When we moved from the council house in 1965, our new home had a garden with a small orchard. We had 2 apple trees, 2 pear trees and a plum tree, plus a variety of redcurrant, blackcurrant, loganberry, raspberry and gooseberry bushes.
Mum’s boss at the time was a keen home brewer of wine, but had recently progressed to concentrating on liqueurs, so had passed on some of his wine recipes to Dad.
Dad bought all the equipment, buckets, tubes, filters, air bubble pipes etc, for making the stuff from scratch. He made a fruit press for squeezing out all the goodness too.
In the seasons that followed, the family would be taken on outings for fruit picking at the weekends and come back laden with elderberries (or elderflower), sloes and blackberries, cut hands and bramble injuries where we didn’t want them, and Dad negotiated with the local grocer for discounts on trays of unsold fruit or veg.
We’d spend hours snipping and snapping, cutting and stripping, squashing and squeezing, and the gurgles, blips, and alcoholic farts of Dad’s demi johns became major topics of conversation.
Then of course we had the inevitable ‘tasting sessions’.
Invitations of ‘Try a bit of this’, or ‘You might like that,’ or ‘Be careful! It’ll take the back of your throat out!’ immediately come to mind.
Come Christmas, everyone got a bottle of Homebrew of the Year and a jar of Mum’s marmalade together with a little ‘something else’ to suit the individual.
I had my favourites, and for my 18th birthday, Dad gave me a half demi john of elderflower champagne and a straw as a joke. I got pretty happy pretty quickly as a result.
Dad’s parsnip and swede wine stank the place out and would have made even the tiniest shallot emerge as a giant onion had it been used as a liquid fertiliser. Pegs were provided when my uncles visited to sample the latest batch, and they all agreed the taste was divine, but the stench another matter.
His elderberry wine dosed up the budgie when it had a stroke (the bird died happy at the vet’s) and my maternal grandfather swore by it for keeping the nasty winter bugs away.
His tea ‘sherry’ which had been five years in the making (actually, Dad had forgotten it, so I’m surprised it didn’t blow up) and a pack of cards in the early hours helped me tackle a problem for one of my foster kids, and his blackberry wine was so thick, it was like syrup and marvellous for sore throats.
He joined an amateur wine making group, and put together his own tasting kit.
This consisted of two glasses, a corkscrew, napkin and two sample bottles, all tidily fitted into a wooden box with a carry handle (images put together from google).
At one meeting, he was given a recipe for apricot brandy which started with ‘Take three bottles of french brandy’ so was read no further, and after a few years of success and the occasional failure in the fruitiness stakes, Dad decided to go instead for ‘alcohol content’.
By this time, Sis had got the bug too and the pair of them were like a couple of witches over a cauldron sometimes as they threw in this and that for flavour or ‘added body’. The combined aroma of yeast, sugar and fermenting fruit was enough to give most of us a dry hangover, but neither of the ‘cooks’ would be deterred until perfection had been achieved.
Together they entered competitions, their rivalry good humoured with suggestions for improvement or improvisation if some of the recommended ingredients weren’t immediately to hand. Sis would get highly commended and perhaps a third place for her efforts whereas Dad would come away with sufficient second and first rosettes to decorate the attic where his brewing kit took up residence.
One of the last competitions they entered was when Dad had got his alcohol content at its best. The judge was familiar with his wines and had asked if there was anything new added to the current batch. Dad said he had been experimenting and asked what he thought.
The guy took a sip and went through the motions as wine tasters do (I still think it’s a waste when they spit the good stuff out).
From what Dad said, the poor chap’s eyes started to water and he had no voice when he tried to express his opinion.
‘That good eh?’
Dad came away with second place, as although the alcohol content was ‘good’ it somehow masked the flavour of the wine itself. Stripped it completely more like.