months before bottling with no ill-effect).  If the end of fermentation coincides with a particularly chilly day, maybe give it a day or two to see if it re-starts when things warm up a little again.

The only cast-iron way of knowing whether your cider has finished fermenting fully (or is ‘fermented out’ in the jargon of brewing, that’s to say, fermented until there are no fermentable sugars left) is with a hydrometer.  In any case hydrometers are really cool-looking, delicate pieces of laboratory glassware and it’s almost worth buying one just because they’re so neat!  Rarely, fermentation can stop before this point, a situation known as a ‘stuck fermentation’ leaving sugars behind that could let fermentation re-start in an unpredictable way in the bottle.  The risk here is that you could accidentally create ‘bottle bombs’ which pressurise excessively during storage and risk exploding (please don’t dismiss the potential hazard of flying shards of glass shrapnel!).  For this same reason, do not under any circumstances be tempted to bottle early in an attempt to achieve a sweeter cider – the only safe approach is to ferment out to get a completely dry cider, and then correct this ‘issue’ (if, that is, a bone-dry cider isn’t to your taste!) later on in the process.

Your finishing gravity, if using a hydrometer, should be near enough 1.000, and be stable for at least 24 hours.  It goes without saying that the hydrometer and jar, like everything you allow into contact with your cider, must be carefully sterilised and rinsed before every use!  For extra brewing-geek credit, if you also take the starting gravity of the apple juice before you start fermenting it, you can work out the alcohol content of your final brew.  There are calculators on various websites to help you with the maths!  To be quite honest, I tend not to bother with the  hydrometer when I’m making this cider – so it’s a bit of ‘do as I say and not as I do’!

When you’re confident your cider has fermented out fully, and it’s dropped clear in the demijohn, it’s time to bottle.

Stage 2 – Bottling

Sterilise all your bottles and caps following the directions with your steriliser, and rinse very carefully.  Also sterilise and rinse your syphon tube and any associated nick-nacks (racking cane, tap / bottling stick etc).  Place your demijohn on the table or kitchen work top, and your bottles on the floor below them.

Into each of the bottles, you want to have added a small amount of sugar, this is to allow secondary fermentation in the bottle – but just a small controlled amount.  This process is known as ‘priming’.  This will produce a little carbon dioxide – in a pressurised container this time – and make your cider sparkling, which is how most people like it!  You can also add some non-fermentable sweetener if you want your cider slightly sweeter.  I favour ‘Splenda’, which seems to lack the bitter back-taste you get with some artificial sweeteners.   If you’re going to use something else check carefully that it really *is* non-ferementable.

I add one teaspoon of sugar per litre of cider (half a teaspoon in a pint bottle, about 3/4rs of a teaspoon in a 750ml).  These should be safe quantities and shouldn’t create any bottle bombs, while providing a nice sparkle.  Do not be tempted to exceed them!  I enjoy quite a dry cider, so I add a matching amount of Splenda – you can adjust this to your taste, though, so experiment.  Put the sugar and sweetener, if using, into your bottles before you start to syphon, since adding it afterwards tends to make everything fizz over (it’s somewhat reminiscent of the Mentos-in-cola trick, but a bit less dramatic!).  If you’d rather avoid artificial sweeteners but don’t enjoy a dry cider, you can top up your cider with a splash of apple juice in the glass at serving time.

Ready for bottlingIf you can secure the use of a glamorous assistant, they will come in very handy for bottling, since you can leave them in control of the top bit of the syphon tube.  [How to syphon your home-brew.]  If you have a racking cane, siphoning can be a one-handed job, as the ‘u-bend’ attachment should stop the yeast sediment being drawn into the syphon.  Without one you’ll need some way of keeping the tube out of the bottom of the demijohn.  In the absence of an assistant, you can rig something up with string and tie the syphon tube to the neck of the demijohn at an appropriate depth.  A spare pair of hands is more reliable, though!

Racking cane in the demijohnYou may well be wondering why the faff with a syphon tube when you could just pour the cider into the bottles with a funnel.  There are two reasons, really – the first is to reduce the amount of yeast sediment disturbed, which in turn will reduce the amount of sediment in your bottles, and in your finished drink.  The second is our old friend oxidation – correctly performed, siphoning minimises the contact between the air and your precious cider.

