Hard Cider: Think Local

In the US, there is a small but growing trend called Farm-to-Table. It could also be called eat local or know your farmer. Personally, it speaks to me, and the way it speaks the loudest is through the hard cider that I make. My wife and I love to cook and try new foods and we love being able to experience local chefs making gourmet food from local sources. However, Southern Arizona doesn’t have any local commercial cideries. When I sought to make my own hard cider, using local fruit to reflect Southern Arizona is what spoke to me. You may not realize it but Southern Arizona actually has locally grown apples and pears. These aren’t cider apples and perry pears or even many heirloom apples, but they can still make great hard cider. This is especially true when you combine them with other local ingredients like prickly pear fruit, citrus, pomegranates, manzanita berries, rhubarb, plums, apricots, and a multitude of other fruits and adjuncts like local honey.

When my wife and I visited Somerset and London, it struck me how much cider already reflects places like Somerset, Devon, Herefordshire, and even London. Cider is a drink that comes from the land and for home hard cider makers, it‘s a drink that calls us to sit down with friends and family and experience life. You might say that all food comes from the land, but the reality is most food is temporary. The food most farmers plant grows and fruits in months. Apples and pear trees can take years to grow and bear fruit. However, they can also continue to bear fruit for over a 100 years, especially pears.

This got me thinking. Wouldn’t it be great if you could get to better know your local orchard? Maybe I’m crazy but I love learning about how my food is made and from where it comes. I could talk to the orchardist where I get my apples for hours (sometimes I do). I find it fascinating to learn about the apples and trees in my quest to make great hard cider. I thought others might as well. Therefore, why not highlight an orchard. Since people from all over the world visit my site, I realized that I didn’t need to highlight orchards in my backyard, I could highlight one in your backyard. Join me as I go to South Somerset, England, and explore the orchard at North Down Farm owned and operated by three generations of the Mangle family. If it’s not in your backyard, you can join me in wishing that it was. I chatted with Ross Mangle, whose grandfather first started planting the orchard in 1973.

North Down Farm is located at the end of a country lane outside the village of Haselbury Plucknett. It’s named for a hill that sits on the north end of the farm. Like most of Somerset, it’s a picturesque countryside setting with over 9,000 apple trees. It’s an orchard with a long history of cider making connections as it was originally planted to support Taunton Cider. Yes, the original Taunton Cider. So, if you ever had a Taunton Cider, there is a good chance you already tasted one of the apples from North Down Farm.

Like most orchards, those 9,000 trees weren’t planted overnight. The orchard has expanded over time but most of the original trees planted in 1973 are still producing. The trees are planted on M106 and M25 rootstocks. The “M” signifies it is a Malling rootstock, which are rootstocks cultivated at the East Malling Research Center in Kent, England. However, you can find these rootstock in many countries around the world. The M25 is a standard tree or what is called very vigorous, which means it will grow to full height. The M106 is a semi-vigorous rootstock that will only grow to around 70% of the standard tree height.

Apple Tree: North Down Farm
North Down Farm Apple Tree

Those 9,000 trees are planted on over 35 acres and they produce over 20 varieties. Here’s a sampling of the apples you can find.

  • Michelin
  • Dabinett
  • Nehou
  • Tremletts Bitter
  • Chisel Jersey
  • Taylor’s
  • Somerset Redstreak
  • Coates Jersey
  • Vilberie
  • Harry Masters
  • Sweet Coppin
  • Stembridge Cluster

More varieties are in the works as Ross indicated they are top working some of the Michelin trees into more Redstreak and Yarlington Mill varieties as well as Stoke Red, Morgan Sweet, and Kingston Black apples. Ross is also planning to add some new bittersharps on a couple acres but he is still trialing varieties that work with the terroir of the orchard. He expects to replace about 14 acres of the Michelin and Dabinett apples with new varieties.

If you are like me, a self proclaimed apple geek, you might be interested in what apples other people like and why. Therefore, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask Ross about some of his favorite apples.

