To mark Apple Day, we pressed Chegworth Valley Juices – organic producers for whom taste and variety are paramount – to tell us their story and reveal the values at the core of their business.
Every October for the past 23 years, Apple Day has taken place in celebration of the incredible variety of apples to be found in Britain’s orchards. Flavour marked the occasion by talking to David Deme at Chegworth Valley Juices in Kent, an apple farmer who is passionate about growing and trying different apple varieties. He shares his favourites with us, and explains why there’s so much more to apples than Granny Smiths and Golden Delicious.
Have your family always farmed here?
No, not at all. My wife, Linda, and I had a business in London, and in 1983 we sold our house and bought the farm here in Kent. I had a couple of relatives who were fruit farming in Sussex who encouraged me, so we didn’t come to it completely cold. But we did move two weeks before Christmas, and it was freezing! The windows in the farmhouse were completely rubbish and you could push a screwdriver through the wood… but the soil was really good because the place had previously been a dairy farm. At the time, Linda was six months pregnant with our son Ben [who now runs the farm], and at the start I continued working up in London, as well. I’d drive up at 4am, work in our shop, drive back for 11pm and then start driving a tractor. I did that for two years.
It sounds like a lot of hard work. How did you get from that to where you are now, 30 years on?
We’ve upgraded the farm a lot since then, and we know more about what we’re doing now! It was kind of an experiment and, in many ways, it still is. When we first came here, it took eight years before we had a full crop of apples. Now, because of new innovations and choosing the right stock, we can have a first crop inside two years. We have a thousand trees or more to the acre, so it’s still quite challenging.
What made you start pressing apples into juice?
We were supplying wholesalers and supermarkets with our fruit, but much of it was going to waste because the fruit was either the wrong size or the colour didn’t fit their requirements. Added to that was all the fruit that was falling to the floor. So many apples were being wasted. We thought, there’s got to be a use for them – there’s nothing wrong with them. So we decided to start making juice. We bought a small press, filled 150 bottles, and they sold immediately. There was obviously more to this than met the eye, so we bought a larger press and then an even larger one, and then all the other equipment. Now we make 17 different kinds of juices and grow between 30 and 40 different varieties of apple.
Did the switch from selling fruit to selling juice give you the freedom to grow different varieties?
We wanted to be different. We don’t just sell our juices – we do still sell the apples, too. But we’re in a market that’s highly oversupplied, so your apples have got to be really tasty and really different. We’ve got sweet apples that aren’t branded, and there’s a big demand for them. We have our own variety called Chegworth Beauty, which has been a real success, and we grow varieties you won’t find anywhere, like Santana and Red Falstaff.
How important is it to you to work in a “natural” way?
Our farm is organic, because it seemed the obvious way to go. We trialled it on 15 acres first, fertilising the soil with seaweed and liquid garlic, and it went so well that it was common sense to make the whole farm organic. We’ve got special machines that cultivate under and around the tree to stop weeds, and we use green waste from the council around the trees. We also make use of what grows naturally on and around the farm, such as elderflowers and damsons. One of our juices is apple with elderflower from the hedgerows on the farm, and we turn damsons into jams, chutneys and compôtes.
Does being organic make a difference to the flavour?
For us, everything is led by taste. We grow the varieties we do, in the way we do, because we want our fruit to taste good. What we’ve done all the way through with our juices is pick up unusual combinations and get people talking and trying different things. The last thing we want is for our fruit to be bland. Everything is taste-checked by our family first, and if it doesn’t pass that test it doesn’t go any further!
How did you celebrate Apple Day?
We had a massive display of all kinds of varieties of apples at Borough Market. It’s a special celebration of all the different kinds of apple and the different flavours, and it’s right in the middle of the harvest season. We started harvesting this year in the middle of August, and our 20 or 30 pickers will still be going well into November.
And what’s next for Chegworth Valley?
We’ve already got a couple of shops in London, in Borough and in Notting Hill, and we hope to expand the farm. We grow more than apples now – we’ve got cherries and plums, ten kinds of tomatoes, salad vegetables, cucumbers, golden beetroots, purple beetroot, chard, spinach, squash, pumpkins and some free-range chickens. I want to keep making sure we do everything well, and are able to give our customers the variety and taste they expect from us.
DAVID’S FAVOURITE FIVE APPLE VARIETIES
Cox’s Orange Pippin – A traditional apple, and absolutely great, especially when you can pick them straight from the tree.
Santana – An unusual apple with a sharp taste.
Crimson Crisp – We started to pick these this week. It’s a dense, solid apple that’s very popular, but you won’t find it in supermarkets.Chegworth Beauty – Our own apple. It’s sweet and we’re very fond of it!
Boskoop Rouge – This is one of Germany’s favourite apples. We grow several thousand and they sell out every year.
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