Filling bottles using a bottling stickSo, carefully syphon your cider into your bottles, leaving about a 1″ space at the top.  A ‘bottling stick’ or a tap in your syphon tube makes controlling the flow a lot easier.  You want to fill the bottles with the end of your syphon tube right at the bottom of your bottle, so that it stays under the fluid level and minimises exposure of the cider to the air.  There’s a bit of a knack to syphon-filling bottles, but you’ll get there eventually.  Do put newspaper or something absorbent down on the floor if it’s not easy to clean!  Try to avoid drawing yeast sediment or crud into your bottles from the demijohn as much as you can, but don’t worry too much about it, it’s not a disaster!  Any extra cider that isn’t a full bottle’s worth?  Drink it – it’s your first taste of your brew, and while it’s not ‘finished’ yet, it’s definitely cider, in a flat, old-fashionned-scrumpy kind of way!

Sanitised bottlesAbout my bottles, incidentally – they’re old lucozade-type inner-threaded fizzy drink bottles with rubber-gasket stoppers, which I was given by a lovely chap on Freecycle.  They’re more or less the perfect home-brew bottles as they’ll take some pressure but don’t require capping equipment, and aren’t gas-porous like plastic, so if you’re offered any, snap them up, even if they need a bit of TLC, new stoppers and gaskets remain available from home-brew suppliers.  Obviously, discard any chipped or cracked bottles, since these are at high risk of explosion!

Stage 3 – Secondary fermentation

Filled bottles ready for conditioningNow seal your bottles tightly, up-end them a few times to dissolve the sugars, and then stash them somewhere, upright, for a couple of weeks for the secondary fermentation to complete.  If they’re clear bottles, you can monitor this – the contents will go slightly cloudy, before clearing again, ‘throwing’ a thin layer of yeast on the bottom of the bottle. Once they’re clear, they’re ready to drink (though they will keep for at least a year – I bet you won’t wait that long though!).

Stage 4 – Drinking!

Chill in the fridge door (keeping the bottle upright will minimise disturbance of the yeast sediment) and then open on a suitable occasion to share with good friends – let’s face it, they’ll *have* to be good friends to be willing to be guinea-pigs for sampling your first home-brew experiment!  The bottle should open with a gentle ‘pssssst!’.  Pour your cider gently, but all in one go, leaving as much of the sediment behind as you can.  Don’t worry if you get some yeast in the glass, though, it looks quite traditional and won’t spoil the flavour – and contains lots of lovely B vitamins!

Share and enjoy!

Sit back and enjoy – your care and patience has hopefully been richly rewarded with a perfect crisp cold glass of home-brewed cider.  Get going now, and you’ll be all set when summer finally arrives!

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Foraging Skills – how to get ahead!

I’ve been thinking about foraging recently.  There’s very little quite as special as a lovely – and free! – treat garnered from a hedge.  I’m thinking about a wild mushroom risotto, pots of crab apple jelly, a steaming blackberry crumble or a bubbling demijohn of rosehip wine.  Foraging is really an autumn sport, though, borne from the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, so why am I writing about it now?

The thing that makes a really good forager isn’t being able to spot a laden crab apple tree at three hundred paces  – it’s knowing where that tree is in the first place.  Being a successful forager depends on keeping your eyes open all year round – if you notice things now, and remember them, you’re well on target for a bumper summer and autumn foraging season.

So just now, keep your eyes open for these, and make a mental note –

Hazel catkins in hedge

They’re hazel catkins, and where they’re hanging in profusion from the naked branches of hedges and shrubby trees now, there should be some lovely cob nuts in the autumn – they’ll be much harder to see then, when there are leaves on the tree, and hazels growing in mixed planting aren’t especially distinctive looking.  Watch like a hawk though, come autumn, and pick them slightly green and sweet – because the mice will want them too!

