Monday, 25 May 2009

What more could a girl ask for?

The ideal start to wedded life...

The day after we got married, we (ie: I...) decided that we really needed to get up onto our plot to tidy up a little and carry out some weed maintenance. Due to going away for our honeymoon imminently and the poor wet weather we've been having recently, the plot would be left to it's own devices for longer than I cared for.

I was also very keen to try out our new petrol mower, with the biggest diameter cut I could get my hands on that wasn't a ride-on mower. To be honest, I'd been hanging my nose over ride-on mowers and little tractors for some months - but then I thought about my waistline and my doctors advice regarding exercise, and thought the extra exercise of walking behind a mower would be good for me. Never mind the £700-odd saving we would make on our new wee beastie.

It was good to see everything green, but the nettles had grown at an amazing pace. Gail was let loose with the Ryobi Expand-It with the hedge -trimmer attachment first to trim the Hawthorn hedge, while I got the McCulloch mower off the trailer and fired it up for the first time. The mower has a 3-in-1 feature which means it can be used with a large grass box, as a mulching mower or with the side-eject chute which I chose to use.
I was very conscious of losing all of the goodness contained in the green vegetable matter that I was mowing so I think the side-eject chute will be its normal mode of operation. With it on its highest setting, I was soon making short work of the grass and weeds. Gail converted the Ryobi to Brush-Cutter mode and started to attack the bigger stands of nettles while I moved onto the grass lane outside to mow our "patch" and mulch up the cuttings that Gail's hedge trimming activities had left behind. Everything started to look pretty tidy quite quickly. I met up with plot neighbours Charlie and Judy while chugging up and down the green lane, and they were far more interested in whether we had consummated the marriage yet rather than how well the day had gone...

A more serious task to be undertaken was another assault on the Japanese Knotweed that we had inherited with the plot. It has already cost us quite a few pounds in weedkillers, mainly Glyphosate-based types and the effect of these was slowly making itself apparent. However, we have heard on the grapevine that some people are taking an active interest in the Knotweed - surprisingly no one seemed bothered about it until we took the plot over... - so we are feeling the pressure to get rid of this alien monster before it has any chance of spreading. Not that we aren't working on the problem already, of course! As usual, I just wish folks would come and talk to us about what we are already doing and have done, rather than spreading gossip and panic about this Triffid-like invader of our shores.
It was time to start playing Dr. Death - or Dr. Kildare - take your pick... I'd bought some Ammonium Sulphate systemic weedkiller that targets the roots in a similar way to the Glyphosate-based products. We've used this stuff before and it is very effective, but you need to get it inside the plant to be really effective. I mixed up a very strong solution of the weedkiller, suitably protected with surgical gloves, and then loaded up the syringe.

As the stems of Knotweed are hollow, the theory is that you inject a strong solution of a systemic weedkiller directly into one of these stem chambers. The problem I quickly found was that the pressure build-up inside the chamber is quite considerable! To overcome this, I first pushed the needle all the way through the stem and then pulled it back halfway; the stream of air-bubbles followed by weedkiller emerging from the far side of the stem told me when the chamber was full - or there abouts. The larger diameter stems would quickly take all 20ml that the syringe would hold without any sign of being full. The downside to my Dr. Death machinations was the sheer number of stems. Within an hour I was longing for one of the mass-inoculation kits that vets and farmers use on livestock, or better still one of the high-tech versions as demonstrated on Star Trek...

While injecting away like it was going out of fashion, I came across a number of stems clearly affected by our previous treatments; the walls of the stems were very thin and soft, and the new leaf growth was much smaller, very distorted and sickly-looking. I hope that when we return from our short break there will be much greater evidence of this.

After two hours of injecting, I began to realise I should have brought a can of spray-paint with me to mark the stems treated. Its amazing how the stems all look alike. Once you've seen one...

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Everythings coming up... green?

1st Movement...

I am very pleased that after a couple of months of worry and sleepless nights, that a couple of projects appear to be nearing fruition. In the front garden, the half-standard Dabinett has finally started to show signs of life with fresh green growth bursting out of the once-dormant buds.

