I started collecting local fruit varieties in 1980. I was a newcomer from Callington. When Mary was introducing me to the district we went to a local farm. She knew the farm well. She mentioned that there was an old cider press in the barn at the farm. Being an engineer and liking cider I went to have a look at it.
James and Mary revisiting the press in 2010 with farmer Mike Hambly
It had been unused for 50 years but was all there. There was also a Cornish Pound, which is a granite trough 10 feet in diameter with a large granite roller which would have been pulled round by a horse.
Mike Hambly the farmer with James and Mary next to the Cornish Pound
It was the sort of thing you see in Mediterranean countries for pounding olives for olive oil. Not only was the machinery there but there was on orchard at the back which was overgrown but full of ancient trees. There were rotten cider barrels in the barn.
Alan Parsley’s repaired wood work on the Cornish Pound
It seemed a challenge that was worth taking up – to restore this machinery and get it working – which we did. We had to repair the building first because it was about to fall on the machinery.
Mike Hambly with the single screw press – James pointed out evidence of the slot in the back wall which may have indicated presence of an earlier beam press.
We needed a small strong horse that was used to pulling. We found a horse that had been used for forestry work, pulling tree trunks out of the woods.
Mary holding the picture of the pound in action in 1980 with the horse.
When we made cider all the old chaps came in and gave us advice.
Mary’s painting of ‘the making’ in 1980 with all who were involved; 30 years on James and Mary reminiscing with farmers Peter and Mike Hambly in winter 2010.
They told us we were using the wrong apples. We should be looking for Colloggett Pippin, Pig’s Snout and other wonderful named apples.
Since we were trying to do this as authentically as possible using long straw? cider cheese. A friend came to show us how to do it. We got some proper barrels from St. Austell Brewery.
Making ‘the cheese’ 1980
We thought that if ever we did it again we should use the proper cider apples and there’s nothing like a challenge for lost causes.
So we started looking for apples. The apples we found when we started looking around local farms were different apples to the ones we were looking for.
Local Cornish apple varieties including Pig’s Nose
So we suddenly realized that there was a terrific variety of apples. Very often it was just one tree of a variety. We got into collecting fruit trees. We heard that the Royal Horticultural Society was holding an apple event in London in 1983 so we thought we would go up and see what we could learn. One of the first things we did was to buy a copy of the National Apple Register (N.A.R.) because we didn’t know which were well-known and which were very unusual. In the N.A.R. I think there are about 6,000 different names so it’s the most important book to have and it refers you to other books going back hundreds of years. Then we started collecting books which was more expensive than collecting apple trees!
The R.H.S. event was their centenary exhibition. There was an amazing display of over 300 varieties of apples showing the wide range of variation that exists. These were perfect specimens. We met apple experts. One told me we were wasting our time trying to grow apples in Cornwall. This was the ultimate challenge to continue with our pursuit. We have spent the last 28 years motoring round the West Country. We have traveled the length of Cornwall and to North Devon – mostly west of Dartmoor. We have worn out several cars and used lots of petrol.
We continued to find interesting things. By about 1996 we got to the stage where we were only finding endless examples of Bramley’s Seedling, Newton Wonder, and Blenheim Orange apples. The rare varieties were drying up. There were fewer older people around who could tell us what the trees were. It was difficult to find a tree and a person who could tell us the name of it. It was pointless collecting things without names. So by 1996 we thought we would write a book to encourage people to take up a good and valuable hobby.
We realized that it was an interesting gene pool that we were coming across. We found that a lot of the older varieties were more disease resistant than modern popular commercial varieties that have to taste like polystyrene and have a “plastic jacket”. Most of the West Country varieties do have a thicker skin than modern commercial varieties and that is probably why they were more scab resistant. They taste a lot better than “polystyrene”! We have found quite a few varieties with unusual distinctive flavours.
Mary and I collaborated on a book with Mary’s sister Virgina – ‘Burcombes, Queenies and Colloggetts’, the makings of a Cornish Orchard’ which contain examples of Mary’s orchard paintings.
Queenie turned out to be a well-known Devonshire variety, Devon Crimson Queen. It took several years to find out what it was.
We had the help of National Fruit Collection at Brogdale. Colloggett Pippin’s are a very large apple, about 3 apples to the pound. It is also called Cornish Giant, a cooking apple with cider making properties – it can be cooked and baked. One year we used it for a single variety cider when all the other cider apples failed, the cider produced was slightly sparkling (and not very tannic) and was termed ‘Ladies cider’.
For details of Mary Martin’s paintings and the books.