Tonight’s the Night. For Wassailing.

We wassailed on Saturday at Gowanhill in Stirling, where Transition Stirling have created a community orchard. It was an icy, searing, brilliant, sun-soaked morning, with snow underfoot and the tracks of rabbits, deer, foxes mingling with the human and dog ones. Claire’s  mulled apple juice was zinging, and we all toasted the young trees (which had just been pruned under Andrew’s guidance), and bellowed our wassail to the ancient and productive apple tree, relic of an older orchard, at the centre.

By rights it should have been tonight, but there’s no tradition of wassailing in Scotland and therefore we can bend all the rules and make our own customs. Tonight is Twelfth Night in the “old” calendar, which had Christmas Day on January 6th.

Wassailing (making a lot of noise, singing to a load of fruit trees and drinking a lot of cider at its simplest) is steadily insinuating itself into the calendar of the Scottish winter party which begins on St. Andrew’s Day at the end of November, and continues through yule and the midwinter solstice, Christmas, Hogmanay and New Year’s Day, to stagger to a halt around Burns night – technically January 25th  but tends to stretch to incorporate the weekends before and after it. Aside from the obvious gap in excuses around mid-January, the growth of wassailing is largely thanks to the huge number of new community and private orchards planted in the last decade that are now blessing us with copious harvests.

The thing is, you have to keep wassailing to ensure the harvests continue. Grab a jug of cider and a slice of toast, choose your King Apple (or whatever) Tree in your garden or nearest orchard and get out there!

Wassail! Drink Hail! Sing!

(https://dochub.com/andrewlear/63bBXm/wassailing1  AND  https://dochub.com/andrewlear/8p3NL6/wassailing2  will take you to our favourite wassailing songs. You’re on your own finding the music!

cider

Morning sun gets the cider bubbling

 

Woodhouse Coffee Shop

Hot on the heels of my last coffee blog I continue the theme here after visiting the Woodhouse Coffee shop near Kippen (on appletree business of course!).
Its very accessible from Stirling, and on a roundabout also so easy access to the large car park.
The shop was loaded with interesting goodies including many organic items, the largest pie I have ever seen from the Kippen Butcher section, teas of exotic nature, and a fine selection of interesting beers and ales. Also a few ciders from Cornwall with weird colours, a must try for the future!
Slightly puzzled at the lack of vegetables in a farm shop, though there was a ‘naughty’ sweety section….what nae spuds?
Its fab to sit on a comfy cushion in a cafe, and recycled ones too, and I love all the wooden tables, boxes and baskets etc. Solar panels on the roof also….You get a ‘hello’ as you enter and there were plenty of staff serving on a Monday afternoon.
But best of all was the list of teas you can buy! And I ordered a good latte before I read down the list. Mistake, as a ‘Gunpowder’ would have been just the ticket or a chai! Lunch of Fennel and lemon soup will also wait for my next visit.
On the way out – oops a ‘Grapevine’ pale ale for a pick me up  later tonight….it comes recommended from a local microbrewery. You do know about the old Kippen grapes, the world record holder? No, maybe the owners should put a photo on the wall? You’d be impressed. So cycle out a few miles from Stirling or pop in en route to the west and enjoy a cuppa!Woodhouse Cofee Shop

Hop production in Scotland

Hop Production in Scotland

For the beer making fraternity the subject of hops and the merits of its various clones are of great importance. To gardeners, more bent towards ornamental plants, the growing practicalities of this climber under Scottish conditions are of more interest.

What is it? Humulus lupulus is a climber related to cannabis, and has twining stems and tiny little hooks to enable it to grip onto to any upright object it can find.  It’s surprising how tough these stems are in mid season, I’m sure John Seymour would have recommended basket weaving with them!

It is a perennial, and would normally die back late in the year and send out new sprouts from a permanent root system every spring. It is a plant with purpose in several ways…the young emerging shoots can be eaten like asparagus. Professionally, four shoots are allowed to twine up from the clump of roots on 4 spaced coir strings to over 6 metres, creating a veritable vertical forest of growth by high summer.

 

Hop weed control

Well cultivated ground between rows of Hops.