A little note on the legality of foraging – if the item is being grown as a crop, then it’s not foraging, it’s scrumping (or stealing!).  It’s very unlikely that cob nuts or blackberries growing in a field hedge are intended as a food crop, but the nuts and sloes in my garden hedge definitely are!  So if it looks like someone’s caring for a tree or a hedge, it’s in an orchard or garden or looks intentionally planted, tread with care!  That said, there at lots of edible crops grown incidentally on trees planted ornamentally, on streets and in council amenity spaces, particularly in urban areas – foraging doesn’t have to be just a country pursuit! – look out for apples, plums and cherries, too!

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In Fermentation We Trust – apple juice turns into cider

On a lovely bright November weekend, I pressed a load of apples for cider-making.

For the next part of the process, you need to put together the following bits and bobs:

  • Your apple juice (which is already in a fermenting bucket with any luck – you’ll need the lid, if it’s one with a hole for an airlock, so much the better – if so, you’ll also need an airlock)
  • Wine or cider yeast, and yeast nutrient
  • A nice warm location at about 18 – 21 degrees celsius
  • Enough demijohns (plus stoppers and airlocks) to contain the volume of apple juice you’ve collected.  All my demijohns have come from Freecycle, so it’s worth keeping your eyes open.  For recommendations of UK homebewing equipment suppliers, see the suppliers list.
  • A syphon
  • Homebrewing steriliser solution

Now, time to turn your wonderful juice into cider (for any Americans who might be reading, we mean hard cider – the traditional alcoholic sort).  Traditional ‘real cider’ makers would do nothing with it at this stage, and wait for the natural yeasts which you hope are already present on the apples to do their job and get fermenting.  There is an alternative approach which involves using campden (sulphite) tablets to kill off the wild yeasts and then adding some wine or cider yeast of your own, which with any luck should guaranteed a ‘clean’ culture of your chosen yeast strain.  I decided to go a third route, didn’t use any campden, but did add wine yeast and yeast nutrient to give the process a ‘kick-start’ and make sure that an appropriate culture was at least in there with a fighting chance!

Apple juice before fermentation

You should probably take the specific gravity of your apple juice before you start fermenting, as this will tell you something quite important – with a bit of arithmetic (or there are online SG to ABV calculators out there you could avail yourself of) you should be able to work out how alcoholic your cider ends up.  This is relevant both for keeping your driving licence, and for making sure your cider contains enough sugar, and therefore after fermentation, enough alcohol, to keep well.  You’re aiming for a minimum of about 3.5% ABV, real ciders can easily get up to about 8%.

I didn’t test my juice (do as I say not as I do, right?), but it tasted nice and sweet so I think it’s likely my cider is about the 6% mark. Invest in a glass hydrometer (they’re cheap, easy to use with a bit of practice, and ever such pretty bits of old-fashioned looking laboratory glassware), you won’t regret it!

Fermenting by the fireThere is lots of advice that you should ferment your cider under lock.  I didn’t have an airlock capable bucket available so just kept the lid loosely on.  My experience from beer brewing is that the CO2 produced during fermentation will give a good blanket over the brewing liquor, being heavier than air, and oxidation shouldn’t be a problem at this stage as long as you don’t disturb the fermenting juice.  If your bucket does have an airlock, after adding the yeast and nutrient close the lid tightly and set up the airlock.  If it doesn’t, just fit the lid loosely so that the gas produced during fermentation will be able to escape without blowing the lid off!  Put your bucket in a nice warm place and try to avoid peeping.  Mine went by the fire in the living room for the first few days, as we were having a bit of a cold-snap.

Ready for rackingYou’ll be able to tell fermentation has started when you see bubbles through your airlock, or when a nice loose foam starts to form on top of your apple juice (because you’re not peeping, right?).  During fermentation, the dead yeast and quite a bit of the solids from the apple juice will settle out in the bottom of the bucket, and the colour of the juice changes from brown to a yellow-orange.  In general, the cider will not clear completely, but it will be brighter than it was before.

Top fermenting yeastOnce fermentation seems to have stopped (I gave mine a generous month), you’ll have a nice thick layer of debris on the bottom of the bucket with cider above it.  Now it’s time to ‘rack’ the cider into demijohns for bulk conditioning.  When I opened the bucket, I found rather an alarming-looking layer of yeast floating on the surface of the cider.  I can only assume that this was a wild, top-fermenting yeast strain, as it seems to have done nothing awful to the cider so far!