The Dabinetts that have been resident in the back garden for some years now have finished blossoming and so we were starting to worry a little about our new baby. However, the new Dabinett whips that we potted up are also very slow in coming forward, in fact they are only just starting to show signs of life. I wondered whether it was the soil or lack of sunshine - or even if the roots had drowned in all the rain...

2nd Movement...

Eureka! For the first time ever, I attempted to graft something. Phill from South Wales sent me three cuttings that he had spare, to have a go at grafting myself.

I had a few self-sets of apple tree seedlings coming up in various places around the garden, from some of the spent pomace that got scattered around, so these would provide my rootstocks for this venture. Unfortunately, either the hated neighbour's cats or the even-more-hated pigeons seem to have dealt a death blow to the Frederick graft, which I found separated into two parts on the ground. So it was up to the Pig Aderyn or the Cummy Norman to spark into life to prove that I could actually create a chimera... Frankenstien has nothing on me!

I am happy to report that the Cummy Norman has sprouted, as can be seen in the above photo. Yes! I'm glad it did, for it's name as much as anything! The Pig Aderyn unfortunately is still showing no real sign of life, though one of the buds remains swollen and glossy. Time will tell, but I feel like an expectant father.

Yummy yum yum yum! May I introduce you to our Wedding Cake?

Yep today is the day that Gail and I are getting married - it is also Gail's birthday, so a double celebration. This is the mother of all wedding cakes for two chocoholics who also make and drink cider!

We knew that we didn't want a traditional wedding cake and had always joked that we would have a chocolate one. So I had a word with Helen, one of our technicians at work who makes cakes in her spare time, to see if she could help us out? We left her pretty much with free reigns, the only thing we wanted was one layer to be dark and bitter chocolate for Gail and I to pig out on, and a second layer to be a sweeter milk chocolate layer for all the others...

So this superb piece of culinary artistry is the result. Is that a cake or is that a cake?

The little apples are marzipan, the stalks are cloves; feel free to decide upon your own variety of apple that they represent. What more could you wish for, for a cider makers wedding cake?

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Rail Ale

A bus man's holiday...

We had a good time yesterday at the Rail Ale Festival at Barrow Hill Roundhouse, near Chesterfield. Travelling by train from home via Nottingham was fine, but the free bus service from Chesterfield train station to Barrow Hill was overloaded - I don't think they quite expected the numbers who turned up. A couple of blokes behind us in the very long queue for the bus mentioned getting a taxi but were concerned about the cost - so we volunteered to split the cost with them. £2 each for a quick comfy trip and to save us standing in the cold wind and rain for another hour was a bargain!

A couple of the ciders had already sold out by the time we arrived at about 12.45pm, so we started off by going for the ones we really wanted to try - or those with a high ABV as these are usually the ones to go first. What is it about ABV-tickers? After two or three to set my palate, I always like to try our own when it is on. This might seem strange but when we are blending our ciders, it is sometimes difficult to judge it in isolation, so a taste comparison with a range of other ciders is always worth it. Plus we have to check that it has travelled well - Quality Control and Quality Assurance and all that...

We needn't have worried as our "Floppy Tabs" blend stood up very well against the others. It was also selling very fast. In fact we were surprised by just how many folks were drinking cider and perry; not in a get-it-down-yer-neck way, but clearly discussing and enjoying what was on offer. As the afternoon wore on, the sky cleared and the sun came out so we migrated out into the sun. We met up with our friends Paul and Julia, Carl and David, and later Andy and Julie, though Andy had a shift to work behind the bars.

I enjoyed the Green Valley "Rum Tiddly Tum" rum-cask cider (very rum-my), the Orchard Pig Dry and the Westcroft "Janet's Jungle Juice" - the latter also being really dry for once. Hurrah! We are fans of Westcroft ciders and like to visit when in Somerset, but at festivals J's J.J. is nearly always medium-sweet or sweet, rarely medium and we've never come across it dry unless we fetch it ourselves. It's a great pity as it is best appreciated dry when it's depth of flavour and subtle apple notes can shine through. Yum yum.

