Pig’s Snout is a very oddly shaped apple, rather square shouldered and once seen .. etc. Sadly there was no example of the Goose Arse available for inspection at Plas yn Rhiw, but I imagine there must be some resemblance shared by the Medlar – also known as Dog’s Arse by vulgar people like me.
And even as I write that I’m imagining a spontaneous demonstration by the flock of geese in the farm opposite where we’re staying. I shall offer what the politicians like to call ‘a robust defence’; I’d be pleased to have an apple named after my fundament! As a writer the crazy names of apple varieties are irresistable and they’re completely embedded in local cultures.
Yesterday we visited Plas yn Rhiw for the umpteenth time. It’s one of our favourite and least pretentious National Trust gardens, and I love it because it still feels like the ghosts of the Keating sisters are superintending the upkeep of the gardens, and RS Thomas still lives in Sarn Cottage with Elsi. But this posting is more about apples than about the house, and the trigger for me was the orchard above the house on the hill where they have planted a huge collection of 36 of the 47 known apple varieties grown in Wales and listed in Carwyn Graves lovely book “Apples of Wales”. They’re nearly all grown at the National Botanic Garden of Wales which is a place we’ve yet to visit. There was a rather good display of some of the apples laid out in one of the barns.
Why are there so many apple varieties? The answer lies in the apple’s promiscuous capacity to hybridize with its neighbouring trees, making it almost impossible to grow true-to-type apples from seeds. There’s a brilliant discussion of this topic in Michael Pollan’s book “Botany of Desire” which includes a wonderful debunking of the Johnny Appleseed myth, much loved by temperance campaigners, but which suggests that he was responsible for transporting apple seeds for sale all across the West to settlers who had to grow apple trees to show their intent to stay put before they could stake a claim. Many of the seeds would have produced apples so poor as to be suitable only for the production of cider. Mercifully if you grew a good one you could always increase the stock by grafting.
Cider apples have notoriously exotic names. One of my favourites is “Slack ma girdle”, and many of them are so sour that you’d be hard pressed to eat one. They kept their names (many of them very local) as long as there was a local brewing industry; but when interest in the poor peoples’ drink waned many of the varieties lost when orchards were grubbed up. Nowadays there’s a resurgence of interest and new cider houses are cropping up wherever a jaded city type decides to put down roots and discover their inner artisan. I wish them luck, really I do, because I’m fed up with drinking rather poor wine at exorbitant prices, and I’d like to get back to something that’s not travelled halfway around the world in a tanker before being bottled in Milton Keynes. However good cider is not easy to make deliberately. I use my words carefully! Anyone can accidentally turn out twenty gallons of blindingly good cider, but the bad cider can blind you in an entirely more sinister way.
I’ve known some old school cider makers and one of the most interesting was known to everyone locally as “Doughnut”, not because of any mental inacpacity but because of a T shirt he once wore to primary school. They have long memories these country folk. But Doughnut would have nothing to do with the recently trendy “varietal” ciders. He once told me that Kingston Black – one of the local favourite varieties – made terrible cider on its own, and he would always add a few Bramleys to most of his ciders. My friend Nick lives on a smallholding in the Brecon Beacons and he makes cider from any apples he can get his hands on, and it can be very good. But he is unable to avoid producing excellent cider vinegar as well. I was syphoning a batch of spoiled cider with him one day when the ‘mother’ appeared at the bottom of the barrel. Hmmmn – it looked like something left over from a seance and it was much bigger than I’d ever imagined – a pair of cupped hands could only just contain its sloppy and gelatinous bulk.
Organic, locally grown and produced cider could be an economic winner but demands humility and a willingness to learn from our mistakes. I was chatting to a producer at an Apple Day in Cornwall a few weeks ago and he told me that he’s judged a cider competition where most of the contenders were undrinkable – I think I’ve tried some of them myself. More Goose Arse than St Cecilia. But beware too. Beer drinkers and wine drinkers – if they’ve got any sense – pay attention to how much they can safely drink, but cider can be fearfully strong. The wild yeast pays scant regard to alcohol and will go on converting sugar into alcohol up to 7% or 8%. If you can drink it and enjoy it in small glasses without inventing a ghastly epicurian vocabulary to brag about your superior taste buds then all will be well and good. But if I ever hear a bloke in a beard with a waxed moustache going on to his girlfriend about the unmistakable fragrance of Cadwalader or Cummy Norman or the impact of the terroir on Porter’s Sharp I will have to remonstrate with a well placed Pig’s Snout.