  • Favorite Eating Apple: Spartan
    • Why: It has the perfect balance of sweetness and sharpness. It’s also gorgeous with its deep red skin and white flesh. He did admit that you need to pick them fresh and eat them quick because they can “go all mushy” on you.
  • Favorite Cooking Apple: Bramley
    • Why: It’s the classic English cooking apple and when you have a couple trees that always seem to produce in abundance, your freezer tends to always be full.
  • Favorite Cider Apple: Yarlington Mill
    • Why: It’s all about the tannins and Ross finds the Yarlington Mill apples from his orchard have a great tannin profile. Given the choice of acid or tannins, Ross wants the tannins. As a side note Yarlington Mill apples are also his favorite to grow. He finds its some of the easiest to grow and manage. They tend to crop consistently and are relatively easy to prune. I know what variety I want to find for my next grafts!

I also asked him about his favorite season of the orchard. Was it the quiet winter months where you prune and contemplate the trees, the spring where you nurture and trees and watch them come alive, the warm summer months when you see the fruit form and begin to ripen, or the busy autumn when you harvest the fruit. He said he loves the autumn with the sight and smell of the ripe apples. While it’s a lot of hard work, he likes the harvest because of the importance to the orchard. Without the harvest and the financial impact, the orchard couldn’t exist. All those wonderful apples wouldn’t be available for pies, sauces, lunch boxes, and most important, hard ciders. Autumn is ultimately a reflection of a job well done. All the work that went into planting and caring for the trees is repaid in the harvest. That speaks to me as well.

When I think of what local food and hard cider means to me, I not only want to understand where it’s from but how it’s nurtured. I asked Ross how he keeps his trees productive and healthy. He said that like most orchards in the 1970-1980 time period, their orchard was treated with conventional chemicals. This helped control many of the diseases and insects that could destroy apple trees and apples. His grandfather and father tried to treat the issues and used these sparingly. However, these chemicals are not without both financial and environmental expense. Ross has recently embarked on organic methods to disease and pest control. His goal is to create a more balanced ecosystem that focuses on maintaining tree health by creating fewer weaknesses that pests and disease can exploit. His approach is to use anaerobicly fermented biofertilizers that increase healthy microbe populations on the tree. If any of you just thought about yeast and hard cider fermentation, join the club.

These healthy microbes minimize fungal infections like apple scab and mildew and help the trees gather and utilize nutrients from the soil. Ross feels it’s a great approach for the environment but also the apples and it can cost less than conventional chemicals. I definitely agree. I personally like my cider apples to be organic, natural, and devoid of chemical sprays whenever possible. It’s the type of orchard that speaks to me. I’m extremely jealous of all you living “local” to North Down Farms in South Somerset, England. That reminds me, if you want to get some of Ross’ beautiful apples or fresh pressed juice, he can fill your car boot or deliver you several lorry loads. If you want juice, he has the ability to do a custom order or one of his standard blends. No orders are too big or too small. Drop him an email at northdownapples@gmail.com and the family will quickly get back with you. They can ship all over the UK and Northern Europe so “local” has a wide meaning. Here’s a quick email button to facilitate your contact. Don’t hesitate. He does want to hear from you.

If you see Ross, tell him you want some local apples! However, don’t ask him about apple harvesters unless you are willing to sit down and share a pint or two of your cider with him. They are a private passion of his that he loves to pontificate about which are best. You have been warned! If you didn’t bring your own cider, you can always invite him for a pint of Ham Hill Cider. They open their tap room to the public every Friday night at 6:00. If you want to visit the orchard, contact Ross to arrange a time.

I hope you enjoyed this article as much as I did writing it. Chatting with Ross and learning more about the orchard at North Down Farm has made me feel connected to it. I hope you feel that same connection and even if aren’t in the UK or Northern Europe, you might be inspired to seek out your own local orchard and learn more about it: the trees, the fruit, and the people that make it possible. For me, this is what hard cider is really about.

If you liked this article, follow me to get similar articles about making and enjoying hard cider. It is that easy. I won’t sell your email or send you a bunch of requests to buy things. It’s simply a way to connect with you and answer questions if you have them.

Check out similar posts by Prickly Apple Cider

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