A disappointment was the Prinknash cider dated at 2004 - how would a cider stored for 5 years stand up? Not very well and I found finishing the half quite a challenge. It had a strange mouldy-mushroom taste that was not pleasant and I guess this meant it had not been aged in stainless steel, but had been aged in wood and possibly not a sterile barrel at that. There was also a distinct nose and after-taste of acetaldehyde - the sort of smell you associate with sherry - which pointed to a level of contact with air. Oh well, least I can say I've tried it.

Our "Heritage Orchard" blend was also on, but it was tucked under the bottom shelf being held back. About 4.30pm, I got a text from Carl saying that the Heritage Orchard was being put on, that folks were queuing up for it and that it was "flying out". This was the first time we'd let any of the Heritage Orchard out, so I was eager to see how it stacked up against "the opposition". I needn't have worried, as it was very good indeed - so I had another... Sounds a little incestuous, but I had tasted everything else that was left.

After a few more repeat ciders and trying some of the best pork scratchings I've ever had, it was time to go to get the bus to the station and the train home. Carl had bought us a bag of pork scartchings as an early wedding present! As we walked past the cider and perry bar, there was hardly anything left so we were glad we had chosen the Saturday afternoon slot again. The bar staff were having to tip our box up, so we knew that wouldn't last long either. I doubt there would be any cider or perry left for the evening session.

Back in Nottingham, we had 55 minutes to wait for the train home so decided to take the tram and stop off at The Lion at Basford. Nice pub, interesting decor and a nice mix of folks inside. However, we were disappointed to find the only cider on offer was Black Rat, a Thatcher's clone, not a patch on the old Mole's version but still tasty enough and better than many real ciders you'll find on a bar. The real ale selection was much better and though I was tempted with one at 10% ABV, I decided to be safe and go with a Castle Rock Harvest Pale, while Gail had the Black Rat.

Saturday, 16 May 2009


Death becomes you...

Pretty sinister title and image - and what the hell has this got to do with cider?

Well, we are currently having a battle with the dreaded Japanese Knotweed which was present on our proto-orchard when we took it over, in three large clumps and is busily spreading itself around, even though it is costing us an arm-and-a-leg in weedkiller to try to kill it off... I don't particularly like using lots of weedkiller so we have had to look for alternative methods. The law with what you can and can't do when you have this stuff on "your" land is pretty tough and tight, so we have to act before it spreads onto anyone elses plot.

Reading up on t'interweb, I came across an explanation of how some folks have found injecting weedkiller directly into the fat fleshy stems of Fallopia japonica is a very good method of destroying it and of course, limits both the spread of and contamination caused by the weedkiller. Hence the syringe and hypodermic needle. I'll have to be careful with this though, don't want any accidents...

The needle is actually blunt and we use them at work for applying solvent cements to bond plastics such as PMMA (Acrylic) together.

This will have to wait though, as we are off to catch the train to Nottingham and hence to Chesterfield for the Rail Ale Festival at Barrow Hill. The cider and perry list is very good - but so is the beer list! Decisions, decisions...

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Dabinett shows it's colours

Could it finally be...?
Yes, I think it is! The new Dabinett in the front has finally started to show a little bit of green growth. To be honest, I had a hard job finding it, but it is definitely there so I can stop worrying so much. All I need to do now is ensure that some pesky caterpillar doesn't nibble it off or that the ants don't shepherd a herd of grazing aphids along to bleed it to death.

Bob update...
Bob has flown the nest with his brood. Awww. Sad to see them go as I'll miss the cheeky chappy chuntering at me as I plodded around the garden. Mayhaps he'll be back with Bobess to start another brood before the summer's out?

Linking up...
Just got a private message from a guy on the forum (for SEAT car owners btw) whose name is Matt, who also makes cider and wants some advice. I'm not the only loony on the SEAT owners site then... Must remember to get back to him, though things are terribly busy at the moment, both at'mill and back at the ranch.

Need to get off to The Arkwright Arms tonight to drop off four boxes of cider - two for the Arkers and two for the Rail Ale bash at Barrow Hill this weekend. Mind you, can't go there until we've been to the photographers to discuss the photos and arrangements for our up-coming wedding - only a week and a bit away. Yikes! Now what have I forgotten to do.......

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Is it Spring yet?

