Autumn in the orchard

Image: Avallen Spirits

I love this time of year. I love the colours on the trees and the way the wind sweeps leaves around you while you're out walking. I love sitting quietly, watching the sunsets and saying my goodbyes to swifts and pipistrelles. Maybe it's the romantic in me, but the elegiac mood of early autumn makes me feel rather thankful for my life. There's something of the Harvest Festival in every moment - the culmination of spring and summer activity before nature goes dormant for the winter. "All is safely gathered in." It's the time when all my favourite foods become available, all of a sudden: wild mushrooms, oysters, game birds and orchard fruits.

The apple is the king of the orchard, and European cultures have found myriad uses for them. Obviously, we can eat them as they are; we also cook them in hundreds of dishes. We ferment them into cider, convert the cider to vinegar or distil it into brandy. We preserve foods with smoke from the prunings, and when the trees are old and unfruitful, we can leave them to host mistletoe plants or cut them down to make furniture with the wood. When you buy apples, try to get hold of some from a traditional orchard. It takes a plant a lot of energy to make scent and flavour. Smaller, older trees, therefore, producing fewer apples, are more able to consistently produce wonderfully aromatic fruit. Industrial production favours quantity, though, resulting in lots of identically large, shiny apples that are rather one-dimensional in flavour: green apples are sour & crisp; yellow ones softer and sweeter; red ones are very sweet. The apple is a relative of the rose and almond, and good apples will have hints of both flavours in them.

Cider, the fermented juice of the apple, can be a deliciously refreshing summer drink, but it should not be overlooked for the dinner table. A good, dry craft cider makes a better alternative to Champagne than Prosecco does, and it will sit comfortable with any rich charcuterie or offal dish. Try serving a light one with a salad of soused herring, white onion, grated apple and crème fraîche.

Image: Avallen Spirits
Cider brandy hasn't captured the imagination of British drinkers the way Calvados has in France, despite the fact that it has been made here since at least the seventeenth century. Some excellent examples are those produced in Somerset by the Somerset Cider Brandy Co and in North Yorkshire by the monks of Ampleforth Abbey. I have recently invested a small amount in Avallen Spirits Co., a company making Calvados to strict standards of environmental sustainability. The spirit itself is fine and smooth, with a lovely floral aroma and toffee finish. I first became interested in their business ethics, especially their commitment to promoting better environments for bees, but fell for the spirit when I tasted it. I was very pleased to participate in their recent crowdfunding. Although Calvados is traditionally served neat, as a digéstif, you can also mix it with tonic water for a refreshing aperitif, and it lends itself to several delicious cocktails. Try it with egg white, lemon juice and a little sugar syrup as a Calvados Sour, or add apricot brandy and lemon juice for a gutsier version of the RAF cocktail.

If the apple is the king of the orchard, its queen is undoubtedly the pear. Like apples, pears found in supermarkets often lack flavour. Pears are typified by their light, fragrant quality, so this lack of flavour is a real problem. The solution, of course, lies in our willingness to seek out and support smaller producers. Under-ripe pears pickle well, in a syrup made from spices, cider vinegar and brown sugar. You can use them as an accompaniment to cheeses or rich meats. I love to chop them into a salad with blue cheese and fried bacon lardons. Pear Eau de Vie is very much appreciated in France. Usually distilled from Williams pears, it retains all the perfumed quality of the fruit and is most often served after dinner, sometimes warm, more usually with a little ice.

Image: The Edge Gin
Pears have started to find their place in the gin boom. I'm not a fan of sweetened gins, so I've been delighted to taste two dry gins that use pear in the mix. Masons Pear & Pink Pepper gin uses the fruit to give the gin a subtle sweetness without any added sugar. The peppercorns compliment the perfume of the pears and add a spiciness of their own. Obviously, it's excellent mixed with tonic water, and I like to mix it in flower-scented cocktails like the Aviation or Blue Moon. The pear flavour of The Edge Gin Company's pear gin is full and bold, achieved by steeping the spirit with dried pears before the final distillation. Drying fruits intensifies the flavour. This gin mixes well with elderflower or spiced tonic waters and makes a startlingly good Old Fashioned.

Greengage plums macerating
in strong, white rum

Of course our orchards don't just produce apples and pears. They're also full of plums, quinces and walnuts, even mulberries, if you know where to look. All of these can be made into delicious liqueurs by macerating them in alcohol and adding sugar. Soft fruits like mulberries and plums can be done very simply by putting all the ingredients into a preserving jar for a few months. Harder fruits like quinces and walnuts need to steep longer or in strong alcohol, then topped up with sugar syrup. Like apples and pears, plums are famously fermented and distilled into brandy. Throughout central Europe, from Serbia to Poland, you will find variations on Slivovitz, a clear spirit distilled from fermented damsons. The damsons give it an interesting astringency, while their crushed stones lend it an almond-like bitterness. Its prevalence is testimony to the deep Jewish heritage of the region. In its Czech incarnation, it is smooth and colourless. In Poland it's often slightly coloured and very strong (c70% ABV). I like to add iced water to Polish śliwowica to kill the alcohol burn: one part spirit to one of water. You are free to enjoy it as you see fit.


If you'd like to know more about the drinks mentioned you can find them via the links below:
Somerset Cider Brandy Co -
Ampleforth Abbey drinks -
Avallen Spirits -
Masons Yorkshire Gin -
The Edge Gin -

All the fruits I've mentioned make delicious baked desserts and cakes, from Alsace tarte aux quetschs to baked apples and Ripon's celebrated Wilfra cakes. You can use the drinks, too, in a number of dishes. I will be writing about some of these in due course. Enjoy your autumn drinking!

L toR: walnut liqueur, Slivovitz, greengage rum

Next time: What the hell do I do with an octopus???


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