Learning to make booze with fruit at Cornwall's Eden Project

There's a whole lot of fruit in Britain that's waiting to be turned into alcohol. We head to Cornwall's Eden project for a lesson in apple alchemy.

Blackberries at the Eden Project

"DOES IT HAVE a name?" I ask, pointing at the machine I'm currently hunched over, as though knowing what it's called might help me understand its voracious appetite for eating and chewing up apples.

It certainly does, explains the man who's standing next to me, scrutinising my technique. "That," he tells me, "is a scratter." Of course it is – how could I even enter the West Country oblivious to the existence of scratting?

The reason I'm doing it at all is because I'm making apple juice, which will later become the best kind of apple juice there is: cider. And I'm making it all using British produce, picked within walking distance of my scratter and prepared, produced and bottled by hand.

In a world where small-batch, craft drinks rule – a kind of reverse arms race where the most desirable outcome is a limited edition of one (or even none, just the idea of a beer or a gin) – this might be the only way for the devotee of true craft to go.

Julie Kendall is lead outdoor horticulturist at the Eden Project, which, roughly translated, means she's in charge of anything that grows on-site that isn't inside the Cornish icon's bubble-like biomes.

A view over the Eden Project

A view over the Eden Project

She's also an evangelist for both using local produce and, as she puts it, "just playing with it. You can buy things from the supermarket but where's the fun in that?"

With that in mind, I'm riding shotgun alongside Kendall in a Kawasaki Mule (a tiny quad/jeep hybrid) as she tears around the fringes of the former clay pit near St Austell on the south coast of Cornwall.

We pull up outside a tumbledown cottage in a spot so idyllic and so Cornish you expect Ross Poldark to emerge at any moment, bare-chested and whingeing about the challenges of 18th-century mining.

The low autumn sun is pouring through Eden's orchard, illuminating Cornish apples of all shapes, sizes and hues (within the limited greeny, yellowy, reddy apple spectrum, obviously), with glorious names like Improved Keswick, Pascoe's Pippin, Magnum Bonum and Don's Delight.

"For making cider, picking the right apple's a matter of preference," explains Kendall, "though you want something tannic, even harder in texture and flavour than a cooker." For a dry, light cider she points out the huge Cologett pippin, native to Cornwall.

Loaded up with baskets (made by Kendall herself, naturally) that are full of apples, we clamber back into the Mule and head off to find some hedgerows, ploughing through branches that shower our laps and the little 4x4's footwell with apples as we go.

Though according to Kendall this hasn't been a vintage year for sloes at Eden, the thorny trees we find at the end of a field are laden with these dark purple, matte-skinned berries.

There are blackberries too, and we fill yet more baskets before making our way back to the heart of the Eden Project through beautifully landscaped and planted gardens, stopping off en route to pluck tiny red crab apples from a nearby tree.

We unload our cargo on a couple of wooden tables and immediately set about the hard work of making alcohol.

We stop off en route to pick crab apples from a nearby tree

If you've never made sloe gin (or blackberry or crab apple vodka, for that matter), you'll be shocked by how easy it is. Wash about half a kilo of sloes, prick each one and put them in a large sterilised jar or bottle. Then add about 250g of sugar, top up with about a litre of decent gin and leave for a few months, turning the jar every so often – and that's it.

I usually leave out the sugar and add the syrup right at the end to taste, and some people add a single almond to bring out the plumminess of the sloes.

But making the cider's a serious business, with serious kit – not least of which is that scratter. This one – like the press – is made by Devon-based Vigo, and straddles the line between a pro cider-making operation and casual homebrew have-a-go heroes.

In gleaming green and bare metal, it sits on its bolted-down wooden frame, begging me to roll up my sleeves and throw it some fruit. The whole process is refreshingly manual, from picking the apples in the orchard to prepping and pressing them – I reckon the sweat:juice ratio was about even by the end.

First we wash and chop the apples, before feeding them into the scratter's metal mouth. I furiously turn a wheel that's connected to a set of rotating metal teeth and rollers, which scrunch up (or 'scrat') the apples so they're ready to be pressed. Once I've filled a large bucket with crushed apples, I start loading up the press – essentially a metal frame with a large screw-down wooden plate on top, under which several parcels of muslin-wrapped apples are layered.

Each layer – called a cheese, as in cheese-cloth – is created by laying a flat sheet of muslin down inside a square frame, cramming it with apples then removing the frame and folding the top down. The straighter your tower of cheeses, the easier it is to press, which you do by turning a wheel at the top and watch the juice cascading into a jug.

She fires the cork into a nearby tree and we drink to (almost) free booze

Finally, the juice is poured into a sterilised demijohn bottle and left – you can add a crushed Campden tablet to kill off bacteria then just leave natural yeast in among the apples to do its own work, or add brewer's yeast (a good day after the Campden) to speed things along.

With enough time, we'd have waited a few days for the first, fizzing days of fermentation to pass, and then bottled and capped – you'll find a wealth of information online (try, detailing every step in the process, from basic DIY juicing and fermenting to artisan techniques for serious homebrewers.

Where to stay

While it's tough to do Cornwall and back in a day, there's no shortage of places to hole-up and make a holiday of it. Stay in Cornwall has a huge range of options – from beachside cottages where you can walk out the door and into the surf, to hotels right in the thick of the action. We stayed in the Carlyon Bay Hotel – a few minutes from the Eden Project and St Austell, with palatial rooms and breathtaking views over the cliffs to the turquoise sea below. Carlyon Bay Hotel, Sea Rd, St Austell;

We're only here for the day, so Kendall whips out a bottle she's been keeping in her shed, fires the cork into a nearby hawthorn tree and we drink to a good day's making booze for (almost) free. All we needed to do was find some fruit, and according to Kendall it's something we should all be doing.

"It's not about foraging," she says as we drain the dregs of the dry, gently sparkling cider. "It's about seeing the right things, picking them and playing with them. That's the best way to understand the produce in front of our eyes." ■