Tom Flint looks at how one Cowfold farm is keeping a cider tradition alive.
Cider has a long and interesting history in the UK. It is widely believed cider apples grew in the West Country long before the Roman occupation, although whether they had been used to produce a drink was unknown.
Travellers from Spain and Northern France introduced the drink known as ‘shekar’ (a word of Hebrew origin meaning strong drink) to the early Britons which could be considered an early version.
From these early steps it was the Norman conquest in 1066 that saw cider apple production become much more organised.
Production tended to focus on the western regions of the country as the soil and climate was more favourable.
Eventually cider became a part of the tax system and even an element of paying labourers for their work – a practice that only stopped in 1887 with the Truck Act prohibiting the paying of wages with alcohol.
Cider making in the UK peaked in the 17th and 18th century when nearly every farm would have had a small orchard and a cider press.
During this time, it was common for local people to bring their unwanted apples to the local farm in order to extract the juice and create cider at home.
Now, this tradition is enjoying a resurgence with many ‘garden’ ciders popping up across the country.
Trenchmore farm, near Cowfold, is keeping the tradition alive in Sussex and you can be a part of it.
Trenchmore farm is the home of the Knowles family who have been making Silly Moo cider for the last four years.
The idea started following a visit to the West Country and a walk through an apple orchard.
After the trip they decided to establish their own orchard on the farm and to produce a cider that had links to traditional West Country cider, but softened for the tastes of the south east.
Having had taste for myself I can certainly vouch for its compromise between ‘proper’ West Country cider and the sweeter ciders that are made in this area.
“What we wanted to do was make a civilised farmhouse cider, something that was natural, authentic and fresh,” Oliver tells me.
Having established the brand and come up with a blend that they were happy with they started to get approached by neighbours who had excess apples.
“We had people locally saying, would you like to come and pick the apples from our garden. That’s what we did in the first year and we probably picked half a ton of apples,” Oliver explains.
“There aren’t enough of us to keep doing that so Joanne came up with the brain wave to have a community swap, so that’s what we are doing.”
They now run an apple swap throughout the month of October where people can come to the farm between the hours of 10am and noon and donate apples for the production of cider.
All that they ask is that the apples are unsprayed, local, and in a good ripe condition.
For every 5kg of apples that you bring the farmers will provide you with an ‘I owe you’ that can be swapped for a bottle of cider in the spring.
“People bring them in boxes, carrier bags and we weigh them and give them a chip for them. We ferment, press, blend it all here and send it off for bottling.
“People are then notified when it is ready and come and collect their cider,” Joanne tells me.
“We get the whole gambit from 4kg in a carrier bag through to crates and crates,” she continues.
They are not picky about the type of apples you bring and anything goes as it will be blended in order to produce the next batch of Silly Moo.
This year they are particularly interested in crab apples and so you will get a bottle of cider for every 3kg you bring along.
The event is not only a fantastic way of eliminating waste, and ensuring those apples which would normally rot on the ground in your garden get used, but also brings the local community together.
“It is certainly good fun, and good to meet your customers. It’s good to meet people who say they have been throwing these apples away for years and years and it is such a waste,” Oliver tells me.
“We’ve met people through it that live quite locally that we really ought to have known but didn’t.
“It’s been really nice in that way as a community thing with people chatting in the yard and bringing the children to look at the animals,” he continues.
If you do not have access to any apples then you can still enjoy their cider which is available in local pubs and off licences around the Sussex area.
The nearby Union Jack Farm Shop stocks Silly Moo cider as well as the amazing Trenchmore beef.
They are also really pleased to have been nominated for drink producer of the year 2017 in the Sussex Food and Drink Awards.
This is a really fantastic achievement given the huge numbers of top quality drinks producers in the area.
If you want to vote and get them shortlisted for the final awards you can do so at www.sussexfoodawards.biz where you can also view the finalists and vote for the other categories.
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