Every autumn in Oxford, thousands of apples go to waste. Large trees in gardens, on allotments, near institutions provide too much, too suddenly – or are the responsibility of no one person. Their fruit ripens, drops and rots. But what if, instead, all this produce could be turned into juice? This is the thinking that drives the quiet revolution of Tiddly Pommes apple juice.
“I’ve always hated waste” explains Rupert, the man behind Tiddly Pommes. “I realised that someone should be doing what I am doing”. A musician by training, an environmentalist and engineer by inclination, Rupert has been making juice from Oxford’s unwanted fruit for ten years. When I meet Rupert to help with picking, he is midway through bottling 2013’s latest batch. “Here, try this”. He passes me a glass. I’ve had pear juice before, but found it too sweet for my liking. This, however, is delicious, delicate. Outside, a friend of Rupert’s is elbows-deep in a vat of apples; washing apples, cutting apples, dunking apples. Everywhere I look there are apples. This is just the start.
We drive out to a local orchard whose owners invite Rupert to pick some of their fruit. The laden trees far surpass the residents’ needs. About two-thirds of Britain’s orchards have disappeared since 1960. Devon, for example, has lost 90% of its orchard since the Second World War. Orchards have been ousted by roads and housing, grubbed up and replanted with cereals or simply faded through neglect. This makes it all the more important everywhere, including Oxford, to make sure our fruit is used and talked about.
“Let’s start with the Blenheim Orange”. There are nearly 3,000 varieties of native English apple. So why do a handful of foreign invaders dominate supermarket shelves? The antipodean Gala and Braeburn and the aggressively marketed Pink Lady have changed our idea of how an apple should look and taste. Apples must crunch. The smallest surface imperfection is now unacceptable. Yet anyone doubting the beauty of English apples need only turn to the watercolour illustrations of Roseanne Sanders The English Apple, which Rupert uses to help identify fruit. It can be difficult to pinpoint the precise variety at first glance. There are so many factors to consider: size, shape, skin finish, position of core. Recognising apples is an art and a science.
Native apple names are also beautiful. ‘Jazz’, the current supermarket darling, sounds positively dull compared to ‘Peasgood Nonsuch’. Moreover, these names reflect a whole social structure and traditions that have long passed away. Nineteenth-century landowners often employed a gardener to tend specifically to their orchards, Rupert explains. These apple experts amassed a great amount of knowledge, conducting experiments in pollination and taste. When they successfully bred two varieties, the dutiful nurserymen might name the new apple after their patron. The houses of Burghley or Henniker no doubt provided good livings, and the naming of a cultivar after them was a mark of esteem – although there are plenty of other instances in which a name with aristocratic pretentions may have been arrived at by more intriguing means. Sometimes names were influenced by a desire to incorporate a geographical or even geopolitical connection, as with Milton Wonder, Eynsham Dumpling, or Blenheim Orange. In any case the repertory of varietal names speaks of a vibrant, quirky, individualised culture in which the great selection of fruit cultivars and the differences between them were widely familiar and celebrated, and creating a new contribution to the canon was a matter of some pride. In more recent times of course much of this culture has vanished. As land use changed in the twentieth century we lost interest and expertise as well as trees.
After the Blenheim, we collect Tydeman’s Late Orange. Scooping fallen fruit from the ground, clambering up to reach higher branches, shaking those lower – soon we have filled six large containers. We need two people and a trolley just to get the boxes back to the car. “I used to do all this by bicycle”, Rupert announces, to my astonishment. A keen cyclist, he has ridden the length and breadth of France, lingering, of course, in the apple heartland of Normandy.
Back at HQ, I examine the engineering. To turn apples into juice you must mill, press, strain, settle, bottle, pasteurise, clean and label, and then store. Rupert has built or reworked most of the Tiddly Pommes equipment himself – with invaluable support from his former supervisors at Reading, whose praises he continues to sing. He is particularly proud of the latest addition: the bottler. In previous years he had to fill the bottles one at a time, which tended to make the process rather slow.
The bottler is just one example of the way in which Tiddly Pommes has grown year on year. Rupert easily sells everything he produces. A woman once offered to be his marketing manager. “It was very sweet” he explains. “But frankly – there’s no need: the juice sells itself. The challenge is to meet demand.” Oxfordshire residents can sample Tiddly Pommes at the East Oxford Farmers’ Market (of which Rupert is a stalwart) or at one of the area’s October apple days. At his stall Rupert lines up the varieties of juice, allowing passers–by to sip each type, one after another. People are amazed at the range, the spectrum of flavours from sharp to sweet. Rupert loves to watch the expression on their faces as they first detect the difference. “So many people still think all apple juice tastes the same!” This year’s stock of juice – a bumper crop after the warm summer – is just being released for sale. I’m not sure I can wait any longer.
This season’s production of Tiddly Pommes apple (and some pear!) juice is now available on board the VegVan. Catch it while you can – follow this link for the VegVan’s weekly timetable.