Busy, busy, busy...
What a month it's been so far -and we are only just into it. Strong, cold winds and heavy rain, the odd touch of frost; I think April must be a month late. Still, my grandad used to quote: "Ne'er cast a clout 'til May be out" so I reckon he must have been right. Mind you, it's been tough on the wildlife. I managed to capture our resident Great Tit (Coal Tit?) loading up with calories on the home-made fat and oats cake that we tie around the trunk of the Stoke Red at the top of the garden. It was a cold and miserable day with driving rain. We've called him: "Bob" (said in a Rowan Atkinson / Black Adder sort of way...). As we have no idea which is female and which is male, they are both "Bob" or maybe "Bob-ess". Whatever, they obviously have a good brood judging by the noise from the nest box.

Bees are another matter, with no honey-bees sighted so far. However, we have got a few bumble-bees around and plenty of wild bees. We have a small exposed earth bank at the bottom of the garden and this attracts all sorts of solitary and (I think) masonry bees; they appear to be attracted to the exposed clay layer, into which some of them have tunnelled. Whatever, they do seem to pay a visit to the apple blossom which is great to see.

They are also breeding as can be seen from this "bee porn" pic here, where a couple of them are having a good time amongst the blossom on the Dabinett espalier...

Less good is the apparent lack-of-life exhibited by the new Dabinett that we've planted on the front. It's been in the ground for 6 or 7 weeks now, but there is absolutely no sign of any life, bud-burst or anything. I'll keep my fingers crossed, but my hopes are fading.

More shed action...
Work on the Cider Shed continues, this time we've added insulation to the inside of the roof. Not to keep heat in necessarily, but to keep the heat out! On a sunny day, the heat radiating from the metal roof is quite impressive - even when its windy and the air temperature is low. We opted for the stuff designed for use behind radiators or inside lofts - sort of a large bubble-wrap with a shiny foil skin. We've mounted it foil-side up and its proving very effective. The pic shows the job half done.

The smooth plastic surface on the inside (underside) should also be fairly easy to clean and the air space between insulation and roof provides good ventilation. Next is to add the lighting and power sockets.

Down on the floor of the shed, we've been racking and blending using the new pump.

I knocked up a simple MDF trolley at work, and after a coat or three of varnish and a couple of wheels from Machine Mart, it was ready to go. I raided my "gash-box" for some suitable wire, an in-line fuse holder, surface-mount box and a light switch, and after mounting the 12 volt pump and connecting up the pipe work, it started to look the biz. We have a couple of heavy-duty 12 volt deep-cycling batteries that we use in the caravan and for the van winch, so it was a simple job of attaching the battery clamps and flicking the switch.

It is very quiet in operation and very powerful. We pumped fresh water through first, then some sterilising solution, followed by more fresh water and then it was into the cider vats. The last metre or so of each pipe is actually a rigid plastic pipe and this makes controlling the pipe over the sediment (or lees) very simple. This racking also gave us time to have a taste-test and decide on which container should be blended with which. We have to get some ready before mid-week to go to the Rail Ale festival at Barrow Hill, Chesterfield.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

New label

Heritage Orchard is ready to go...

I couldn't sleep yesterday morning. I think I'm becoming an insomniac - or maybe it's just the things going off elsewhere on the web, where someone with no integrity and too much ego is trying really hard to pass other's work off as his own and who truly believes that he is the sole arbiter of all things cidery....

So I got up and started to play around at producing the new label for our "Heritage Orchard" blend which is coming on nicely. This is the cider we made exclusively from the wide range of apples we collected from John Hempsall's Heritage Orchard last year.

Without wanting to sound immodest, I'm quite happy with it as a first attempt and it prints off really well. It needs a tweak here and there to comply with regulations, but otherwise it's good to go! I need to go round and see John first, and drop off a sample - if he doesn't like it or it doesn't meet his expectations, he might not want his name on it!

New kid on the block...

Due to a whole heap of unhappiness and unrest in the virtual-cider-world (see above), a number of key players have left the site about cider in the uk (which claims erroneously to be the "main body" representing cider makers and drinkers in the uk...). This has resulted in a new forum-based site being set up:

It is very early days yet, but go check it out.