The West Country is synonymous with apples, orchards and traditional farmhouse cider. Although cider is presently enjoying a revival in popularity, all is not well. The National Trust said 90% of England’s traditional orchards have disappeared in the last 60 years, with older varieties often uprooted and the land used for development, hence traditional orchards have been added to the Priority Habitats Inventory.
The Netherton Late Blower, Cider Lady’s Finger, Slack-ma-Girdle and Billy Down Pippin are among hundreds of rare varieties of apples that have now been rescued from extinction and are being planted across the West Country at places like Montacute House and Barrington Court in Somerset, Tyntesfield near Bristol, Golden Cap in Dorset, Westbury Court Garden in Gloucestershire and Killerton in Devon.
The apple is believed to have originated in Central Asia and to have been first introduced to Europe by Alexander the Great. The Romans are credited with cultivating Alexander’s ‘wild apple’ into the ‘domestic apple’ and it was almost certainly the Romans who introduced the apple to the West Country.
Apple Day, 21st October, was launched in 1990 by Common Ground. The aspiration was to create a calendar custom, an autumn holiday. From the start, Apple Day was intended to be both a celebration and a demonstration of the variety we are in danger of losing, not simply in apples, but in the richness and diversity of landscape, ecology and culture too. It has also played a part in raising awareness in the provenance and traceability of food.
Apple Day is usually celebrated in the orchards at Barrington Court, but due to the on-going coronavirus crisis they are unable to host the usual weekend festival. So instead, Barrington Court have collected all things apple-y online for you to the celebrate the season at home. Find out more here.
At local cider producer Bridge Farm in Somerset, the cider apple harvest starts in October and runs through to December. Once the apples are harvested they will be blended, often with a dozen or more local varieties going into each pressing. The fruit is then washed and the bad apples removed by hand prior to the fruit being milled. The milled apples are then built up in layers between racks and cloths to form what is called a ‘cheese’, which is then hydraulically pressed. The juice from the pressing is pumped into barrels to begin the fermentation process and the remaining pomace (pulp) is stored for winter feed for the sheep that graze the farm’s orchards. The juice will be allowed to ferment slowly over the winter and following spring before being ready to drink.