A mixture of activity over the last week has taken The English Apple Man into a variety of new places.
On Tuesday the East Kent Fruit Society (EKFS) held their annual Blossom Walk at Nichol Farm @ Teynham.
Over the last 12 years, Nick Moor has transformed the family farm into a top quality Organic Apple & Pear business. Nichol Farm extends to 65 hectares (156 acres) with 8 hectares of Pears and 57 hectares of Apples, of which 40% is Gala. Some would question the high volume of Gala as it is a variety prone to Scab and many would consider it 'very risky' as the main variety on an Organic Farm.
However, Nick is confident of managing this risk as the farm has historically been been a 'low risk site' for Scab. The lay of the land, gently sloping down to the area near the farm buildings, and the exposure to good air movement reduces the time periods when the trees are damp with moisture and this would explain the reduced risk of Scab.
The English Apple Man has been fortunate to have been party to the transformation from conventional to organic by Nick as he and his father John changed a very traditional fruit farm, with a diversity of varieties; many of which were no longer viable as a source for UK Supermarkets, into a productive and profitable organic fruit farm.
In the early years Nick and his team took full advantage of the demand for organic top fruit when 'a premium' was more easily realised and this provided a profitable outlet for varieties which would otherwise have had a low value as conventional fruit.
The outlet for sub standard fruit; because "even organic fruit" must have a reasonable visual appearance. depends on bottled apple & pear juice.
While some organic growers depend on box schemes, which may accommodate a lower specification than Supermarkets demand, Nick has structured his marketing to maximise the value of the fruit sold fresh via Supermarkets and as high quality juice.
Now 12 years on, the juicing side of the business is a very successful part of the business, particularly since Nick invested in a modern juice pressing and bottling enterprise.
In the orchards another transformation has taken place with old traditional tree systems replaced with modern intensive tree systems. The plethora of varieties grown 15-20 years ago has been severely rationalised, and now centres on just a few key varieties; Discovery, Gala, Spartan, Red Pippin, Braeburn, Jonagold and Red Falstaff apples, plus Conference pears.
The current trend of 'fruit walls' is now a favoured technique at Nichol Farm and all new orchards are set up to be fruit walls. In addition, Nick is gradually remodelling his established orchards, by allowing the trees to grow taller , while using mechanical pruning to trim back (narrow) the tree shape.
A key element in growing organic apples and pears is the task of weed control. On a conventional farm herbicides (weedkillers) can be used, although the list of available materials is considerably less than some 10-20 years ago, partly due to the reduction in residual herbicides. We are now more dependent on contact herbicides with an action depending on translocation ( the movement of the liquid that carries the substances that a plant needs for life and growth through the plant); e.g. on contact with the weed, the plant absorbs the weedkiller into the weed system and this kills (or severely maims) it. The herbicides used are often dependent on Glyphosate (Roundup) or Amitrole (Weedazol) as the active ingredient, the same as 'home owners' can buy and use to control weeds in their gardens.
With the development of new technology, in the form of tractor mounted hydraulically powered weeding machines which sit on 'movable arms' and with use of 'sensor arms' follow the contours around the base of the tree, cultivating the soil in much the same way as a manual approach would keep the weeds under control.
In the space of 13 years, Nichol Farm has been transformed and is now a model of organic top fruit growing (apples & pears) using the latest technology to overcome the challenges of no non-organic pesticides and nil use of weedkillers.
Pests are largely controlled by 'harnessing' the many predators now available to organic (and conventional) growers.
The new orchards at Nichol Farm are being installed with the latest 'trickle irrigation' systems, a critical aspect if the forecast 'drier' climate becomes a standard rather than an exception!
Visit Moor Organics website for a comprehensive overview of the Moor family business.
On Thursday I visited Golding Hop Cold Store, home to 'Robert Mitchell Farms' at Plaxtol in West Kent.
I have had the good fortune to have known Robert and his elder brother Ian for many years.
