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

 

Walnuts in Scotland

walnuts

The nice thing about Catriona’s walnuts is how easy they are to crack open. Christmas childhood walnut memories for me are of battles against wee brown rocks, broken nutcrackers, bruised fingers and mashed nuts I could never pick out of the remains of the shell.

Maybe in Scotland the shells don’t get quite so granitic. Anyway, Catriona’s walnuts break neatly and easily along the centre line and come out whole. Little wrinkled ovals of russety-brown, rustling with the papery bit that divides the cotyledons. Not the biggest walnuts in the world, but they taste fantastic. Any thoughts of making another nut roast (like the Christmas one I made to offset the goose) dissipate because they just go straight in the mouth like sweeties.

The variety is ‘Buccaneer’, and it’s about 10 years old, certainly not much more. It started bearing nuts the year after planting. Contrary to everything I believed about planting walnuts for your grandchildren! We once saw a massive walnut tree in a square in one of the east Sutherland towns – maybe Dornoch – and assumed it was very old. Since then we’ve found quite a few around the country (Scotland, that is) – all thriving, but I doubt many are as prolific as Catriona’s ‘Buccaneer’. There’s another variety called ‘Broadview’ which is said to best for the UK. I wonder?

At a Hogmanay party, we tried Ann’s pickled walnuts. Never realised it is the whole immature fruit (nut and its embryo shell and its thick green seed case) that gets pickled – or that several steepings in brine are needed before the actual pickling. Wow – amazing flavour and texture. Catriona’s walnut tree needs to be raided next year before the nuts start to ripen!

Andrew’s sowing some wild walnut seed, with a view to grafting with ‘Buccaneer’ scions….one day. How long for the straight Walnut tree-lets to germinate and grow? How long for my very own, pickled and unpickled, walnuts?

Saskatoons

We have a selection of specially imported Canadian Saskatoons for sale in 3 or 5 litre pots.
These trees produce a fabulously sweet blue berry in July, and are similar to Blueberries. They differ in that they do not need acid soil and prefer good sunlight and any good loamy soil.
The varieties we have for sale are Smoky, Thiessen, Northline and JB 30. These are all commercially selected for their superior sized and quality fruits from tlocal wild trees in central Canada.
They are very hardy, and reach between 2.5 to 3.5 metres. Pruning involves cutting out a few of the tallest trees in a few years time. They are likely to be productive for 40 years or more. Our specialist guide gives more information.

Appletreeman’s Guide to Growing Saskatoons

Cider Apples

Whiteways Cider factory was about 5 miles from my home in Devon and we used to scrump rather horrible apples from their orchards as kids….probably Langworthy, and Dunkerswell Late among many others. And as a teenager of course I drunk some pretty rough ciders from big round barrels! As there is a great buzz in Scotland surrounding cider making and cider apples this year I thought I’d post a few thoughts on the subject. We have in the past grown Morgan’s Sweet, Tom Putt and Fair Maid of Taunton….and I have really enjoyed browsing through Liz Copas’s ”A Somerset Pomona” over the Xmas break. In this book there are some varieties reminiscent of my childhood climbing and scrumping trees! Cider apples come in different categories according to their taste….so don’t worry about what they look like in the books as it is the cider making qualities that are important here. In a nutshell they are categorised as Sharp, Bittersharp, Bittersweet and Sweet, and may be early mid or late ripening. At our cider sessions last year it was possible to catch these elements in different Scottish apples; getting a mix of these flavours is how to make a good cider.  Going for say a sweet and bittersharp mix would be good. Or you could make different single variety ciders and then blend before drinking. A bittersweet and sharp mix would in my mind do the same. The tannin content (the browning) of an apple is useful and the specific gravity content of the juice is important to cider making, giving you the necessary ingredients for alcohol production! Of equal importance to us here are the productive qualities of cider varieties, as there is no point in planting a cider tree that just isn’t going to produce anything under Scottish conditions; many won’t even ripen properly, and are just too late for our climate.  So, over the following year I will be propagating a small range of specially selected scab resistant, early, and precocious trees, ready for sale in winter 2015. A small amount of scab is acceptable for juicing, but not so much that the trees and production suffer. There are a few examples of cider trees in Scotland that I know of, and most are large and relatively unproductive. Growing central leader trees on a semi-vigorous stock is probably the way forward for us. Don’t be fooled by the unpruned large Herefordshire trees as a system, it would not suit us all here, unless you have a large acreage to play with. Our likely mix of sharps and bittersweets, sweets and bittersharps will be among the following: Langworthy, Porter’s perfection, Stoke Red, White Jersey, Brown’s and Slack Ma Girdle and  others.  Traditionally cider apples are grown as very big trees and they are shaken free of all their fruit. OK if you can wait 5 years for a crop, but most of our customers want to be making juice sooner. So we will be grafting some mm106 semi-dwarfing trees as well as vigorous M25 trees for sale in a year’s time. 79 Watch this space! And best wishes to all you apple tree growers for the new year…. and remember to Wassail your trees on January 17th!