Clean and sterilise your equipment (demijohns, syphon, stoppers & airlocks) carefully this time, following the directions on your steriliser.  Now the cider has fermented you risk accidentally making cider vinegar if acetobacter bacteria were to get in.  It’s also important to avoid introducing oxygen into the cider at this stage – acetobacter need oxygen to make vinegar from alcohol, so even if there’s some contamination they’ll struggle to get going if the cider stays free of air.  Syphon carefully, keeping the outlet of the syphon below the level of the liquid and avoiding introducing bubbles.  Then fit your stoppers and airlocks and put the cider in a cool dark place to mature for a few months before bottling. Keep an occasional eye on your airlocks to make sure they’re not drying out.  I expect to leave mine in the demijohns until spring, and will then bottle into champagne bottles with a bit of priming sugar to make sparkling cider.

Filled demijohnsWe had a couple of pints more cider than fitted in the demijohns, and it would have been inconceivable to waste it – I can report that it is, already at this stage, definitely cider.  It’s a bit rough around the edges with quite a hard tannin that hopefully will mellow a bit with maturation, but has a lovely fresh apple aroma and definitely shows promise!

If you’re going to try it, I would recommend having a bit more of a read about the process before you start.  Some of my favourite books on home-brewing are listed in the library.

And if all that seems a bit complicated and labour-intensive, I’ll give you my directions for the quickest and easiest (and remarkably tasty!) home-brewed cider in the world very soon!

Hard Pressed – making real cider, the old fashioned way

Apple harvestAt the end of October, a lovely holiday in Cornwall yielded an unexpected bonus – three sacks of apples from the orchard where we stayed.  There was only one thing to do – make cider!  Only one problem – I didn’t have a cider press.  We’ve been faffing about building one for the last couple of years, but hadn’t got round to it.  A bit of pleading and cajoling later, and I’d managed to score a brand new apple press for an early Christmas present – what a result!

Ben's Red applesOf course, apples don’t just press themselves.  Real cider making – unlike most of the country skills in this blog – is time consuming (and good exercise!).  Set aside a nice sunny autumn day, and if you can talk some friends into coming around to help, so much the better.

For an idea of how much apple juice you’re likely to produce, we got a yield of just over a gallon per bag of apples – the bags are the sort you buy logs in.  It’s possible that with more practice and different equipment we may have done slightly better, but I doubt there was much waste.

As well as apples – lots of apples, all different sorts if possible – you will require:

  • a cider press – bought or home-built
  • a robust bucket, and a crushing pole (or a proper scratter, but they’re expensive) – we did try a cheap plastic bucket from B&Q but caved the bottom in very quickly, so ended up using a carefully washed old metal wastepaper bin
  • a large bucket for washing apples in – I used a big garden trug – and clean water
  • knife and chopping board
  • sieve / colander and muslin for straining
  • bucket or demijohn for collecting the juice
  • wine yeast and yeast nutrient (optional)

A quick note on sterility, first.  Home-brewers are obsessed with sterilising things.  I am not washing my apples in camden to kill off wild yeasts, my ingredients (the apples) and tools (wooden equipment and press components) will not be sterile.  But do wash everything very carefully in hot soapy water (not the apples, obviously), and rinse them carefully before using.  There is general advice to avoid metal tools and receptacles when cider pressing – we used a metal bin for crushing in the absence of any alternative – it was enamelled and in good condition, and does not appear to have caused any obvious problems, I suspect because the apples and juice were not in contact with it for very long.

Washing applesIf you have time (and let’s face it, if you’re planning for next year, time is on your side!) there are various plans for DIY presses on the internet, or have a look at some old-fashionned presses, they’re quite simple things really.  I was going to build something using a car jack for the pressing mechanism.  My lovely bought press has a 6l capacity which seems about right for domestic production – the bottleneck on our two-man production process was the crushing stage.

Chopping applesStart by washing your apples in the big bucket, you can do this quite a large batch at a time.  Then slice the apples up into quarters or eighths, discarding any obviously bruised or damaged areas.  Transfer these a batch at a time into your crushing bucket.

