Published on November 5th, 2019 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Growing fruit in the North East presents quite a challenge, as Alastair Gilmour discovers
Visitors to a County Durham farm are readily introduced to Tom Putt, Foxwhelp, Whimple’s Wonder and Porter’s Perfection. However, the invitation to Slack Ma Girdle, Hangydown and Fillabarrel might take a bit of thought.
They aren’t pantomime figures or cartoon characters, but varieties of apples in the orchards at Dalton Moor Farm, Dalton le Dale, near Murton, a 24-acre farm growing a range of fruit and vegetables – primarily 400 apple trees – using natural organic methods. Those and forty other breeds are being pressed into cider and various other apple-derived products by Jenny and Tom Connor in an enterprising and back-breaking business.
Along with glorious cider, there’s cider apple vinegar, apple juices, traditional jams and jellies, curds and marmalade with hedgerow preserves, pickles, chutneys, chilli products, cakes, cookies, sweets and snacks – everything vegan.
“There are so many varieties of apple that you could eat a different one every day and it would take you 20 years to get through them,” says Jenny. “We first planted the apple orchard in 2013 along with hazel trees and other berry and fruit trees plus hedgerows for wildlife.”
Some of the land they acquired after first buying the farmhouse and barns had lain fallow for so long it was virtually untamable with brambles, thistles and nettles having to be pulled up initially by hand. But sheer hard graft got it to where they could start putting down roots. “The principle is to work with nature, not fight it,” says Jenny. It would be fair to say she loves trees. She admits to talking to them – anything that encourages them to grow – but apples are her speciality.
“We now have more than 400 apple trees; 200 in the original orchard with mix of traditional dessert, culinary and juicing apples and four cider apple varieties – Sops In Wine, Kingston Black, Norwood and Somerset Redstreak.”
A lifetime of having apples and cider around her means Jenny is careful to steer people away from what she describes as “that commercial, sweet, horrid, apple-in-your-face cider”.
She says: “When I was a young girl I had a very small apple tree which I think grew from a Cox’s Pippin seed and I fell in love with them. My parents would go for a drive every weekend around Kent to all these little pubs to buy cider. I think I was eight years old when I first had a drink of cider – proper cider.”
Thinking up names for each cider vintage would be too complex so she simply calls them Number 1, Number 2, etc. She is in the process of pressing and bottling Number 6 to denote the sixth year of production. And anyway, apples grow differently each year with our varied climate so each season’s cider is never the same twice. Jenny calls it a “cider journey”.
“We don’t use preservatives or additives and it’s bottled long enough to be bottle-conditioned,” she says. “We’ve sold everything we’ve produced, except for some Number 5 which we’ll keep to see what happens (with the ageing process).”
A refrigerated shipping container stores trays of apples waiting their turn on the hydro press while around 200, 5-litre containers chill before bottling. As if they didn’t grow enough themselves, the local community supplies unwanted fruit and regular suppliers drop apples off from orchards in Chester le Street and Staindrop, near Barnard Castle.
Jenny says: “Ours is very much a work in progress as there are so many theories about when is the best time to pick apples and whether to use windfall or not. And there’s always something that’ll attack them like codling moths which eat into the fruit and lay their eggs.”
Rabbits and deer are other potential hazards thwarted by plastic guards around tender trunks.
“It’s all down to the weather and nature,” she says. “Last year’s brilliant summer meant irrigating the crop, but we had trees drooping with apples. This year has been particularly wet – we were paddling around – plus some varieties decide to take a year off and you get very little fruit which is apparently quite natural. It’s windy and challenging here so it means only the best survive.”
Dalton Moor Farm sells through farmers’ markets, food fairs and a pop-up shop in Durham as well as the city’s indoor market. A big part of the vision is developing educational school groups, a farm shop and visitor centre.
“It’s exciting what we’ve got here,” she says. “You need to put lots of romance and passion into food, otherwise it’s not going to taste very good.”
Best of all, it’s not every day you can have a conversation with a tree called Slack Ma Girdle.