The apple of their eye

Anthony Gladman experiences the magic of a traditional apple harvest with natural cider maker Little Pomona


After a long run of dull grey days, the autumn sun has returned to Herefordshire. In response, the countryside has put on its Sunday best and once-distant slopes, shorn of their mist, seem close at hand. Low morning light streams through the orchard at Little Pomona cidery. The glistening grass, still wet from yesterday’s rain, glows a deep vibrant green, and damp-trunked apple trees reach out black shadows to meet me. I turn around and, with the light to my back, see the apples that weigh down their branches shine bright red against the pure blue sky.

Blair, a volunteer from Canada, who has been here some weeks already, walks ahead of me carrying a thick pole. It is perhaps four metres long and terminates in an iron hook. This is a panking pole, used for shaking apples from the trees.

One way or another

In big commercial orchards, growers have mechanised the harvest. Tractors cruise the rows with tree-shaking attachments clamped to their back end. A metal arm clasps each trunk in turn and strips the tree of its fruit with just a few seconds’ pitiless vibration. More tractors follow in their wake, driving over the apples and scooping them up. Tractors with blowers tidy up, puffing fallen fruit from under the trees into the space between the rows. It’s fast, efficient and utterly indiscriminate.

Mainstream producers will press the apples and water down the juice before fermenting it. They will back-sweeten the resulting cider, pasteurise it and maybe add artificial colouring. So they won’t mind if they take a few bad apples in with the good. It’s almost like the apples don’t matter at all. “For some producers, it tends to be the bigger you get, the more the apple becomes an inconvenience,” says James Forbes, who founded Little Pomona with his wife Susanna in late 2014. He suspects that, were it not a legal requirement for them to derive their alcohol from apple juice, they might not bother with them at all.

In the Little Pomona orchard, careful selection is the rule of the day. “Trees are very different to vines,” says James. “The way the vines are trained you get the grapes, they're all uniformly ripe. Whereas apple trees have these big canopies, and you get fruit inside the canopy which may ripen, but probably long after harvest is done and all the pressing is finished. So you necessarily have to weed out some of that fruit because it's not ripe enough. Because every piece of that fruit you put in, you're actually diluting what you really want.”

We've come back to the way that some of the best ciders were made in olden times

I’m wearing waterproof trousers, as instructed. Susanna, Blair and I walk the rows to select a tree that looks ready. Once we have chosen our tree, we kneel before it in the long wet grass and start picking through the windfall apples, sorting them into three groups. Ripe apples go into crates to take to the cidery for milling and pressing. Green apples are kept to ripen off the tree. The bad ones — rotten, insect-damaged or with a skin that has been otherwise pierced — we throw away. 

After we have cleared the ground beneath the tree, we spread out two large tarpaulins, one on each side of its trunk. Blair hooks the panking pole into the crook of an apple-laden branch and shakes. At once a cascade of apples thumps onto the tarpaulin like heavy rain, and we’re on our knees again to sort them. It goes quicker this time than it did with the windfalls. It’s easier than picking them from the grass. You get into a rhythm. It’s almost meditative, but then I didn’t do it for much more than an hour. A full day is backbreaking work.

“Very few people pick fruit the way we do,” says James. “There are people who will hand-shake trees on to tarpaulins to gather up the fruit, but they won't make that on-the-floor selection, they'll sort it at a different stage.” Picking in this manner is slow and deliberate. It must be done by hand and is labour-intensive. “In a way, just naturally, we've come back to the way that some of the best ciders were made in olden times,” says Susanna.

Back to the apple

In Excise Notice 162, section 25, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (a.k.a. HMRC, a.k.a. The Man) sets out in a longish list the ingredients permitted within the manufacture of cider and perry. I counted 42 of them, including nitrogen (no limit on how much may be used), sulphur dioxide and its salts (E220 – E224, E226 – E228), and a colouring called Acid Brilliant Green BS (E142).

At Little Pomona, James and Susanna use just one: apples. “It’s the only ingredient that we have, so they're pretty vital to the whole process,” says James. “We need to ensure a number of things. A, that we're picking from good orchards. B, that we're picking fruit that's in great condition, and that we're pressing it when it's ripe. And if we do that, we stand a really good chance of making something that tastes good at the end of the process. If we don't do that, then we'll never make anything taste great.”

A large part of the cider maker's skill lies in selecting the right blend of apples

We can group cider apples into four broad types based on their levels of mallic acid and tannin. They can be sweet (low acid, low tannin), sharp (high acid, low tannin), bittersweet (low acid, high tannin) or bittersharp (high acid, high tannin). But beyond that are the individual varieties, of which there are several hundred, each with their own nuances of aroma and flavour.

