Even when I am on holiday I am thinking about my allotment and what I can grow on it next. While I was away in Yorkshire I went on a tour of the orchard at Ampleforth Abbey, a monastery and Catholic school near the North Yorkshire Moors, to get inspiration for new apple trees for Plot 35a. The monks – and quite a few lay gardeners – look after one of the most northerly commercial orchards in the country. At Ampleforth there is an impressive 2,000 trees of 40 different apple varieties, the fruit from which are pressed for cider or fresh apple juice. On a crisp and bright August day I and other apple enthusiasts followed around Tim Saxby, the orchard manager, to hear about how they turn their Waltanas into apple wine, and their Beauty of Baths into brandy.
Apples have been grown – and cider made – by the Benedictine monks at Ampleforth since the 19th century, but the first formal orchard was started there in the early 20th century. The one that exists today was started by Father Edmund Hatton, the son of the leading horticulturalist and pomologist Ronald Hatton, in the 1960s. Today there are rows upon rows of apple trees, on the relatively sheltered valley side, that in August are bursting with fruit. The first variety Tim showed us was Idared, grown not for its fruit but its superb pollination qualities – its blossom lasts a long time, stretching over three pollination groups, giving the precious productive apple trees a better chance.
Next Tim showed us several cultivars that they use to make the cider. While this will be controversial in the West Country, Tim explained that at Ampleforth they use no true cider varieties at all – only dessert and eating apples. The juice makes a cider that has a rounder, more complex flavour, he said, rather than the sharp, edgy stuff brewed in the south west. Cider apples have lower acidity, meaning they can produce drinkable cider quicker than dessert or cooking apples, but they also have high amounts of tannins, which makes the juice much drier. The Ampleforth cider takes longer to ferment – one year to 18 months – because of the higher acidity but, Tim claimed, the result is a well-rounded brew.
One of the favourite apples for the Ampleforth cider mill is Spartan, which is going straight onto my wishlist to grow in London next year. This dessert apple was raised in British Columbia in the 1930s and when pressed produces a clear pink juice. Tim blends this with cider brandy to make a liqueur which sounds delicious.
The second apple tree I will buy for planting this winter is Irish Peach, above, a mid-season dessert and cooker. It is a tip-bearer – meaning it carries its apples at the end of branches, so must not be pruned in the normal way or else there will be no fruit next year. Instead, cut out only dead, diseased or crossing wood. This has a very sweet, floral taste and is great for apple juice.
Next, Discovery, a very popular variety that produces early fruit and can be used for cooking or eating fresh. The flesh is tinged pink when it oxidises. I will grow this for its reliability and versatility.
Katy – or strictly speaking, Katya as it is known in Sweden, where this cultivar was raised – is an early dual purpose apple. Tim said it was not great for eating but fantastic for cider-making. I have made a note of this variety but I won’t be growing it next season as I want to save my limited space for apples I can eat as well as turn into cider.
Kidd’s Orange Red, above, was a beautiful pastel-coloured apple when I saw it on the tree earlier this month, but it turns more like the colour in its name when it is ready to harvest in October. This is Tim’s favourite variety, great for eating straight from the tree, so it is going on my list.
Beauty of Bath was raised in Somerset in the Victorian era and is an early dessert apple. Its flesh also turns pink when exposed to the air and has a floral flavour that is great for juice-making. I am passing this one over in favour of the next variety, which Tim urged our group to cultivate because it is a heritage apple in need of growing more widely:
This variety, St Edmund’s Pippin, is a russet dessert apple described by Tim as having an “exquisite flavour” – something like vanilla ice cream and poached pears. I always think russets get a raw deal because they look so uninviting in their rough, beige skins compared to the shiny red fairytale apples that seem to burst from the tree. But bite into a russet and the flavour is much more interesting than, say, a supermarket Pink Lady. I am totally sold on St Edmund’s Pippin, and it is the final tree on my wishlist this autumn.
After our tour of the orchard we tasted the cider that is produced on site. There were up to half a dozen varieties blended into the vintage I tasted, giving it several stages of flavour: a sweet floral hit at first, then a mellow richness across the tongue, followed by a strong kickback at the end. And boy, it was strong. As I was driving, I could only drink a third of a glass before making my way across the North Yorkshire valley. Luckily, you can buy Ampleforth’s cider, beer and brandy in its shop and take it home.
When I got back to London and to Plot 35a, I found my existing apple trees heavy with fruit: the Adam’s Pearmain, an eater, is bearing dozens of apples but they are not quite ready. Early Victoria, a cooking apple, had already dropped a few on the ground, leaving them for the slugs, but there were enough on the branches for me to pick and cook with blackberries into a crumble. I also picked one beautiful specimen of Tom Putt, above, which is a true cider variety. So far, this tree is a shy fruiter, but now I know I can make cider from any apples, it no longer seems to matter.