The secret drink of golden fire
‘If it’s autumn in Gloucestershire, then it must be time for Apple Day when we celebrate cider’
The turn of the seasons is one of the fascinations of living in the British Isles. When you’re in a wide, exposed landscape almost 1,000 feet above sea-level, you can almost see the changing weather rolling towards you over the horizon. Now the heatwave of the summer months is fast becoming just a memory and the shorter, mistier days are with us, the time has come to enjoy autumn in the Cotswolds.
It’s a wonderful time of the year; the beech trees are tinged yellow, acorns and pine cones crunch underfoot, the hedgerows give up their harvest of blackberries, sloes and rose hips and apples are everywhere. Traditionally, Gloucestershire had a reputation for being one of England’s great orchard counties with more than 200 recorded apple varieties. Many of them were dessert and cooking apples but it’s for our cider apples that we were renowned. So much so, that along with Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Somerset and Kent we became known collectively as the ‘Cider Counties’.
In our part of the world what Laurie Lee called “the secret drink of golden fire” was produced from fruit with evocative names such as Dymock Red, Shepperdine Silt, Pedington Brandy and Wick White Styre. I talk about the cider apple varieties in the past tense because since the Second World War around 75% of all Gloucestershire’s orchards have been lost. But now there’s renewed interest in local fruit varieties and heritage orchards are growing once-forgotten types again. It’s a trend that’s being echoed throughout the countryside with more farmers now reinstating old orchards or creating new ones thanks to environmental incentives and a greater appreciation of farmland biodiversity.
But while it’s still unlikely that we’ll see big name national stores routinely selling traditionally-made cider from age-old Gloucestershire varieties, thankfully some farms shops and farmers’ markets have been doing their bit to promote local produce. While if you know an obliging heritage fruit farmer, now is the right time of year to request a visit to their cider barn or farm yard to see old apple scratters and iron presses at work, pulping the fruit and extracting the juice.
Much of the credit for the recent cider apple revival has to be given to the Gloucestershire Orchard Trust which has been working for almost two decades to conserve and celebrate our local fruit tradition; not just apple trees but also pear, perry pear and plum. A great deal of the research and work to locate, identify and graft local varieties has been done by one of the great champions of all things Gloucestershire, Charles Martell. He’s the current High Sheriff of the county and is a nationally respected cheese-maker and pioneering owner of rare breeds. With such a pedigree, perhaps it’s no surprise that Charles is also something of a saviour when it comes to local fruit varieties and he’s even produced a series of beautifully illustrated books which are the definitive reference works on the subject.
Across the Cotswolds apples of all sorts will be celebrated on October 21 which is now well established in the annual events calendar as Apple Day. It’s amazing to think that the first Apple Day celebrations took place as long ago as 1990 with a launch event held, appropriately, in the old apple market in London’s famous Covent Garden. It was the first time in 16 years that fruit had been brought to the market and it caught the imagination of thousands of people. Since then Apple Day has spread across the country and the Cotswolds region has been a great flag-bearer for the initiative. Bensons the juicers in Sherborne first gave their support to the annual event years ago, the Gloucester Life Museum in Westgate Street has a long history of demonstrating its horse-drawn applemill and Stroud’s farmers’ market can always be guaranteed to get in on the apple action. So whatever you do on the 21st, here’s to a Merry Apple Day!