Jo Denbury, Features Writer
It’s an early autumn morning. Mist hugs the land; a wet, heavy blanket soon to be burned off by the warm glow stretching up and out over the trees. A season of two halves; we are on the side of crystal blue skies, a low slung sun and crisp clean air. Soon all will be mud, grey, stark and dark as we pull closer around the open fire. But, for now, it is glorious.
Over a cattle grid we go, along a narrow drive with grassy banks and past a horse, grazing lazily. It isn’t long before we see the orchards of Sherborne Cider, in Longburton. Simon and Victoria Baxter have managed this orchard for the last 12 years and, today, up early with Pippin the spaniel at their side, they are ready to begin their cider harvest.
Wandering through the orchard, you can’t help but admire each tree, bejewelled with bountiful red apples. Orchards do not occur naturally, but are cultivated – demonstrating that, just occasionally, man and nature can get along to create something more beautiful and fruitful together than either could alone. But such organic architecture is a labour of love; one requiring both patience and faith in order to reap the rewards.
“We are at the mercy of nature here,” says Simon. “Some years we have a bumper crop, then others are a disaster. We had two bad years on the trot some time ago.” To my eyes, this year’s harvest looks like a bumper crop. Simon is busying himself with ‘the tree-shaker,’ a curious piece of machinery that clasps the trunk and rocks it back and forth to release the fruit. Despite the apparent violence of the procedure, the tree looks positively relieved to be released from its burden. As apples rain madly to the ground on all sides, its branches spring back into position with a new lease of life. Thankfully cider doesn’t require a pristine apple, so the process won’t destroy the quality of the end product – in fact, some would say it enhances it.
Gone are the days when this process would have been done manually. Armed with sticks, it would have taken a few men many days to pick the Baxters’ 70 acres of apple trees clean – and this is a comparatively small orchard in commercial terms. But, while the machinery is welcome, this is still very much a hands-on family affair. “Martin Coombs has been with us for 25 years,” explains Simon. “He worked with my father, who planted the orchard in 1978. Then our children, Henrietta and Walter, who are both in their early twenties, lend a hand when they can.” Simon and Victoria took over the business in 2004 and his mother, Caroline, still lives nearby. “She has done pretty much everything – except pruning. She isn’t hard enough with the trees,” he laughs, “So we don’t let her do that.”
The business is largely commercial, supplying apples to the cider mill at Shepton Mallet. However, they also produce an award-winning artisan cider, which is sold locally. “We like to pick when the apples are as fit, ripe and as blemish-free as possible,” Simon explains. They use a mix of varieties but likely candidates are the Yarlington Mills, Dabinett and Harry Masters. Before picking commences, there is the iodine test: an apple is cut and coated with iodine to check for the starch and sugar balance. Too much starch and the apple remains black; it is only when the sugar levels are high that the flesh turns a curious bronze under the iodine. > When the sugars are up it is time to pick and, as soon as the apples are off the trees and collected, they are run through the water bath where the baddies are pulled out. Next, it is on to the mill. If you were making wine, all you would need is a press – but apples are hard and need to be broken up first. Once, it would have been a big stone mill, pulled by a horse – but, today, a frightening wheel of spinning blades does the job.
Pressing the milled pulp for their house cider is Victoria’s job. She usually ropes in a friend and the two of them work tirelessly to make ‘cheeses,’ where the pulp is bound in layers of heavy cloth that holds the solids tight, while allowing the juice to escape. This is how cider has been made for centuries and the work is intense; their aim is to make 2,000 litres a day. “We barely stop for a cup of tea,” smiles Victoria.
Clearly Simon is no stranger to hard work, either. “Orcharding involves being out in all weathers,” he tells me. “We are on clay here and have a thin topsoil compared to, say, Herefordshire. The clay soil doesn’t drain out until spring, so even in the rain we need to keep going.” There are other problems, too. Apple trees are susceptible to fungal diseases such as scab, which have to be treated. It is for this reason that the farm is not organic. However, obviously concerned about the negative effects of pesticides, the Baxters keep bees. “The bees act as pollinators so, if we do spray, we do it very early before they are up. There are barely any organic cider producers because, as a commercial grower, you are paid by tonnage,” he adds. “It’s about quantity and quality – we have to manage a consistent product.” > At a time when some ciders are still produced using a concentrate that is imported from a mix of sources abroad, it is hard for a small local apple grower to stay afloat. In the last century, Britain has lost two thirds of its orchards. When purchasing fruit in a supermarket, you are likely to be confined to only one or two varieties and shoppers are said to be led more by what they look like than how they taste. For growers like Simon, consistency of size and a shiny allure is not everything. The potential variety of flavours is what makes the apple so exciting and, slowly but surely, more and more people are becoming apple gourmets.
“We have recently tested growing dessert apples,” explains Simon, his long stride causing me to gallop alongside him into the new orchard. The trees are only a few years old, but they are already bearing an incredible mix of fruit. Among them is the Egremont Russet, Blenheim Orange and Tom Putt, thought to have been first grown by a vicar of Trent. “I fed them seaweed and orange-juice extract as fertiliser,” Simon confides. He quickly picks and tastes one of each, taking a bite and discarding the rest. Some are sweeter than others and a few, like the Egremont with its heavy skin like sandpaper, have a fresh and nutty flavour that goes perfectly with cheese.
It would be so exciting to be able to come and select from this extraordinary range of heavenly dessert apples but, for the moment, the Baxters have their hands full. They currently produce 6,000 litres of artisan cider a year and, with an eye firmly on its quality and heritage, they are not looking to make more. In January, they will hold their annual wassail, to which all are welcome. This ancient custom of blessing the trees to ensure a successful harvest – assisted by John Waltham and the Wessex Morris Men – also provides ample opportunity to sample the cider. For now, the juice itself is quietly fermenting. After the first tasting, the base ciders from each variety of apple will be blended. “We have spent four years perfecting the recipe. We mix bittersweet apples with sharps to get the right balance,” explains Simon. It’s a long process and one that relies as much on the man as it does on the apple. Hard work or not, it is easy to see how passionate Simon and Victoria are about their orchards. “When you wake up and see the sun rising through the trees,” he says dreamily, “it beats anywhere else in the world.”