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‘Apples flying everywhere!’: a year in the life of a cider orchard

Sarah LaBrecque
·4 min read

Spring is a celebration. And this year it takes on a new significance. After a lockdown winter, those first rays of properly warm sunshine on your face are, simply put, therapy. Just on the horizon, another marvellously tantalising thought: a sunny terrace with a cool drink and a friend, even? Be still my beating heart.

The changing seasons help us mark time, but for those who work with nature, seasons are everything. Chris Muntz-Torres is the orchard manager at Myrtle Farm – which is owned by the Thatcher family, of the eponymous cider brand – in Sandford, Somerset, and for him the time of year dictates the entire pace and flow of his work.

Popular apples such as katy and dabinett are among the 25 main varieties grown by Thatchers Cider, but there are upwards of 450 in all, many of them heritage varieties, such as the fabulously named slack-ma-girdle and broxwood foxwhelp.

Today, as Myrtle Farm begins to bloom, Muntz-Torres reflects on what each season means. “This is the time of year when the trees are waking up. It’s quite exciting seeing everything come back to life,” he says.

Late April and early May are when cider varieties typically blossom but, Muntz-Torres says, it can be a worrisome time, as a late frost can wipe out an entire orchard. “It’s not something we generally suffer with in Somerset, but we have been known to in the past.”

  • Myrtle Farm orchard manager Chris Muntz-Torres

Spring is also tree-planting time. “You only get one opportunity to establish a tree, so it’s very important to do it right,” he says.

For fermentation supervisor Eleanor Thatcher, daughter of fourth generation Martin Thatcher, spring is important in terms of the upcoming harvest. At 21 years old, she is carrying the cider-making torch for the family; her great-great grandfather William Thatcher made his first batch in 1904. “It’s a magical time of year,” she says, adding that the number of fruitlets on the trees indicate whether it will be a bountiful harvest. Meanwhile, the farm’s specially planted wildflower meadows attract pollinating insects, and honeybee hives can be found in each orchard. So, too, can a host of other “visitors”.

“I often liken driving around our orchards to going on a wildlife safari,” says Muntz-Torres. “They’re a fantastic haven for everything from small invertebrates and insects to birds and mammals.”

When spring turns to summer, trees become bushy. It takes many years of pruning to shape the trees in a way that maximises the amount of sunlight reaching the apples. It is important to get this right as their taste is affected by how much light they get.

  • Bright red katy apples; broxwood foxwhelp, a variety being trialled on the farm

Towards the end of August, the first varieties start to ripen and so begins harvest season. “This is what we’ve been working towards all year, so it’s nice to see the fruits of your labour,” says Muntz-Torres. Apples are left to fall off the trees then collected by a mechanical harvester. Any that remain on the trees are worked loose with an “apple shaker” machine. “It’s quite fun to watch; apples flying everywhere!” At the height of the season, 450 tonnes of apples arrive at the mill every day.

Related: The taste of sunny days: what makes cider the drink of British summer?

It’s an incredibly busy time of year, and staff from different departments sometimes lend a hand. Family members, too. “My brother, Peter, is often out late at night getting the apples in,” says Thatcher. “He’s still in college but he helps out when he can.”

Ensuring a healthy harvest in autumn means tending to the orchards all year, including in winter. “That’s the main time for pruning,” says Muntz-Torres. “We have 180,000 trees, and they all need to be looked after. Pruning is all done by hand.”

From the warmth of summer to the bustle of harvest time, every season has its place in the cider-making process.

For Thatcher, though, nothing compares to strolling through the orchards in spring, with the family dog, Myrtle. “It’s the perfect time. The bees are buzzing, the blossoms are out, and everything smells just wonderful.”

To discover more about life on Myrtle Farm and Thatchers’ range of Somerset ciders, please visit thatcherscider.co.uk