Gardening: Goodbye cider with Rosie

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We have delivered the last of the cider apples to Bulmers. Only two or three tonnes: it was thin pickings this year in the orchards. While London friends reported wonderful crops of dessert fruit in their back gardens, the scattered, rather antique orchards around the village were bearing at best a quarter of a good year's crop.

One orchard whose trees were groaning under apples in 1991 produced barely a smattering this year. Its owner has some reason not to bother with apple-picking: when her 10 acres or so last produced really well, she painstakingly bagged-up 10 tonnes of fruit and left them around the bottom of the trees. One fine morning she went to take them into Hereford, but they were all gone. Of course, everyone said the gypsies had them.

Even in a good year, few owners of small orchards seem very keen to use their crops commercially. Mostly, the trees are on their last legs, having been planted just after the war in many cases, and quite often the owners are rather older. The upshot is that anyone who can organise free labour can make some money for charity.

I like the work a lot. We smack the trees hard with a 12ft pole. The tiny apples - hard as bullets, tasteless and pocked - fall to the ground with a noise like a cavalry charge on a movie soundtrack. Sometimes, an agile kid stamps and swings on the poor old branches until a further cascade of fruit bombs down. Then the rest of us go on hands and knees and pick the apples out of the cowpats and the nettles and the long grass.

As I work, I have found myself thinking about the autumns I used to spend with peasants in Lot-et- Garonne. The grapes we picked then were as unlike perfect fruit as the cider apples are. By the time we harvested them, the white grapes were a mushy, half-rotted fist, wrapped in mould and white dust. It was obvious that machines would take over our work, as they have in the big cider orchards.

But the big difference between Ste Foy-la-Grande and Hereford is that I used to look around the French countryside and feel that every part of it was designed to make a man salivate. There was the gammon cooking on the wood fire. There was the drugged mustiness of the cave in which we worked on the wine. There was wild garlic among the vines. As the sun warmed away the mist, there was the patron rolling a Gauloise.

Come the ringing of the Angelus, we would traipse home to haricot and garlic soup, salads of potato and egg, always a different roast meat, little puddings made of goat's milk and then several cheeses. Nearly everything we ate came from within sight of the house.

You knew that, drunk or sober, in the afternoon you could never work as hard as the terrible old grannies in black who appeared from all over the valley for the vendange and tut-tutted about the patron's romance with his pretty, chubby cousin. Even the patron's wife would sometimes join in the jollity of her husband's illicit but admitted liaison, and was just as shocked as her husband when his cousin's motor scooter skidded on some loose chalk and sent the woman into the ditch.

It was a world that was visibly dying. One year, we had a bumper harvest and spent the early evenings touring the countryside finding neighbours' caves we could use for our surplus. In farm after farm we found old couples among their decaying vines, and opened long- disused barns in which there was cobwebbed equipment.

My patron surprised me when he suddenly gave up smoking, hardly touched his own marvellous product, and took to going about the countryside on a racing bike. He would never become a bourgeois, but his son became a lorry driver, and his daughter lived in a little house that was a model of Homes and Gardens.

Back home, I keep reading that the local traditions and landscapes are dying and should somehow be preserved. The truth is that the countryside is now modern and that almost all local distinctiveness is doomed. Attempts to preserve it are wrecked on a profound contradiction: we love the traditional because it is a remnant of a harder and more proscribed world. It seems authentic. But any action taken to promote the traditional is now, by definition, artificial. So I find myself more nostalgic than most about the peasant life, and yet rather resistant to the rustic Theme Park we may make in homage to the peasant.

Maybe we should pay farmers to plant old-style orchards. But it remains terribly unlikely that we will ever see the scattered, traditional, tall-tree orchards make a commercial comeback. This has nothing to do with absence of variety. Safeway in Hereford has at least half a dozen traditional apple varieties. Out of town, a man with a farm shop offers a couple of dozen different sorts. But even these old varieties are mostly grown in big modern orchards with rows of bush-sized trees.

So it is no surprise that in our village we lost one small parcel of trees to executive homes; they're grubbing out another for a car- park. I can't see many of the other orchards being there in a decade.