Dorset Sweet and Sour
Liz Copas describes her odyssey around Dorset’s apple orchards to rediscover the county’s traditional apple varieties
Published in April ’11
A pencilled list on a flimsy brown-stained sheet of paper written way back in 1936 by Mr Pickford at the National Fruit and Cider Institute in Bristol was all we had to go on to begin our search for lost Dorset cider apples. Neverblight, Polly, Go Boyn, Buttery d’Or; these strange names were too good to ignore. But without Nick Poole’s ambition to make Dorset cider with the true traditional flavour, these apple varieties might have been lost for ever. Nick had been gleaning fruit from back gardens, searching field margins and scrambling through hedges to pick up enough cider apples every autumn. It was he who decided that a concerted effort was needed to find and propagate for keeps, trees of Dorset’s own cider apples. So with Mr Pickford’s short list we made our start.
Dorset’s chalk and cheese geological personality dictates where fruit trees will thrive; happily on the deep loam and clayey ‘cheese’ lands from Bridport to the west, but seldom and forlornly on the shallow stony chalk downland and corn-brash to the east. So our first call was to Netherbury in the ‘cheese’ heartland where up until the late 1990s Mr Warren had made and sold fine cider in his barns close to the centre of the village. Here was an orchard where we knew we could find Golden Ball. Just the one old tree remained which Mr Warren had shown me with pride in 1996. The rest had passed away with him and had been replaced with bittersweet Yarlington Mill trees from Somerset. Close to the old house was a Stubbard tree, not on the list but an interesting ancient variety. Its pale yellow knobbly fruit was falling in late August, ready and waiting to be cooked or to be made into some early cider. A good start for our quest!
Further south at Pymore near Bridport in an derelict orchard that belonged to Palmers Brewery we found a tree, broken but still vigorous and full of glorious large round shiny scarlet apples. Mr Pickford had it by its Somerset name, Crimson King, but everyone we spoke to in West Dorset knows it as Kings Favourite. We collected a few apples to make a sharp but flavoursome single varietal cider.
The mention of a centuries old orchard further west in Monkton Wylde led us to great discoveries. Tucked away behind a cider barn there were Bell, Sweet Coppin and Woodbine trees in plenty with some aptly named Slack-ma-Girdle. Here also were trees of Pound Apple or Sweet Blenheim as it is usually known in Dorset; all sweet cider apples.
In West Milton we found the first Buttery d’Or tree growing on its own in a hedge between a footpath and what was once a back garden. Its sharp tasting, large, pale green fruit were just beginning to drop, inviting us to collect up enough to make us a little cider. There were two old trees on a steep hillside paddock in Nettlecombe, one a sweet Woodbine and the other a sour Browns Apple. Behind the houses in the village was a hidden orchard. There, growing in the long grass were more tall Buttery d’Or trees and with them, bearing almost identical looking but quite different tasting apples, a bittersweet, that we had yet to name. The big, strong vigorous upright trees, turned out to be Golden Bittersweet once reputedly widely grown for its soft astringency.
So far most of our search had uncovered sweet or sour tasting cider apples, more characteristic perhaps of a orchard in Devon where the farmhouse cider lacks the full astringency of bittersweet cider from neighbouring Somerset. We were beginning to discover that traditional West Dorset cider would have been pleasantly sharp with a slight natural sweetness.
We continued our search further north of the county on the good lands around Marnhull and Sherborne where not so long ago nearly every village had fruit trees behind the houses. Two world wars and generous government tree grubbing grants in the 1960s have reduced the orchards to slim remnants and lonely survivors. Happily we found two retired trees of Fillbarrel and Cap of Liberty with their small bright red fruit, flourishing and appreciated in a neat garden behind a bungalow built where an orchard once stood. We came back a year later to collect the fruit but Fillbarrel only fills the barrels every other year. This year it was resting and we went home with empty sacks. We knew that Sour Cadbury ought to be found here too but it took a little more searching. An old photograph showed it as a smallish conical, yellow apple. We eventually found some trees with the right fruit and tasting unmistakably ultra sour in an old walled orchard in Kington Magna. Sadly a flock of hungry sheep had barked and killed many of the other trees in the orchard in the previous winter but two little Cadbury trees had escaped and survived. Not to the taste of even the hungriest sheep.
