Country diary: hard pressed to gather an abundance of apples

With the year in full retreat, and travel limited by the pandemic, the usual seasonal markers have taken on a deeper significance. The apple crop, mostly from a mixture of trees we planted a quarter of a century ago, has been unusually impressive. Robust early blossom, supported by good weather and a welcome abundance of wild bees to act as pollinators, set large quantities of fruit that swelled rapidly as the storms of late summer dumped yet more rain on to already wet soil.

At the peak of the harvest, and with windfalls appearing by the bucketful after every gale, we were hard pressed to gather all the apples available. Several pairs of blackbirds, with new families to take care of, took full advantage of the abundance. We later saw them directing their awkward fledglings towards the best trees. Now we have picked the very last apples from an ancient tree that might well be a Howgate Wonder, or possibly a Peasgood’s Nonsuch – opinions vary.

What surplus of good fruit we couldn’t give away was mostly peeled, sliced and frozen – but there are always apples too gnarled for eating, yet too good to waste. From these, we traditionally make a few gallons of cider. The roots of cider-making run deep in Wales, taking the summer glut of fruit and converting it into liquid sunshine to cheer the spirits in the dark of winter.

Chopping, crushing and pressing the fruit yields a sweet, cloudy juice, which is welcome in itself but perishable, and using it to make cider extends the shelf life almost indefinitely. When the juice is fermented in glass demijohns the natural yeasts work their magic at an intriguing but leisurely pace. Tiny bubbles form a turbid fountain within the vessel, speeding up during the day and slowing as the evening cools. When the food supply is exhausted, the yeast falls to form a pale sediment, leaving rich, golden cider above it.

Each batch, being a mix of apple varieties and random yeasts, tastes subtly, unrepeatably different. We bottled the first pressing a week ago, and this is slowly maturing in the cool darkness of the workshop. By Christmas it should be ready to savour, in celebration of the turning of the year.