My husband, Cameron, and I are natural cider makers based in St Veep, Cornwall. We make full juice, wild fermented cider with absolutely nothing added. It’s just apples and naturally occurring yeast, a true expression of the Cornish apple.
Our method of production involves minimum intervention, no chemical additions and minimal energy inputs. It means working with the seasons and the natural temperature fluctuations, using a long slow fermentation to create complex flavours and aromas. We want our cider to reflect the quality of the apple, where and how it is grown, how it is picked, pressed and aged, each step of the process adding its own subtle nuance to the final product. We hand pick our apples from the orchard floor, which ensures they are ripe, checking each one for bruises and breaks in the skin. When all you are adding is apples the quality and ripeness is paramount. Once we have pressed the apples, the juice goes into oak barrels for fermentation. We love working with used barrels, the interaction with wood and the micro-oxidation and character that can be imparted by the previous occupant, for example a pinot noir or orange wine, is something really special. Removing the bung from the barrel and taking in the first hit of aroma is a delight to the senses.
Wild fermentation preserves the integrity of the apple, adding nothing and taking nothing away. Whole raw foods host good bacteria that are specifically suited to consuming it, and it’s these native bacteria that turn raw food into fermented food and drink. Wheat contains all the bacteria and yeast it needs to transform into sourdough bread, milk has all the all the culture it needs to transform into cheese and the very same principles apply to apples and cider.
The apple’s heritage in the UK is profound. No other country has specialised in an apple for every use, from every county and from almost every Parish. Apples originated in Kazakhstan and spread along the Silk Road into Europe and, ultimately, to every temperate climate, using their unique combination of genetic diversity and seductiveness (Pete Brown, The Apple Orchard). When Julius Caesar first attempted to invade Britain in 55 B.C the locals were drinking something similar to cider made from wild crab apples. The Romans took the discovery back to Continental Europe and it spread throughout the Roman Empire where apple cultivators and orcharding techniques were developed. It continued across Europe to the Normans whose conquest of England in the 9th century formally introduced apple orchards and consequently the word cider into the English language.
10 centuries later we stumbled upon the world of apples and orchards in our search for a new way of life. Cameron was a head brewer at Brixton Brewery and I was a sustainability recruitment consultant and, although we cared passionately about environmental degradation and the wider climate crisis, the lives we were living did not reflect this. We were big consumers, went on several holidays a year, had no time to cook for ourselves so were eating out or buying ‘ready meals’. We justified this life to ourselves as a way of dealing with the stress and pressures of our jobs and lives in the “rat race” but felt guilty and conflicted as our lives were so unaligned with our values and concern for the environment. We felt we were a part of the problem but didn’t have the time or headspace to try and figure out how we might become part of the solution.
And so in 2019, we made a somewhat hasty decision to quit our jobs, convert a van and travel around Europe and the UK to learn about organic farming, low impact living and self sufficiency. We used the WWOOF (worldwide opportunities in organic farming) network which links volunteers with organic farmers, promoting educational and cultural exchange.
We set off with very little knowledge of farming and living off the land having spent the past 9 years in London but had a vague idea that we wanted to be self-sufficient and thought we could try to make a living through some form of eco-tourism. As we travelled from host to host and learnt more about regenerative farming practices, soil health and biodiversity, our ideas adapted and evolved. It was in Sierra Nevada, Spain, with an edible garden enthusiast, Damian, that we started to explore the
wonderful world of orchards.
Orchards are incredible for biodiversity and the wider environment, the combination of fruit trees, the grassland floor, dead wood and hedgerow boundaries mean they
offer an array of habitats that add to the plant diversity to support a vast range of species. As orchards are not ploughed the soil remains undisturbed and largely
intact; there is less damage to the fungal hyphae networks and less soil erosion which means the complex ecosystem and subterranean world can thrive. And of course, through photosynthesis trees sequester carbon. However, very sadly,
traditionally managed orchards are now considered an endangered habitat that need to be protected as many have been scrubbed up to make room for more commercial
crops or enterprises. As we don’t have our own orchard, we pick unwanted apples from unsprayed local orchards in return for pruning and maintenance. This gives these otherwise neglected or unloved orchards a use and us an incentive to keep them flourishing and thriving.
