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Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2006

OLD NIC'S NOTEBOOK

GLOUCESTERSHIRE REVISITED

Cider and Spots in my haunts of old


It was my first month of living in Tokyo, and I had just about gained enough courage to go into a little restaurant and order all by myself. I had come to Japan to study karate, and had just finished a hard training session at the Kodokan. I was thirsty, and so was delighted to see that not only did this restaurant have a menu in English, but one of the beverages it listed was "cider."

News photo
Farmer Julian hasler shows me some of the free-range Gloucester Old Spot pigs he raises in as organic a way as is feasible on his Great Larkhill Farm outside Tetbury in southwest England. Their meat has proved so popular that just one local butcher now takes 200 animals a year. PHOTOS (c) CELT 21

That's what I ordered, but cider was not what I got.

Instead, I was served a colorless, sweet drink that was like lemonade and left me not at all amused. Who did they take me for? I knew what cider was! I was raised on the stuff! Hell, I started sneaking quaffs of good old country scrumpy at the age of 12.

That experience with the Japanese version of "cider" occurred back in 1962. It was a terrible shock, but recounting that tale of disappointment and anger still raises no sympathy with Japanese listeners. They have been conditioned to believe that "cider" is a non-alcoholic sweet drink made by a certain Japanese company. For heaven's sake, imagine what would happen if the British had done the same with "sake"!

From the age of 12 to 17, I went to school in Gloucestershire in southwest England. Now that is cider country. I had farming friends who had some wonderful old orchards, enclosed by high stone walls. Many of the apple trees were big enough for a boy to climb and hide in, unlike the low, intensely pruned apple bushes we see here in Japan. There were dozens of types of apples -- some for eating, others for cooking, and some grown specifically for the making of cider.

At my friend's home farm, however, they used a mix of all kinds of apples to make their cider. The apples were first gathered into a pile and left to go slightly brown. Then they were shoveled (wooden shovels, never metal!) into the cider mill, which was comprised of a heavy, central oaken pin set into the main beam of the cider shed at the top, and into a sunken stone base at the bottom. To this pin was fixed another beam, with a pony tackle on one end and a big, rough stone wheel on the other. This stone wheel went round and round, the old pony patiently plodding over a pathway of straw laid down for it, with the big stone wheel grinding round and round in a circular stone trough, at the top of which was a stout rim woven from strong split-willow sticks. This process crushed even the pips of the apples, which released an almond flavor.

News photo
Gloucester Old Spots on Julian Hasler's farm in Gloucestershire

Great wooden vats

The pulp was then wrapped in big, strong mats made of horse hair. These were stacked, with boards between each sack, in a press made of stone, oak boards, and long, strong steel side screws.

The pressed juice was allowed to ferment in great wooden vats before being transferred to oak casks in which strips of linen, soaked with some kind of vegetable oil and aromatic tree gum, had been burned, the casks still full of smoke when the cider was poured in. After that the casks had to be left very still as they went on humming and singing until the falling temperature stopped the fermentation -- fermentation which occurs naturally, with no need to add yeast as in beer-making. Keeping the casks still helps to settle out sediments and clear the cider.

Nowadays, I suppose that most cider in Britain is made in huge factories, but when I was a boy I heard adults arguing time and time again about what was the best way to make the stuff, and which region made the best brew.

After the apples had been gathered from the orchards the farmers used to let pigs roam under the trees to pick up the missed windfall apples. However, I recall one warm autumn Saturday, after cider-pressing had been done, when the adults turned up with a wagon full of "pummace" -- the leftover pressed apple pulp. This load of almost dry, pressed-out pulp had been dumped outside in a vat and somebody had mistakenly left the lid off. Usually this stuff was mixed with meal for pig food, but as this lot had got wet they brought it straight to the orchard and dumped it.

We boys sat on the stone wall and watched as the pigs devoured all the fermenting apple pulp. It was a type of pig whose stomach could handle the stuff, a breed called Gloucester Old Spots. Other breeds, I was told, would get a bad stomach if they gobbled it.

What it did to most of these pigs was to make them drunk. Like humans, pigs are individuals, drunk or sober. So, after they'd gorged themselves, there were a couple who wanted to pick fights, others who ran around bumping into trees and squealing, a few who got amorous, one who lay on his back kicking his legs in the air, and a few more sensible ones that just keeled over, went to sleep and snored. It was one of the funniest sights I'd ever seen, and reminded me of seeing men coming out of the pubs on Saturday nights in the Welsh town of Neath, where I was born.

Last month I was in Britain again, visiting the little town of Tetbury in Gloucestershire to do some research for an article for a new Japanese magazine. We were attracted to a traditional butcher's shop and noted that a certain kind of sausage was flying off the shelves. Upon inquiring, we were told that these sausages were a great favorite, made entirely from the meat of free-range pigs from a local farm. On a whim I suggested that we drive out to the farm and ask if we could photograph the pigs.

When we arrived, Julian Hasler, the owner of Great Larkhill Farm, welcomed our unannounced visit with great courtesy and took us to see a little herd of piglets. They had black spots and floppy ears -- being Gloucester Old Spots, no less. Mr. Hasler related the old tale that the pigs' black spots had been caused originally by apples falling out of trees and bruising their white skin. A cute notion, whatever its veracity, but either way those pigs certainly were a fine sight in the dappled light of a late-summer orchard, which perhaps brought the story to life.

The piglets were big enough to be grazing by themselves in a field, with their diet supplemented by wheat grown on the farm. Mr. Hasler uses a strain of wheat that is resistant to disease, and he carefully monitors crop conditions so that he only has to use pesticide when absolutely necessary.

He also keeps what is now called a "beetle bank" around the wheat field (as well as a strip through the middle), in which wild flowers and grasses are encouraged to grow. Together with the hedge, this provides a habitat for birds, spiders and insects that all help to reduce the bugs that raid crops.

Bigger and floppier ears

Mr. Hasler said that the floppy ears of these pigs, which obscure their sight, and which get bigger and floppier as they get older, make them less likely to get alarmed, and therefore more placid. He started off with just a few pigs, he said, some of which the local butcher, Jesse Smith, tried and liked. In fact the meat is so popular with his customers that Mr. Smith now takes 200 pigs a year from Great Larkhill Farm.

While "organic farming" seems to be the ideal for those not actually striving to make a living off the land, it is very difficult for most British farmers to engage in totally pesticide-free farming and still cover costs. However, letting animals such as pigs or chickens live as naturally as possible, running in the open air on earth, not concrete, and giving them food which has been scientifically monitored and treated only when necessary with government-approved pesticides, is a sensible and healthy way to go.

Such concerned agriculture is healthy for the farm and healthy for the environment as a whole. More and more British farmers are now co-operating with environmental schemes, not only increasing biodiversity and beauty in the countryside, but also improving the quality and enhancing the popularity of their produce.

I can certainly attest to the taste and texture of British free-range pork -- and the cider I washed it down with was 1,000 times better than its wishy-washy namesake sold in Japan!



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