Dorset’s Lost Orchards

Golden Ball, Slack-ma-gurdle, Melcombe Russet and Buttery Door are just four examples of Dorset’s wide-ranging variety of native apple trees. Home-made cider, apple cakes and jams have been produced from Dorset orchards since the 13th century. Records show that monks were drinking cider or ‘cisera’ at Shaftesbury Abbey in 1291. In recent years there has been a decline in cider production and sadly many Dorset apple varieties risk being lost forever. According to Liz Copas from the Symondsbury Apple Project, numerous Dorset orchards have declined to ‘skeletal echoes of their pre-War status’.

In the 1700s the Blackmoor Vale was noted as a prolific cider producing district although the drink was mainly produced for home consumption. Even though the commercial aspects of growing flax and hemp and the predominance of fine spring lamb meant that much land was used for crops, root vegetables and grazing, in Symondsbury alone there were over 100 acres of orchard ground: ‘It is supposed that there are upwards of 10,000 acres of orchard ground in this country’ wrote Stevenson in Agriculture of Dorset, 1812. The largest cider areas were in West Dorset but smaller orchards were scattered around Gillingham, Shaftesbury, Child Okeford and Piddletrenthide.

Dorset’s inaccessible terrain has meant that many varieties of apple are peculiar to the county and are seldom seen anywhere else. Today some of the trees are the last remaining of these regional varieties and face extinction if they are not nurtured properly. The Symondsbury Apple Project has committed itself to the task of protecting these local trees. The Project is funded by grants from the Local Heritage Initiative and, as well as raising awareness about Dorset’s fragile apple trees, has also brought some of the country’s ancient orchards alive by studying old maps.

Liz Copas has carried out extensive research into Dorset’s orchards: ‘The Long Ashton records reveal many other Dorset cider apples that could still be found,’ she reports. (For more information on Symondsbury Apple Project please call Kim on 01308 428913.

Kevin Croucher of Thornhayes explains that it is only worth them stocking the hardiest varieties. The Golden Ball is often used for making cider and the Buttery Door is used for cooking. Warrior and Profit are dual purpose culinary and eating apples and the Melcombe Russet is a dessert apple.

Traditionally Dorset cider is soft, sweet and mild in astringency. Owing to scrupulous orchard conservation authentic Dorset cider is still available from a small number of Dorset farms. The production processes are a labour of love and cider purveyors admit that manufacture is extremely hard work. Crabbs Bluntshay Farm near Bridport has been using Dorset apples and authentic local methods to make cider for many years and sells bottles of Castles Cider at farmers markets across the county. Demand always surpasses supply, for the brew contains no additives and is stored on the farm in traditional oak casks (For more information about Castles Cider or to arrange a private tour of the cider press and farm tel +44 (0)1297 489064).

Dorset’s orchards are not limited to producing cider alone; the region has a wealth of age-old apple-inspired cake, jam and preserve recipes. Requiring up to half a pound of apples, Dorset Apple cake is a regional speciality. Jo and Eve Puttick, have devoted the last five years to building up a small company, specialising in Dorset apple cakes (Apple Catering Cakes, Lychett Matravers +44(0)1929 459368). The Putticks are a two-man band and all their cakes are baked in the kitchen of their thatched farm cottage.

‘We only use fresh ingredients and our cakes have no additives and no preservatives,’ Jo Puttick explains, ‘the recipe we use dates from the 16th century and was found in the Piddle valley,’ he continues. Jo is not entirely sure what the variety of the apples in his orchard are: ‘I believe they are some kind of Russet. He adds, ‘There is a bit of a debate about it though’. The cakes can either be purchased from the door of the Puttick’s cottage or from farmers markets in Blandford Forum, Poole and Wareham. ‘We sell about 200 cakes at market,’ says Jo, ‘everyone seems to love our recipe’.

Sadly, the Puttick’s orchard does not produce a sufficient quantity of apples to meet the enormous demand for their cakes but over the years they have engineered a bartering system with local orchards, swapping baskets of apples for apple cakes.

Needless to say the Putticks’ Dorset Apple Cake remains a closely guarded secret. However Lyn Streets, owner of the highly esteemed Abbortsbury Tea Rooms in Abbortsbury, (tel: 01305 871143) which specialises in traditional Dorset cuisine, recommends a recipe from ‘Favourite Dorset Recipes’.

Dorset Apple Cake from ‘Favourite Dorset Recipes’

8oz self raising flour

4 oz butter

4 oz caster sugar

½ lb cooking apples peeled, cored and diced

grated grind of a lemon

1 medium egg, beaten

Set oven to 375F/gas mark 5 and pour flour into a large bowl. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, add the apples and the lemon rind. Finally mix in the beaten egg.

Spoon the mixture into a well-greased 8 inch diameter cake tin and bake for 30-40 minutes until golden in colour.

Favouite Dorset Recipescan be ordered”for £1.99.