A handsome tree shading a paddock behind a house in Cattistock shares its autumn fruit feast with the resident pony. It bears bright, glossy red and yellow striped knobbly fruit. Unsure of its identity, we dubbed Joannie’s after the owner of the field. Now some years later we know that this variety is Warrior. Our hunt for Ironsides was rewarded in another Cattistock back garden. We passed by the hard, green bullets at first as ‘wildlings’, but aptly named, Ironsides had to be its true identity.
During our quest many more unknown varieties came to light. Sadly there is no way of finding their real names, no written information, no pictures, but we will give them new names for their resurrection and new life. A batch of new young healthy trees, the progeny of our finds, are now in their first year of growth in a nursery up in Herefordshire. They will be ready to go to good homes in Dorset sometime during the coming winter.
So thanks to Mr Pickford, Nick will have his true Dorset flavoured cider and Dorset will keep its heritage cider apple trees.
Nick Poole is the originator and organiser of the annual Powerstock Cider Festival held every year on the 3rd Friday in April]
Our project was funded by Chalk & Cheese and Leader +
Readers who can find good homes for some genuine Dorset cider apple trees please visit www.dorsetcider.com
Neverblight, Polly, Go Boyn are all names for Golden Ball – An excellent, sharp apple with some tannin, maturing in late October; found throughout West Dorset.
Buttery d’Or – A classic old fashioned codling, large, early maturing, sharp tasting, dual purpose apple reputed to be centuries old; listed in RHS Journal 1936 as from Dorset.
Stubbard – Another ancient West Country dual purpose apple reputed to date back to 15th Century. Ready in August.
Kings Favourite – Seemingly long lived, sharp cider apple, common and well known in West Dorset; also called Crimson King in Somerset and Devon.
Bell – Sometimes called Sheep’s Nose, this sweet tasting cider apple shaped like an inverted bell; probably 19th Century.
Sweet Coppin – The old name for a spinning top, coppin, gives this sweet tasting, round yellow cider apple its name; quite common in West Dorset and neighbouring Devon.
Woodbine – One of several sweet cider apples that make a rather woody flavoured cider; common in West Dorset.
Slack-ma-Girdle – Very similar to Woodbine, this old, rather coarse flavoured sweet variety is more common in Devon
Browns Apple – This excellent sharp cider apple is known, loved and frequently planted throughout the cider growing counties; from Staverton in Devon in early 20th Century.
Golden Bittersweet – A large yellow fruit with some astringency; listed in Hogg’s Fruit Manual of 1884 as a Devonshire cider apple, but equally at home in West Dorset orchards.
Tom Putt – A small tree, often dubbed a ‘cottage apple’, with knobbly red striped fruit; a well known dual purpose variety for cooking or cider making; originated in Trent near Sherborne.
Fillbarrel – Local to north Dorset border near Wincanton, the red fruit of this full bittersweet variety yields a pink juice but the trees crop only every other year.
Cap of Liberty – The juice of this high quality 19th Century bittersharp red cider apple is often pink coloured; native to north Dorset borders.
Sour Cadbury – Its sharp cider was described in 1937 by the National Fruit and Cider Institute as medium brisk and of attractive character in favourable seasons; also called Yeovil Sour
Warrior – Listed in the 1947 RHS Journal as a second early eating apple from Dorset, this handsome striped apple is often used for making cider.
Ironsides – A late sharp apple of dubious quality, but one reputed to keep indefinitely; recorded in Weymouth in the 19th Century.