The Donhead Apple Company grow their own fruit in their 3.5 acres of orchard. It’s a beautiful setting, opposite a thatched greenstone cottage, overlooked by the 15th century tower of St Mary’s Church.
At this time of year, the rows of bush-style apple trees are laden with ripe red fruit, but dozens of locals have been arriving with armfuls of their own apples. ThisisAlfred.com’s Keri Jones spoke with orchard co-founder Gavin Tait, who said that his new apple pressing service is proving popular. “This is the first year that we have done it – on a very small scale for individuals,” said Gavin.
Before I got to see the pressing process in action, Gavin took me on a tour of the orchard. We paused to inspect and taste his favourite apple variety, renowned for its distinctive flesh and juice colour. “I really love these apples,” Gavin enthused. “It’s called a Red Devil. It’s a fairly recent variety, developed in the 1970s and was named after the skydiving troupe. When pressed, it gives a lovely, naturally pink apple juice. It almost looks artificial. It is entirely natural and the longer you leave them on the tree, the darker they get. They became a really deep purple.”
The Red Devils had the dark red colour of a ripe plum. But their taste reminded me of a different fruit. “It’s almost strawberry-like in its flavour,” said Gavin. “And you can see that the bright red colour is bleeding into the flesh. That’s what gives us the pink juice.”
Gavin grows apples for his juice and award winning ciders. These Red Devil apples don’t make good cider, though. “We have half a dozen Westcountry cider apple varieties, including Yarlington Mill and Harry Masters Jerseys. They make better cider because we are looking for tannin. If you’re making cider out of eating apples you tend to get a thin, astringent acidic cider,” said Gavin.
He mixes the juice of different apples when cider making. “You get much better results if you blend them,” he said. “It is because the tannins are very different in each apple. A single variety cider will give you one particular tannin – one note. It’s like the difference between a solo singer and a choir. If you have lots of different tannins, lots of different notes kicking in, then you get a rounder, better flavour profile,” he said.
Gavin led me along a grassy lane between rows of apple trees so I could see Shaftesbury’s most local apple variety. The Yarlington Mill comes from a small village, 17 miles northwest of our town, near to Castle Cary. “It was found at the old Mill in Yarlington, growing out of the wall,” explained Gavin.
So is this really our most local variety? “I’m sure that somebody will let you know that there is a much closer one, but this is certainly the closest one we have growing in this orchard,” said Gavin. “We would be happy to try other ones, if somebody can find a closer one.” These apples gave off a whitish glow, giving them an almost eerie appearance. “They remind me of ghosts,” said Gavin. “They have a strange hue about them and from certain angles you can’t see them against the tree at all.”
Gavin plucked a Yarlington Mill apple from a branch. A quick bite confirmed that this fruit was more spongy in texture. It was not as crisp as other varieties. “One of the differences between cider apples and eating apples is the amount of juice that they yield. Our press will get up to 70% of the weight of an apple as juice. With cider apples you’re looking at 60% to 65%. They are not as wet inside. There’s lots of fibre. And with the tannin, they don’t make a very good eating apple.”
“But don’t forget that apples have changed over the years,” advised Gavin. “In the 150 years that this variety has been around we have developed sweeter eating apples, commercially, for the supermarkets. They would not have been as sweet and as juicy as we know them today.”
I asked Gavin whether he would create his own Donheads apple variety? “We’ll give it a go. I am sure we will find something growing randomly in the hedgerow at some point that is absolutely delicious. That is how it happens. Or certainly how it used to happen,” he said. “These days we cross breed and select and use gene editing technology. I’m sure it’ll be done that way in the future but historically it was what’s growing randomly out of the wall.”
I liked the idea of a Donheads apple. There has been huge interest in local produce and food production in recent years and Gavin has shown there’s demand for quality local goods with his Donhead craft cider. He’s helped reintroduce one of our food and drink traditions. In the past, cider production would have played a much greater part in the lives of people around Shaftesbury and Cranborne Chase.
“Cider wasn’t uncommon in farming areas around here,” said Gavin. “It was actually used as part of the wages of farmworkers. They would have grown a lot and there certainly would have been cider trees at the back of each farmhouse. A lot of them are still there.”
And with our regional tradition of apple growing there are customs that go back centuries. Gavin has given new life to an ancient celebration – wassailing. This is the ceremony to encourage a good harvest. The Donhead Apple Company hosts their own wassail in January.
“The White Horse Morris men and ladies always come around and put on a fantastic show,” Gavin said. “We had a little, traditional tea wassail in name only in the village hall for years. But when we planted the orchard we really wanted to involve as much of the community as possible. We take turns at donning the green face paint, covering ourselves in branches and becoming the green man.”
Not everyone is familiar with wassailing activities, so I asked Gavin to try to explain the custom. “Clearly, as we all know, the spirits within the apple tree go to sleep in the winter. Traditionally it would have been a wassail virgin, but we are more politically correct these days and the kids tend to be wassail princes or princesses. They come along and wake up the tree with a glass of cider, tapping it vigorously with a stick. People are dressed in handkerchiefs and rags while they dance around with a man in green face paint. I think it’s very ordinary for the Donheads,” smiled Gavin.