Crushing pole - end To crush you could use something like a new clean round-section piece of timber, we bodged a crusher together out of a small piece of inch-square timber we had and a plum-wood log, trimmed and stripped of it’s bark and formed into a blunt wedge at the end.  Avoid using anything which has been treated with timber preservative as it will be in intimate contact with your apples.  Make sure the pole is long enough that you can use it in a comfortable standing position above your bucket, or you’ll hurt your back and shoulders.

Crushing applesNow crush your apples to a rough pulp, until they’re making a wet squelching noise when the pole goes down and there’s just some free juice in the mixture.  The aim is to make it easy to extract the best juice yield you can from your precious apple harvest, so do put in the effort here, our first batch was definitely under-crushed and we got much less juice from this than from subsequent ones.

Loading cider pressNow load up your press.  Mine has a mashing bag to retain most of the solids within the press, some will use muslin cheeses or other approaches.  Once the press is loaded, apply pressure slowly, building it up over a few minutes, rather than trying to get the press as tight as possible straight away.

Cider press in useCollect your juice into a bucket through a  muslin to take more of the solids out.  It’s ok to taste some juice at this stage (and it should taste absolutely awesome!).  It will look… well, dirty brown coloured, probably.  This is a result of being hardly-filtered, and the tannins in the apple juice reacting with oxygen.  Don’t worry about this.  The leftover apple pulp (‘pommace’) can be fed to livestock, or composted.  My hens loved it, but be careful not to overdo it.  The rest can be composted.

Pressed juiceAt some point you will run out of daylight, apples, or energy.  At this stage you’re done.  Admire the juicy product of your labours.  At the moment you have unprocessed, unfiltered, unpasteurised apple juice.  Smells marvellous, looks decidedly suspect.

Next time, we make the juice into cider – that’s proper, ‘hard cider’ to any Americans reading!

Meddlesome creatures – the return of the bletted medlars

After two and a half week’s bletting in the spare bedroom, about half the medlars looked unchanged, the other half had softened and darkened in colour, with skins that look and felt a bit like nicely ripened passion fruit.

Bletted medlars

I was itching to get on and, in any case, had read in a couple of places that having some un-bletted medlars in the mix would help with setting the jelly, as they are higher in pectins. Brilliant then – time to get going!

Medlars in different stages of blettingFermenting medlarOf course, I had to taste the bletted medlars – I can report they’re a very unattractive mid-brown squishy substance, with a gentle sweet and slightly floral, perfumed flavour.  Not unpleassant but nothing to get really excited about.  One of my medlars had started fermenting, it’s skin was tight with gas and there were bubbles escaping from the calyx (the ‘dog’s bottom’ bit of the fruit).  In the spirit of experimentation (and so you don’t have to!) I did have a little taste of the liquid leaking from this – again not unpleasant, a little more citrussy than the bletted medlar.  I may have to look into medlar wine recipes!  There were also a couple of medlars which were dry and hard and black in the middle.  I threw those ones away.

Bletted medlars on a plateAfter consulting a few different sources (many recommended adding apples to the mix – something I wasn’t keen to do as I really want to see what medlars taste like!) I settled on a very simple recipe – medlars, sugar, and just a squeeze of lemon juice into the stewing water, using my almost-all-purpose fruit jelly recipe.

The liquor that drained from the jelly bag nearly had me giving up in disappointment.  It was distinctly cloudy with a rather insipid pale brown colour, a bit like too-weak milky tea.  A quick taste, and it was quite bland apart from a dominant flavour of tannin – like I’d been boiling up dry leaves and bark for an hour.  It almost went down the sink, but since I wasn’t sure what it was meant to taste like, I decided to persevere.

Medlar jellyThe result is a revelation – dark golden in colour, sweet/acid with a gentle floral top note and a soft tannin base flavour, quite unlike anything else you’ve ever eaten – my husband tried for several minutes to work out what it tasted ‘like’ before giving up on the exercise. The set of my jelly is a bit softer than I would have liked – to my pint and a half of liquor I added a pound of preserving sugar and half a pound of golden caster I had lying around. The jelly had been boiling for well over half an hour at this stage so I suspect the main problem was shortage of pectin from the quite well-bletted medlars.  I don’t think it really matters!