I have seen an organic hop farm in Kent, where the plants are grown on a little ‘hillock’ and carefully weeded by rotavator between all the plants. The height and width of a hop wiring structure is a truly impressive structure to see!  I have also seen hop farms in Worcestershire, again on very good soil.  Overall though, the acreage is a lot smaller in the UK than even decades ago. A good deep fertile soil is ideal, perhaps the Tay Valley is the place for a Scottish Crop? Wye college in Kent developed some dwarf varieties, so the risk of wind damage might be reduced.

In late June, on the female plants, side shoots develop from the main stems and subsequently these produce the flowers which are so prized ornamentally. You don’t want male plants or you will get seeds which are undesirable!  Later the flowers form the ‘hops’ and all the stems are cut down to be taken indoors for extraction. The oast houses of Kent were once the drying rooms for the hop industry.

The hop damson aphid can be a big menace, and I’ve seen mildew on the leaves on our plant in wet summers.  Apart from that we have few problems and every year our golden-leaved hop scrambles up against a sheltered shed wall and produces little hops for us.

Propagation can be by division of the whole clump of roots, or fertile seeds can be purchased if you want to have a go of growing your own. To get a particular variety of course you would need cuttings or divisions, or layer a shoot across the ground and slightly bury it to encourage rooting. There are some lovely named clones such as White Knight, Fuggles, Goldings;  the RHS Plantfinder lists about 14 different sorts (page 365 ).

 

Hops - golden

The golden leaved hop, Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’.

Seed grown plants can be supplied from plantswithpurpose, so what’s stopping you covering that horrible shed?

Ref: The RHS Plant Finder 2004-5, pub. By Dorling  Kindersley.

Gently Fermenting

I have mentioned before how in autumn my house fills with apples and pears, none of which I am allowed to touch until they have been marched off to apple days, conferences or shows. By which time they get a bit past it, and people start asking where I got the cider-flavour air freshener.

Cider-press

We are getting better at it. The construction of a lean-to back shed with shelves for trays of apples, and the brilliant but hitherto strangely overlooked option of turning off the heating in one room and closing the door, slow down the rot. So we are likely, even in this year of poor productivity, to have a fair few fruit to process in a couple of weeks.

The first option, after eating the ripe ones and storing the most sound of the slightly unripe, will be to juice them. Some apples and pears are quite dry, and juicing shouldn’t be attempted unless you have a real stack of them – let them ripen first. Others are just made for juicing, and a couple of carrier bags full will yield a gallon of pure juice. Mostly, a mixture of varieties is best – and don’t worry about including cooking apples. Once juiced, they are sweet and full of flavour.

The apples must be washed, and any seriously rotten bits cut out. If the fruit is straight off the tree, we think a cursory hose down is plenty of hygiene! We borrow a big electric crusher and throw the apples in whole – if you are using a hand crusher, it’s best to cut them in halves or quarters first. First year we juiced, we used a meat mincer. It worked, but slowly! The crushed fruit is then placed in the press wrapped in coarse sacking-like cloths. As the pressure is applied, juice starts to run freely – don’t forget the bucket to catch it in! It is ready to drink – you add nothing and take nothing away. We bottle the spare in small plastic bottles or old drinks cartons and put it in the freezer. However, you can refine it if you wish. Pure fresh apple juice is usually brown (due to tannin in the apples) and cloudy. Leaving it overnight sometimes clears it completely and you can siphon the clear juice off the sediment. If this doesn’t work, you can try adding the enzyme pectolase, which should clear the pectin that causes haziness. I’ve never known this to work well, and nor does filtering! If you haven’t much freezer room, you can pasteurise the bottles of juice by placing in a vat of cold water, raising the temperature to 70 degrees and keeping it there for 20 minutes.

Left alone, the juice will start to ferment within days. Wild yeasts work on the fruit sugars to turn them to alcohol – cider. Cider made accidentally this way can be superb – or appalling! If we want to ferment our juice we try to be a little more scientific. This means adding Camden tablets to kill off undesirable microbes that would taint it. This also kills the wild yeast, so we have to add some more. We make sure air is excluded completely, first with cotton wool, then an airlock. After a few days, fermentation is dramatic, and calms down after a few weeks. When it’s about stopped, we siphon the cider into lemonade bottles, with a teaspoon of sugar. This sets off a wee secondary fermentation, giving us a sparkling cider when we open the bottles at Christmas!

