In a corner of the North York Moors, Jeannie Swales meets the family on a mission to save Yorkshire’s heritage apples.
Yorkshire Beauty, Flower of the Town, Dog’s Snout, Green Balsam – the names may not be as familiar to most of us as the ubiquitous Golden Delicious, Gala and Pink Lady, but these are Yorkshire heritage apples, full of flavour and packing a punch of flavour.
Along with other traditional Yorkshire varieties such as Yorkshire Cockpit, Acklam Russett and Ribston Pippin, they’re at the heart of a young business on the edge of the North York Moors National Park just above Scarborough.
Tree Top Press at Suffield is steadily making quite a name for itself amongst connoisseurs of that oft-maligned drink, cider. Owners Adam and Ruby Tildsley currently produce five ciders, each as far removed from the sugary commercial drinks you might buy in a pub as fine champagne is from cheap plonk.
Adam grew up in the house where his parents, Michael and Janet, still live and he and his young family now live next door in what used to be a holiday cottage.
He explains: “There used to be a line of roses in the garden, and my dad decided to replace them with apple trees. He went to RV Roger in Pickering and bought about 15 oblique cordons. This was about 2005, and I was away at university at the time. When I graduated and came home, I got really interested in what you could do with apples – I’d also worked for the National Trust at Nunnington Hall, where they have a lot of apple trees.
“At the time I was making country wines – blackberry, birch sap. Tea wine was one of my specialities – you make it using leftover tea, and it tastes a bit like sherry. I also had a part-time job coaching at the local tennis club, and in my spare time, made cordials, which we started selling from a little stall outside.”
The cordials sold well, but were never going to make Adam a living. Then he met Ruby, brought up in Garforth in Leeds, but at that time working for social services in Scarborough. The couple married and Ruby suggested turning the double garage which they were using as a storage area into a ‘pop-up shop’.
“The National Park then suggested that we get planning permission for a proper shop,” she says. “They were so supportive and encouraging – we opened our shop properly in April last year. Adam’s mum, Janet, had always foraged and made lovely things since she was a kid. She had some really old recipes for things like elderberry syrup and elderflower cordial, so she was a real inspiration for a lot of the products we now make.”
The couple still make cordials, mostly from their own home-grown fruit, but also using rhubarb from the Yorkshire triangle for flavours such as rhubarb, orange and ginger. But it’s their exquisite ciders which are really catching the eyes of gourmets looking for something that little bit different. They currently make five, all with names inspired by their surroundings.
Tabular Hills, named for the series of table-topped hills which mark the southern boundary of the national park, is dry and still, while Goodlands is fruitier, with less tannin. Sugar Loaf is a medium still cider, and Hackness Rock is a medium-dry, sparkling cider, conditioned in the bottle.
“And then there’s Water Tower, flavoured with our own homemade elderflower cordial,” says Adam. “It’s named after the water tower you can see if you look through that window there; most of the elderflowers for the cordial come from the hedgerows around it.”
The process is laborious and takes months.
“Good cider is made like wine,” explains Adam. “You crush the fruit, extract the juice, add the yeast. The best cider is made from 100 per cent fruit juice – apple juice, of course, although you can use up to 25 per cent pear to vary the flavours. A lot of people ask ‘how’s your brewing going?’ but that’s a specific term for beer.”
Chemistry graduate Ruby adds: “It’s not brewed, it’s fermented, so once your juice is with your yeast, the yeast turns the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide and the gas bubbles off. Ideally you want a long, slow, cool fermentation, a bit like breadmaking. The longer and cooler, the better the flavour.
“We do that in the autumn, and leave it over the winter – there’s a vigorous fermentation initially, then as the sugar starts to get used up, it slows down. We then do what’s called racking. You take the cider off the lees in the primary vessel, and put it into a secondary vessel to clear it.
“This is where it differs from scrumpy cider. Scrumpy is strong and cloudy with lots of bits floating in it. Our is unfiltered, but clear.”
The couple are now turning out around 3,000 litres of cider a year, and rising – which means their few apple trees at the back of the house just can’t provide enough fruit. A couple of years ago, they took on the management of an orchard in the nearby village of Ebberston.
Adam was driving through the village and spotted the trees, only to discover the plot was owned by a woman who worked with his father, and who was happy for him to run it.
“It’s an historic orchard, at least 100 years old. It had been used by her brother to graze his beef cattle, but not really for the fruit. But an old gentlemen in the village told me he remembered scrumping apples from there in the 1940s, so we know it was a mature orchard by then. It was probably planted late in the Victorian era.”
The couple spend a lot of time at the orchard with their two young sons, the suitably sturdy and apple-cheeked Edward, who’s two-and-a-half, and 15-month-old Wilfred.
“We’ve spent ages restoring the orchard to a diverse, productive environment,” says Ruby. “It’s been completely reinvigorated. It involved bringing back lots of different wildlife habitats and planting wild flowers to encourage pollinators and beneficial insects. I can’t begin to tell you how many hours and hours we’ve spent there, doing laborious jobs to improve the organic matter in the soil and keep the weeds down. We’re actually beyond organic: we don’t use any artificial treatments on the plants, and we make our own hay, then rake it by hand to make little mulch circles round each tree. We make homemade sprays with molasses and neem oil. That orchard completely embodies our vision.”
The next step towards the perfect good life for the Tildsley family is the creation of a second orchard and market garden in a nearby field they’ve just bought – they currently offer an organic veg box delivery service, but have to source some of the veg elsewhere as their own small garden can’t keep up with demand. The new market garden should solve that one.
And just to keep her that little bit busier, Ruby makes bread and cakes – all organic, of course – for the shop. In Ruby’s words: “What was once a tiny little garage has become an emporium of all sorts of lovely stuff!”
You can meet the Tildsleys at RV Roger’s annual apple weekend, which this year today and tomorrow. Adam will be giving juicing demonstrations and Tree Top Press’s ciders and cordials will be available to taste. For more information on Tree Top Press, visit treetoppress.co.uk