Heath Robinson

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees…

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core

In my youth I was fairly impervious to the seasons, but in recent years I have come to dread the winter months. It’s not so much the cold that I dislike as the long hours of darkness and the even more dismal short hours of fuggy daylight. I particularly hate the murkiness of late November and December and always rejoice when the New Year brings a better quality of light. My husband once pointed out to me that January 21st marks the end of the two darkest months of the year, and now I always have a mini-celebration on that date.
It is therefore with mixed feelings that I welcome the autumn, even such a warm and mellow one as we have been enjoying this year. We’re already more than a week into October and, at the end of the month, the dark mornings will descend in a brutal rush when the clocks are changed. Now the shades of winter are hiding in the trees, making the first leaves fall. Soon all the branches will be bleakly bare. Although we’ve had a good summer, no-one in Yorkshire has forgotten last winter, which managed to extend itself almost into April: here, we had eight-foot snow drifts at the end of March.
There are some good things to look forward to, however. This has been an excellent year for crops of all kinds – the combination of a wet, late spring and warm early summer seems to have suited almost every species of fruit and vegetable. I’ve already written about freezing our bonanzas of beans and peas, and the exceptional blackberry harvest that we’ve enjoyed. The plums have been prolific, too. And now there is a bumper crop of apples.

I had a crush on this

I had a crush on this

We have two apple trees, one an eater, the other a cooker – a Cox’s Orange Pippin and a Beauty of Kent; our neighbours own four, theirs all varieties of eaters. The Cox rarely produces enough apples to last us until Christmas, but the Beauty of Kent is a stalwart yielder – we collected ten trays of apples last year and did not manage to eat all of them or give them away before they began to rot at Easter – and the neighbours rarely get around to harvesting the significant yields that their trees produce in any kind of systematic way. The waste has been regrettable, but hard to address. This year, my husband decided that we should countenance it no longer and suggested that we should try our hand at making cider.

Pomace face

Pomace face

Correction: that isn’t what he originally suggested. At first he said that we should try making apple juice, and accordingly we bought the equipment. My husband loves embarking on projects of this kind and they all have one feature in common: they are always more expensive than he says they will be, often by many times – the pond, for example; then the beehive ‘starter kit’ (£450 would give us all we needed to maintain two colonies of bees, but we soon needed another hive and a very strange miscellany of costly equipment that looked as if it had been knocked up by Heath Robinson, not to mention the cost of the bees themselves, which turned out not to have been included in the initial figure). I don’t for a minute believe that this is because my husband has a poor head for figures or is incapable of adding up the costs of his enterprises; in fact, I’m quite certain that it’s his way of getting me to agree to them. Once he’s pointed out the entirely reasonable price attached to whatever is his latest enthusiasm, and I’ve agreed to this outlay, we have reached the point of no return and further investment, when it is needed, becomes impossible to refuse.

The turn of the screw

The turn of the screw

So it has been with the apples venture. The cheapest press proved, on closer inspection, too inferior to contemplate; the screw cap bottles that we’d saved possibly not suitable for the pasteuriser (pasteuriser? I don’t remember that being part of the discussion!), so two boxes of matching shiny new ones have been purchased; and, it turns out, we also needed a host of small tools – a bottle-drying gadget, a thermometer, muslin bags, ‘food grade’ plastic buckets, etc., etc. However, I had agreed that it was a wicked waste not to do something with the apples, so I totted up the cost (about £800) and dug out the credit card. Expensive, I thought, but a real quality-of-life-project, and at least there was nothing more we could possibly need.

And by a cider press, with patient look

And by a cider press, with patient look

I’ve met my husband before, so in retrospect I’m a little astonished at my own naiveté. The equipment duly came, we picked up a couple of trays of windfalls and spent a happy afternoon chopping, pressing and bottling them. I was particularly impressed with the pasteuriser, which bubbles away, and apparently doubles as a tea urn – so if we decide to hold a village fete on our lawn, no further financial outlay will be required. Enthusiastic about our success – we now had eight bottles of de luxe quality apple juice (I tried not to cost out the price of each) – I asked my husband if we’d be making another batch the following weekend.
He assumed a look that I know well: a mixture of foxy evasiveness and guileless bonhomie unique to himself. “I’ve been thinking,” he said. “There are so many apples this year, that perhaps we should have a go at making cider, too.” I shrugged. “Sure,” I said. “Why not? We’ve got all the equipment now.”
“Well, the thing is,” he said, “there are one or two other items that we need…”




The last oozings

The last oozings

Upshot: we spent a further happy day in glorious sunshine on Sunday gathering up windfalls and plucking marked or damaged apples. The cider-making extras came yesterday – the additional cost was a mere £122 – and we spent the day chopping and squeezing eight trays of apples (in my case this activity was punctuated by several telephone calls to a restaurant in Krakow, of which more in a later post). We now have thirty litres of cider bubbling away in the garage, and five of the bottles of apple juice still to drink. And all of this for less than £1,000!