Our cider is nothing like shop-cider, and probably too dry and sour for some. It’s always unpredictable, because we are using a different mix of apples each time. We’re growing some proper cider apple trees, but for now, we are very happy to experiment and see what it turns out like – it’s all part of the fun of Appletreewidowhood!

© Margaret Lear, Bankfoot. Originally published in Comment, October 2012

Cider for Christmas?

I am not sure if any of the cider will be ready for Christmas. Some of it should be. We racked it off this weekend, but one or two gallons are still fermenting furiously. It is astonishing that although every gallon was made on the same day, in the same conditions, and all with assorted apples, no two jars are alike. They have all been on the same windowsill, but some started late, some finished early, the colours all vary slightly and the taste – as far as we have tested – also varies from very sweet to getting dry. NONE – so far – taste sour or vinegary I’m glad to say!

Morning sun gets the cider bubbling

A slight thaw towards the end of last week – many wild birds are very glad of the food we are all putting out, and now finding more that had been covered by the snow. The blackbirds are especially fond of the apples that are not going to last in storage. Waxwings are about in the oak tree at the top of our road, and spotted woodpeckers have been seen (but not by me). Tremendous icicles formed hanging gardens and broke gutters; now it has turned icy cold again and the partially melted snow has refrozen to a skating rink. I never took to skating.

Hanging Gardens

Cider Day

In between the days of heavy rain and wind and almost-sleet, Sunday was a fine, sunny day; cold, but nice to be out. So we made cider. We hired the electric crusher and big press from the Carse of Gowrie, Stuart brought his hefty home-made press and I had our little mini-press too, which did Catherine’s juicing apples nicely. Apples arrived in wheelbarrows and crates and plastic bags. We congregated under James’s Folly – which is a handy covered ediface erected principally for barbecues and resembling the Alamo – and got to work. Between 11 of us we processed roughly 30 gallons of cider-to-be and a gallon of juice in two and a half hours. Guess where the party’s going to be in a few months!

James did a couple of single variety gallons using his Golden Spire apples. Geoff brought some very pretty little red eaters – possibly Discovery; whereas most of the juice at this stage is an unappetising brown sludge (but delicious), Geoff’s was a lovely pinkish-red sludge – reckon that will be a handsome cider rose. One jar came out alarmingly clear – eerie! Our apples were the usual collection of weird and often unidentified subjects collected by Andrew over the past couple of months that have been gently festering around the house.

After we’d cleaned all the kit, we discovered another bucket of as yet unprocessed apples. And then a hard frost took all the leaves off the local apple trees, and beside roads and in gardens across Perthshire, there are strange Christmas trees of apple, with the late fruits hanging on like green or golden baubles….. More to do yet!

Long slow spring…..

Today heard the first cuckoo, in the woods fringing Glen Garr. Was with HNC Countryside Management atudents and the last time I dragged them for a walk we saw the first swallows down on the Tay Estuary – so I think the class are my lucky spring charms. They do seem to expect

Long time no blog – winter went on and on, nothing much to report and I realise I am about to repeat everything I wrote about last year if I don’t watch out. Will try to be selective….. the apple mountain finally petered out late February, with the blackbirds getting the last of them. Andrew borrowed the Carse of Gowrie cider press and the crucial crusher and made 11 gallons of cider and perry – we are still drinking it and mist of it is truly excellent. We have added to the fruit trees in our garden about 11 apples, 3 or 4 pears including the famous Perthshire Jargonelle, and a couple of plums and a damson. They are all leafing out nicely.

Have made wild garlic pesto and earwigging to Radio 4 and the like tells me the whole world is making stuff with wild garlic these days! It’s much in demand from customers too. Bistort, nettles, ground elder, comfrey and ladies mantle have all been et – both in and out of Dock Puddings, and Solomon’s Seal has produced its delectable shoots. Magnificent!

Have not found any St. George’s mushrooms yet. We found a red Peziza type fungus the other day – Scarlet Elf Cup – which we’d not seen before. Inedible but very pretty. Nearby we found a lizard out basking, which reminds me – on a student trip to the Rhinns of Galloway a morning walk at Portpatrick yielded a BEAUTIFUL adder by the path, fulmars and nesting ravens, and a stoat.