As partners in the family farm; The Robert Mitchell Partnership; named after their Grandfather, and developed by his son Robert, (Ian & Robert's father) a highly respected top fruit grower who created a small empire based very much on Bramley apples and Conference pears, Ian and Robert continued the family tradition and both have achieved great success as growers, and in prominent (unpaid) roles supporting industry initiatives, for the benefit of their fellow fruit growers. In 2011 Robert was awarded an MBE for his charitable services with Visit CONCORDIA
In 2010, Ian retired and withdrew from top fruit growing, while Robert decided to start again with his share of the farm and assets. The new business; "Robert Mitchell Farms" is now a joint venture between Robert and his wife Helen.
My visit was primarily to prepare a 'subject story' on Robert's achievements for The English Apple Man -"People Profiles" which will be published 'on line' during the course of this summer!
'Not the best of weather to tour the 93 hectares of apples, pears and cobnuts, but we managed to cover a substantial area of the farm, and with the Bramley in full bloom, the blossom was very attractive in spite of the 'murky' weather. The potential for this season looks very good, with the Conference Pears 'setting' nicely and the Bramley blossom looking strong and healthy. There is no sign of frost damage on a site which has very good 'air' drainage.
To finish this week's roundup, I must tell my reader's about my 70th Birthday treat!
Last Friday my brother David and sister-in-law Annie, took my wife and I to Heston Blumenthal's 'flagship' restaurant, The Fat Duck in Bray Village, Berkshire for a special treat to commemorate my 70th birthday at the end of March.
I had seen 'the master' creating his mind bending recipes on TV and in anticipation expected a 'quirky' occasion, 'something different to other restaurants, but had no idea it would be so 'mind-blowing' an experience!
The restaurant is modern in decor, understated, but creating a comfortable ambience and the staff; immaculate in dress and manners, clearly enjoy their role as entertainers and relish the theatre which accompanies each dish.
The lunch speciality; a 14 course tasting menu, accompanied by a 'wine tasting' menu; a choice, not an obligation, but not to be missed, set the scene for a four and a half hour adventure!
Every course is a masterpiece of visual art and seductive flavours, created by Heston Blumenthal using mixture of science and food technology in his laboratory, inspired by his 'unique' and rampant imagination!
One cannot recount each element of our gastronomic experience; 'it would take far too long' however the first element, The Nitro Poached Aperitifs is a spectacular 'entree' to our pleasure. after choosing a flavour of one of three flasks; Vodka, Campari or Gin, a spoonful of creamy liquid is poured from the flask and 'poached' in the nitro mist flowing from the wine bucket style container.
Within 30 seconds the creamy liquid turns into a small ball of what looks like meringue. Placed into the mouth as a 'whole' it melts and explodes with flavour, while cold vapour drifts from the nostrils in a slightly bizarre manner.
Amazing; 'smiles all round' the whole theatre of the moment is enjoyed just as much by our waiter; aka entertainer, as we marvel at the magic of our entree!
Such delicacies as Jelly of Quail-Crayfish Cream; Sound of the Sea; Hot & Iced Tea; captivated us all during our gastronomic afternoon!
Another course which I must review is The Mad Hatters Tea Party, where a glass bowl, topped with a glass teapot is set before us. we are instructed to place a 'gold pocket watch' into the teapot and 'swirl' gently; the watch dissolves and the 'magic mix' of liquid is poured into the into the bowl; we savour each mouthful of our 'mock turtle' soup, accompanied by delicate toasted sandwiches!
For a small taste of what the Fat Duck is all about, visit the YouTube video filmed by a previous customer at The Fat Duck!
My readers may wonder why, and how, a life of battling with the trials and tribulations of apple growing; 'a life of modest rewards' can interact with the pleasures of gastronomy at a restaurant voted the 'best in the world'
Thanks to my dear brother, who left the family farm to pursue a more lucrative career, and realised his ambition with a small fortune made from development of 'specialist' computer software, my birthday dreams 'came true'
Next week, I will review the possibility of an apple crop after the 'trials and tribulations' of a miserable few weeks weather. At least this week has brought a brief window of Sunshine and warmth, although the last couple of days have reverted to cloudy, cool and wet conditions.
The English Apple Man