Take the Dabinett for example. This bittersweet apple is the workhorse of the cider world, and the most widely planted cider apple in the UK. It is a smallish apple that ripens to a deep rich red. It will dry your mouth out on the first bite – most of the tannins are near the skin – but bite again, deeper into its flesh, and it will reward you with a burst of juice and flavour. Tasting one in the orchard I found unexpected hints of vanilla and clove.

The Foxwhelp (bittersharp) looks similar, but once you take a bite there is no way you could mistake it for a Dabinett. The Foxwhelp apple I tasted fresh from the tree in the orchard sang – no, screamed – with bright acidity. Once it had faded from my tongue I found its memory calling me back for another bite.

There are countless more, some with excellent names like Slack-ma-Girdle, Yellow Willy, Overleaf, Bastard Underleaf, Bushy French, Spotted Dick and Shatfords (yes, I did have fun researching that). A large part of the cider maker’s skill lies in selecting the right blend of apples, balancing out what each one brings to achieve a harmonious whole.

“The opportunities are the complexity of the apple,” says Susanna. “And there's so much vibrancy, there's so much flavour, and almost what's unexploited so far is the opportunity to really make some fine ciders out of the flavours that are out there.”

Governed by time

Harvest season for apples runs through October and November. And while the pace seems a touch less frantic than with other crops, it’s still a busy time. “It’s a bit more forgiving because you can store apples for several weeks without them degrading too much,” says James. “But it's not without problems. At the moment it seems relaxed, but we're about to get an awful lot of fruit arriving. And that tends to be the way it goes with us because we're after bittersweet fruit, which tends to ripen later.”

Late nights at the apple press are common once the fruit is in; the apples must be pressed while they are ripe. The day before my stint in the orchard I joined cider makers for an evening sharing stories and samples at the Ross on Wye cider club. For some, this was the first day off in a month. “It’s relentless, but there is this lovely spirit that keeps you going, although coffee is very important,” says Susanna.

Learning by doing

With small producers, much of this seasonal work relies on volunteers like Blair. “They're part of the lifeblood of craft cider making,” Susanna tells me. “And that's where a lot of it begins. I think a lot of volunteers will end up making their own cider.”

Susanna started as a volunteer herself. Before founding Little Pomona she learned her craft helping at the Ross on Wye Cider & Perry Co (which won Best Drinks Producer in the 2019 BBC Food and Farming Awards). “I did three full days at Ross and I remember it absolutely vividly. One day I was on the press with John, which is fascinating. And that's when they had a big old rack and cross press. So it was building the cheeses and getting it all right there. Another day I was picking on one of the orchards nearby. And then the next day was the day when they said: right, the perry tree is ready; we must go! And we all jumped in a sort of pickup truck and it was half an hour's drive. You have to find your ingredients, you have to go to them. They're in charge. And it was damp, absolutely. Waterproof trousers, everything. And we were there a full half day, and we picked, I don't know, three quarters of a ton, a ton, and we were happy.”

Mass-produced supermarket cider is a poor lifeless thing. Its makers have sacrificed depth and nuance for scale and stability. It has lost its connection to the land. But natural cider keeps this link. The terroir expressed in the apples is so strong that natural cider makers sometimes like to test themselves against each other with a ‘Dabinett-off’ – a side-by-side blind tasting of single-variety ciders made in the same method from the same apples in which the results will always differ. When you’re in the orchard, it’s a living place. “These apples, they're still kind of evolving and living after you pick them,” says Susanna. James too describes craft cider making as a living process. “The final products are live because we're not pasteurising it or filtering it. It's a living thing and evolving over time. Which is what I really like.”

These apples, they're still kind of evolving and living after you pick them

The cider making method Susanna and James use at Little Pomona, and that other similar producers use, is simply to wash, mill and crush the fruit. They collect the juice and let it ferment naturally into cider using the wild yeasts already present on the fruit and in the air. Nothing is added except time. The process is so minimal that what matters most is the hand of the maker and the land where the apples grow. It all starts in the orchard with the fruit.

If you want to see where cider comes from you must get onto the land. There’s no substitute for the mud on your hands, the fresh apple smell in your nostrils and the cider maker at your shoulder pouring knowledge into your ear as you walk the orchard together. And there are plenty of small producers happy to take in volunteers – who rely on them, even – to bring the fruit in from the fields. In return they will house you, feed you and treat you to ciders you will remember for years to come.

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