Farm Shops of Scotland

Intensive Apple Orchard at Craigie Farm

Intensive Apple Orchard at Craigie Farm

I love the fact that you can enjoy a cup of good coffee, buy a delicious local artisan oatcake or black pudding, and pick a few fruits for your pudding in one short trip. These are things you cannot do in style in the crowds and hassle of a supermarket.

My most recent trip was to Craigie Farm Shop near Kirkliston, a pyo farm, much of which was open to the public.On a Sunday afternoon it was very busy, but there are lots of seating in and outside the cafe, and I like the idea of the canine cafe! However poor Jed was banned from the fruit growing areas, the impressive polytunnels with table tops groaning with strawberries and pots of raspberries.

After viewing the grunting pigs, and the friendly Shelties, we followed the nature trail along the lines of open grown heavily laden gooseberries, and surprise surprise came upon a fabulous modern orchard. (There’s always an ulterior motive with Appletreeman! )

I have seen this square block of trees developing over the last year from the dual carriageway into Edinburgh, and was determined to check it out. It is as I thought, a very exciting new development in top fruit growing in Scotland. There are about 15 lines of very closely spaced trees, at one meter, on very dwarfing stocks of M9. It all looks very well managed, and very productive with sunset, worcesters, katy etc. all yielding fruit in this rather mixed year.

Very good to see that lines of Italian Alder have been planted as shelter belts also, a necessity for this easterly plot way down the bank, whereas some cherries further up near the cafe seem to be more exposed. Back at the shop we picked up a few punnets of fabulous rasps and gooseberries and set off home very pleased!

The farm is not organic, but allows the public to see into the tunnels so common in Perthshire, with real commercial horticulture in action, weeds and all! We will certainly be back, hopefully at a less busy time to speak to the ‘patron’ and of course for the harvest of apples!

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

Picking apples in the snow

On Thursday we woke to snow, not more than a centimetre, but snow. Frosts and wind over the preceding week had taken the last leaves off fruit trees, leaving roadside late apples looking like pre-Christmassy hung with the green or golden baubles of the later-ripening fruit. The Mysterious Large Apple in our front garden was no exception. For 9 years it has produced a small number of dense green fruit streaked with grey because it is in the shade; it is meant to be Ribston Pipin, but apart from the lateness of the crop (left to their own devices the apples will cling on till January and never get any riper) it bears no resemblance. Hence Mystery. Yet it grows like topsy, the blossom is magnificent and loved by bees.

This year it grew hundreds of apples, and they got to a decent size and some went a slightly golder shade of green – one or two even got rosy flushes. Whether this was due to a warm, sunny summer or the deep freeze of last winter I am not sure, but with snow falling, we decided to pick the lot and store them (they do store very well, possibly for eternity). They all had to be washed and polished free of the grey streaks, and made baskets of pretty green apples which taste just OK but the skins are tough; peeled and cooked, they do the job. Update on taste progression at Christmas.

And now, Sunday, we have 15cm snow and falling fast, thunder and lightning bizarrely, and strange lights in the sky last night, amid a glut of crazy frozen stars.

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….