All that, for all this!

All that, for all this!

I must admit, though, that the experience has been so enjoyable that the outlay has been worth it and, as my husband so sagely remarked, the apple press is a beautiful piece of machinery that will last us for many more years, and eventually become an heirloom. Thinking a little more short-term, the cider should be ready by Easter and I’m sure the anticipation of it will help us through the dreary darkest days.

[Having read all this and, he says, ‘appreciated’ the tone of it, my husband requests the opportunity for a re-post riposte (guest), from his perspective. Hmmm.]

All text and photographs on this website © Christina James

The murmuring of innumerable bees…

Honey bee
Yesterday I went on a pilgrimage to Ripon with my husband, in quest of bees. We (I say ‘we’ – he is the bee-keeper, the one who has acquired the considerable amount of scientific knowledge needed and has the requisite patience; I am the bee-keeper’s assistant, so can get by on more limited quantities of both and shirk my duties if I feel like it.) started keeping bees a number of years ago, with reasonable success. However, the terrible winter and very wet spring here took their toll and, like many beekeepers, we suffered losses.

Because, according to the press, some 80% of the nation’s bee colonies perished this winter, ‘supply and demand’ now dictates that the cost of a ‘nucleus’ colony is very high (up to £250) and it’s definitely a sellers’ market. Hobby beekeeping isn’t cheap anyway, with hives, frames and beekeeping paraphernalia. The equipment is, to me, like something designed by Heath Robinson or Rube Goldberg and I’m not surprised it’s pricey, given the frankly bizarre design of smokers, heated honey-capping knives, centrifugal honey extraction drums and solar wax melters; the few existing suppliers who have cornered the market definitely call the shots. Anyone thinking of starting up should throw those rose-tinted, back-to-nature, self-sufficiency specs away and go for crystal clear lenses. Then there are the bees themselves: they aren’t like kittens; they don’t come out to melt you with their charms when you are trying to decide whether to offer them a home and they don’t take kindly to being shipped by car and bumped around, before being hoiked out of one temporary home and bundled into another. Though some strains of bee, such as the Italian ‘ligustica’, are more gentle, bees tend to be ‘mongrels’ with very variable temperaments; sometimes a queen bee has genes with an attitude problem. So, though you might dream of summer days and drowsing in the garden sunshine, imagining yourself transported to the Mediterranean by the murmuring of the apiarian equivalent of the Italian soldiers in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, the reality can be more like taking on the aliens in Independence Day or WWII kamikaze pilots, hell-bent on taking you out even at the cost of their own lives. Think high-pitched incoming whine and be prepared to take cover. Unhappy bees do not subscribe to the concept that assault and battery is a crime. They just do it.

However, for those of us who do love bees and have become used to their temperamental ways and needs, caution is the watchword, and we pulled the plug on the travelling box and retreated quickly to a very safe distance. They’ve settled in already. Apparently, they get their bearings by flying backwards the first time that they leave the hive, to note where they are as they look back on it. They are remarkable creatures: they’re incomplete individually, but together comprise what is known as a superorganism. Each worker has her own task to perform and this changes over time as she ages, becoming finally a nectar- and pollen-gathering ‘forager’. The male ‘drones’ have their moment of glory, flying with the virgin queen to enable her to mate with several of them, before dying a gloriously sexy death (genitalia ripped right out of them!), or never doing anything until they are kicked out by the workers in the autumn so that they don’t deplete precious food reserves over the winter. I’m not a feminist by any means, but I can think of a few men whose families would benefit from similar summary treatment!

Because of the way in which they organise their lives and collaborate, bees have cropped up in art and literature from earliest times. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics feature bees; the early Greek writers celebrated them in song and verse. In more recent times, Alexandra Kollontai used the bee colony as a metaphor for life and love in Russia in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution, in her masterpiece Love of Worker Bees.

Bees are a joyful trouble. If they’re successful, they swarm, and the bee-keeper, in hot pursuit, has to shin up trees or plunge into thickets, hanging on precariously with one hand as he tries to trap them in a traditional straw ‘skep’ or a cardboard box. (You notice I say ‘he’ – this is emphatically not this beekeeper’s assistant’s job – though I know that there are many very skilled female beekeepers.) They suffer from a parasite called varroa mite, on which war has to be waged all the time if the colony is to flourish. Bees eat unconscionable quantities of sugar syrup during the autumn and often yield only a few small jars of honey per hive in return, but the benefits of their wider gifts to agriculture and the environment are incalculably great.

And I have to admit, in spite of all those expenses and troubles, now that the garden is once again a-buzz with murmuring bees, it feels as if the summer has begun in earnest at last.

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