 Well, a new season dawns, and my “pet” early potatoes called Bonnie Dundee (but labelled Claverhouse out of badness) are coming up….

snowed under…

There is a lot of snow. Several inches over the week or two before Christmas, and a couple of massive falls in the past four days. 30cm last night. Temperatures: -11.2 the lowest so far recorded in the garden, -8.5 today. It went up to -4.2 and felt quite warm. Small birds are suffering. I have been feeding them; especially on apples. There are still two crates of random apples in the back porch and birds and possibly small mammals have helped themselves. The apples have frozen and thawed a few times, but seem still usable. Blackbirds love them, and I have had two fieldfares coming to the bird table every day, beautiful, fluffed up creatures looking for fruit and seeds. Sparkly speckly starlings come, too and a wood pigeon joins the collared doves who are resident. James over the road has had a spotted woodpecker.

There is no foraging to be done but we reap the rewards of a year spent squirreling away wild foods. At Christmas we broached the cider – it is sparkling, and not at all bad, but think will be even better in a couple more weeks. Got freshly pressed apple juice out of the freezer, too, and had plenty of rowan jelly for the turkey (yes, succumbed to a turkey even though we have home raised cockerels in the freezer), chutney for the sausage rolls, blaeberries and raspberries for the trifle and more home made wine and sloe gin that we can decently drink. Roasted hazelnuts from the copse, and a late jarring of rose hip syrup to keep up the vitamin C levels. Log foraging has sort of paid off – plenty of fuel for the stove but would be a darned sight more useful had Someone agreed with my desire to build a new log store out the back – wet logs in plastic fertiliser bags that fill with snow are limited in value.

My nursery is covered in snow. I cannot do anything about it and probably will lose a lot of plants in the extreme cold. I am going through the seed catalogues half-heartedly but not counting on an early start to production!

Drowning in Pomes….

It’s not that we haven’t been foraging, just that Andrew KEEPS BRINGING HOME MORE APPLES AND PEARS and I think we are drowning in them, so have scarcely had time to blog. (plus lots work on at college at present).

The worst is, they are all different varieties which he’s trying to identify or photograph or just moon over and there are crates and crates of the b**gers I’m not even allowed to touch, then all of a sudden they are fermenting all over the floor and it’s all a bit mind-boggling really. I am an apple widow.

Anyway that aside I’ve foraged and made these since I last wrote: rowan jelly, rowan berry wine, hazelnuts, elderberries for freezer, brambles, elderberry wine, quince jelly (using japonica quinces) and Andrew has permitted a small selection of the apple bing to be made into cider. It is a disgusting, thick brown soup of a cider at present, emitting a sludgy foam from the top of the demijohn. It is to be regretted that before we made it I had been suffering from a gastric bug (NOT from wild food!), which has affected the way I view the cider jar. Nevertheless, I am sure the end result will be as good as it was last year, and am optimistic His Lord High Appletreeness will eventually permit the remainder of the bing to be thus processed. Maybe even some of the pears.

The biggest problem we have with cidermaking is crushing the apples. We have a lovely little press, but unless the fruit is well mashed you don’t get the juice from it and it is a long, slow process. A 10lb weight into a bucket is OK but broke the bucket; James’s mechanical chip-maker is a start but we really have to get a proper mincer. The off-putting brown colour comes from tannin, and won’t do any harm, some apples just have lots in them. Keswick Codlins made up the large amount of the apples we used, but there were others – James Grieve, Lord Derby, Grenadier, Bramley and “various Laxton type things” (quote). No real cider apples – told A he needs to develop a Scottish cider apple.

The Quince Jelly also benefitted from a dose of Bramley for setting quality – and it is an exquisite jelly. I know Japonica quinces aren’t strictly wild food but they might as well be, as so many people grow the things as ornamental shrubs with never a clue they are cultivating a valuable food source.

Not been much on the fungi front – we have had a few weeks of dry weather and haven’t found anything new or in remarkable quantity or quality for a while. A very interesting mushroom is developing on a log in the garden; yet to be identified. More later!

PS. Sloes about ready to pick….