Country Matters: Up among the luscious red thumpers

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The Independent Online
I CAN think of no more agreeable task than picking apples on a soft October afternoon, especially when the weather is as golden as it has been this week, and when the crop turns out better than expected.

In general, our apples have been a puzzle this season. The trees tend to alternate - one year on, the next off - and since we had a poor crop last autumn, we looked forward to a bumper harvest this time round, particularly after heavy rains during the winter had restored groundwater levels to normal, and we had dumped cartloads of muck round the trees. Then, in the spring, there was a perfect riot of blossom, apparently confirming our expectations.

Somehow it all came to nothing. Even though our bees were on hand to pollinate every flower, few set, and most just shrivelled away. An old Lord Lambourne tree, normally laden, had about six apples on it, and its neighbour, a Cox, was the same. The young Bramleys were pathetic, as were the pears. Plums and damsons were only moderate, and the quince, after producing a magnificent display of blossom, has brought forth a single fruit, whose fate I am still debating.

The one tree that saved us from ignominy was the gnarled old Bramley to which one end of the washing-line is attached. Even this veteran was deceptive, for during the summer it did not appear to be carrying much fruit, and there was certainly no need to go round it, thinning out doubles and trebles. But then, in August and September, the apples which did exist grew much larger, and it became apparent that there was a crop worth picking.

Thus Wednesday saw me aloft, sometimes on an extending ladder, sometimes braced on a few twigs, with a bag slung round my neck and a walking stick to draw outlying monsters into reach.

No doubt some people think it childish to derive so much enjoyment from being up a tree, but I like to believe that I still harbour echoes of some tremendously ancient instinct, inherited from our ancestors' time among the branches.

In any case, swaying in the afternoon sunshine, surrounded by luscious red thumpers, and looking down on our grass fields as they basked in that glorious late warmth, I felt very much at ease - a sensation that was shared by the two donkeys, who came up to the fence in search of windfalls, or the occasional cankery fellow which I threw down to them, and they burst the apples in their mouths by the sheer pressure of teeth, so that juice poured down their furry chins. The only person disconcerted by my performance was Rosie, the spherical cat, who found it most irregular that I should be in midair, and she prowled about underneath, complaining loudly.

After two hours' careful clambering, I had the big red wheelbarrow piled high, and my wife laid out the contents on shelves in the shed. With luck they will keep until March, and we shall have all the cooking apples we need through the winter. As I say, that one tree has saved our bacon for I should have hated to admit to our neighbour that I had no apples at all.

Our other main harvest - of honey - has long since been garnered. Like all amateur bee- keepers, I was tormented by the question of when to take off the first tranche. Since the weather was fine in June, my instinct was to let the bees carry on working as long as possible; but in early July I was goaded into action by the fact that two fields of spring oilseed rape had started coming into flower on the rim of the valley.

Rape honey is deadly stuff to extract from the combs: it is stiff and white and sugary, and can hardly be shifted. Better to raid the bees, if you can, before they start bringing it in.

As it turned out, I struck at the right moment: most of the combs were full, but the bees had only just begun to cap them with wax, which meant that the process of extraction was simplicity itself. A knowledgeable friend told me that I had moved too soon: uncapped honey does not keep, he said. Mine would almost certainly ferment.

Too late] With 100lb already stored in jars, I was committed. Luckily, the expert proved wrong, and the honey is looking and tasting magnificent (pots that appear for sale at local coffee mornings disappear like smoke). Best of all, the bees later built up substantial secondary stocks.

I could have taken off a second tranche, probably as big as the first, in August; but because I had already done so well, I decided to leave the colonies the fruits of their labour, and now they, too, are well set up for the long winter months ahead.