The synopsis for Orchard by Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates perfectly describes why we were so drawn to orchards and wild fermented cider:
“Orchard is a beautifully written, lyrical account of an ancient English orchard from January to December, celebrating the extraordinary range of animals and plants it supports, which make it one of the richest ecosystems left in Britain.
An ancient tradition of collaboration between people and nature makes traditional orchards a unique example of simultaneous agriculture and conservation. If we can restore England’s orchards – favouring organic methods and harvesting with a balanced ecosystem in mind – not only wildlife but people will have a far richer England to profit from in the centuries to come.”
Our decision to make natural cider stemmed from our desire to find a way in which we could work with the land to protect and preserve it, but also to celebrate it. It enabled us to utilise Cameron’s extensive fermentation knowledge from the world of brewing and make a living from the land. And, as we discovered more and more about the intriguing world of apples, orchards and natural cider we were hooked. Apples and cider have long been celebrated and represented across cultures and continents, after all it was an apple that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, apples are referred to in multiple Greek myths and Isaac Newton formulated the law of gravity after watching an apple fall to the ground. In the UK, from 1204, wealthy landowners paid their workers in cider. Consequently, the farms that produced the best cider, attracted the best workers or perhaps the most discerning drinkers. And somewhat controversially, champagne was technically invented not in France, but in
Somerset, by 17th century cider makers, along with the thick glass bottles it is served in. Our history is steeped in cultural references to apples and cider, however, in Britain, cider only amounts to less than 10% of all alcohol consumed, making it the lowest category of drink, except for alcopops (Gabe Cook, Modern British Cider).
Cider’s reputation is largely as an industrially produced, fizzy, sugary drink, to be consumed by the pint. However, at a time when there is a growing emphasis on local, sustainable and natural, we with some bias, want to introduce more people to the world of low intervention, wild cider. As natural cider makers, we are working to conserve a biodiverse, rare habitat that is being lost, working with the seasons, with a singular raw ingredient and very little energy requirements to produce a delicious, low impact drink with so much incredible history and culture. Wild cider, for us, is a true reflection of the land and what we can produce from it in harmony with nature and natural processes.
We are in no way pioneers of wild cider making, as we have demonstrated, cider making is almost as old as the apple itself, and we have learnt a great deal of what we know from fellow cider makers. We have found the cider making community in the UK incredibly welcoming and happy to impart their wisdom unequivocally. We have been lucky enough to live and work with some very inspiring people in the world of cider and broader farming and we are forever grateful for all the guidance and support along the way. Travelling in the van, not knowing where we were going or what we were ultimately going to do made us vulnerable in a way that we never were in London. I think it’s this vulnerability that has allowed us to build such strong relationships with the people we’ve met and opened up so many avenues for collaboration and community.
We have set up our cidery in St.Veep near Fowey. We have settled in Cornwall, in part, because there is an interesting regenerative farming and food scene down here. There is a strong like-minded community of people with so much passion and knowledge with a real appetite for change. It is also an incredibly beautiful place with wonderful and wild landscapes which we’ve found to be very good for the soul.
In the future, we would love our own piece of land to plant a traditional orchard of heritage, local, apple tree varieties. Our dream is to mob graze our orchard floor with a flock of sheep or herd of cattle, managing the pasture regeneratively, increasing organic matter and building topsoil while producing milk for raw milk cheese. The animals will graze the orchard, improving the health of grass and fertilising the soil, and as our apple trees grow they will provide our animals with shade and shelter; arelationship as symbiotic as the one between cider and cheese.
This way of life is about being part of and helping to build a resilient community, that is not corporately controlled, environmentally destructive or chemically dependent. It is about being able to support and provide for ourselves, whilst preserving and protecting the land. It is a step towards reclaiming ownership of how we eat and live and tentatively offers the opportunity to inspire more educated consumption. In the words of Dan Barber “I’d rather be a merchant of happiness than an army of virtue”. We’ve found it is far more effective to inspire conversations about changing habits
and mindsets with a delicious drink than by ranting. Cheers!