When you grow up a mile and a half from your family’s cider orchard – helping to plant new trees in the chill of winter, building dens in the thickets while the pruning takes place, and clambering into 10,000-pint oak vats to hose them down after the pressing and fermenting season – apples take on a very special meaning.
For James Rich, whose great uncle, Gordon Rich, first started pressing the fruit at Mill Farm on the Somerset Levels, it was a childhood spent exploring the land – the 70-year-old trees all gnarly, ‘like Avalon, and quite romantic’ – while his father worked. ‘I remember watching him with pipettes and test tubes to measure the alcohol levels. It was very fantastical.’
At home, unlabelled bottles of traditional, cloudy farmhouse cider filled the fridge (‘It’s sold with a little less sediment now,’ Rich tells me, for modern tastes).
These days, vintage and single-variety versions have joined the scrumpy, made from Kingston Black – ‘king of cider apples’ – Yarlington Mill and other bitter-sharp varieties (with high levels of acidity and tannin) such as Chisel Jersey and Lambrook Pippin. ‘The list goes on and on.’
Rich celebrates the fruit in a new cookbook, Apple, which shows the versatility of Malus domestica in both savoury and sweet recipes. ‘I get really excited about using cider in stews, a little later in the year when it gets a bit colder,’ he says, ‘and then there are all the desserts.’