Our orchard walk continued and we reached rows of trees heavily laden with the green-skinned Dabinette apples. This fruit is popular amongst Somerset cider makers. “It’s probably the backbone of most of the good quality real ciders,” said Gavin, plucking one of the smallish apples from a branch. He handed it to me to taste, with the instruction, “You are allowed to spit.”
I expected the worst, but it was really sweet. “There is a huge sugar content inside cider apples but the tannin means that a bitterness comes through and it makes them revolting to eat,” said Gavin. As he spoke it felt as if there was a furry coating on my teeth where I had bitten into the fruit. “That shows it is almost ready,” confirmed Gavin.
Our tour continued. “Look at that tree there,” Gavin exclaimed, pointing at a short bush with its branches sagging under the weight of Dabinette fruit. “One of the big problems we have is that the branches snap because they fruit so heavily. This tree probably has around 50kg on it and as you can see, this one has actually keeled over. We’ll wait until the fruit matures and comes off and then we will bring it back up again. We will try and secure it over the winter months.”
I was impressed when Gavin told me that the orchard could yield over 35 tonnes of fruit each year and assumed that The Donheads offer the perfect apple growing conditions. I was wrong. It seems that much of Gavin’s success is down to his hard work, knowledge and planning.
“It’s not the best of sites. It’s green sandstone which doesn’t hold nutrients terribly well but that’s something we are working on over time. All of the spent apple residue after we juice is put around the trees as mulch. We’re trying to get more organic matter into the soil, to build up a bit of structure. We ran a few experiments over the last few years. It doesn’t seem to be acidifying the soil as you might expect with all that juice going on. The worms take the fibres back down and it does seem to be giving us a much richer soil structure.”
Clearly Gavin has to put a lot of effort into growing the apples, before he can harvest fruit to press for juice or cidermaking. “The work comes at different times of the seasons,” he replied. “We are pressing the eating fruit right now. Cider fruit is a little bit later in the season. Cider pressing is from the start of October to early November. Then we prune apple and pear trees in the dormant part of the year.”
As a passing shower sprinkled us and the apple bushes, we headed indoors, walking across the public footpath that bisects the orchard. Gavin opened a gate leading onto a gravel path, which runs toward a modern, dark green industrial building. A garage-style door was open on one side, revealing a spotless concrete floor and brilliant white tongue and groove effect walls. Two pieces of compact, shiny metal equipment sat on the floor and filled this small space.
“Welcome to what’s locally known as the stainless steel museum,” joked Gavin, as he pointed to the apple press. “There are two stainless steel drums and rollers. The funnel on the top is where the milled apples go. The produce comes out through the spout. The dry pumice is rejected at the end.”
I had expected to see some old-fashioned wooden agricultural implement involving a round millstone. “Things have moved on considerably,” laughed Gavin. “That would be difficult to use in any great amount these days. This little belt press is fantastic and it means that we are able to process smaller amounts of apples for other people as well.”
Gavin has been pleased by the take up of his new commercial apple pressing service. But he’s realised that his potential customers need guidance before they arrive with their apples. “Don’t pick your apples too early,” is his first tip. “If the apple is still firmly on the tree it wants to stay there. Apples are fantastic at letting you know when they are ready. They use gravity. Then, cut your apple in half. The pips should be brown in colour. Then have a bite. If it is still tasting a little bit floury or starchy, give it a little bit longer and wait until it tastes nice and sweet.”
So how much juice can you expect your apples to produce? “It does depend on the variety of course,” said Gavin, “But 1kg of apples will give you roughly 500ml of juice.” And, the most important question, how can you be sure that juice will taste good? “The best thing you can do is pop a little bit of each apple that you are planning to turn into juice into a blender. Whatever that apple tastes like, magnify that by a factor of four. If it’s a slightly tart apple, by the time you take out all the pith and fibre you will have a very concentrated version.” If you grimace when you taste your juice, then don’t bring those apples to Gavin!
Gavin has told some potential customers that he could not press their unsuitable apples, because the end product would not taste nice. “There were a couple of kids here the other weekend with lots of mixed apples. They were very excited about making apple juice but about 70% or 80% of them were cookers. So we pressed their lovely sweet apples and they have a beautiful apple juice now. And the rest – they now have lots of apple pie. So what’s not to love?” he said.
Gavin can label your homegrown juice bottles for a personalised gift or to create an impressive addition to a B&B breakfast table. And if you follow Gavin’s advice and bring suitable apples for pressing, then you won’t have to wait too long for your juice. “We will have that back to you within three or four days.”
I can understand why the pressing has been so popular with our current passion for food and drink provenance. But all is not lost if your apples are too tart and, in fact, are better suited to tarts. If you ask nicely, Gavin might put your label on his own delicious apple juice.
For more information on Gavin’s apple pressing in Donhead St Mary visit DonheadApple.com.