It’s a frosty Saturday night in July in Tasmania’s Huon Valley. Thousands of people dressed in outlandish costumes and painted faces are winding their way around a dewy apple orchard. Some hold flaming torches as masked dancers twirl around bonfires, others beat drums and pots and pans while singing and shouting in unison.
The spectacle is otherwise known as “wassailing”, an ancient English tradition said to bring a good apple harvest. Here in Grove, half-an-hour south-west of Hobart, it’s a prime feature of the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival held at the Willie Smith Cider Shed and apple orchard.
“We wake up the dormant apple trees and scare away the evil spirits in the hope of a good harvest,” says festival director Sam Reid, who co-founded Willie Smith’s in 2012 with Andrew Smith, a fourth-generation Huon Valley apple grower.
Having refurbished the Apple Shed, an apple-industry museum that doubles as Willie Smith’s cellar door, in December 2013 Reid and Smith hit upon the idea of returning an apple festival to the Huon Valley, once a dominant source of Tasmania’s apples.
Reid, a former marketing manager for Diageo, a multinational alcoholic beverage company, learnt about the ancient tradition of wassailing while on a research trip to the cider-producing regions of Europe. It was there, in the south-west of England, he discovered villages that still hold mid-winter wassailing ceremonies every year, on Twelfth Night (January 17).
He returned inspired. In 2014, over a weekend in July, Willie Smith’s hosted the first Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival. To Reid and Smith’s surprise, the promise of Morris dancers, a bonfire, good food and drink, – and wassailing – lured 4500 people from their warm homes in the first year.
“We were blown away by the response we got from the community, all wanting to come together and celebrate the apple industry,” says Reid. “Everyone in the valley's family has been touched by, or worked in, the apple industry in some way over the years. Whether it be carting apples, making boxes or picking apples.”
Buoyed by the festival’s first-year success, organisers decided to add a Friday night to the schedule. Four years on, its highlights now include a welcome ceremony and the Burning Man, a 10-metre straw effigy set alight by a flaming arrow.
Outside of the “main event” of the wassailing on Saturday, Reid says the festival has developed into a true all-ages attraction. “Sunday is a family day,” he says. “We have a children's circus and face painting. We do Morris dancing workshops and a children's wassail, where they make shapes and hang bread from the trees.”
In 2016 the festival almost didn’t happen. On the Friday of the event, heavy rains caused the Huon Valley to flood and the bridge to Huonville, five kilometres away, was closed. At daybreak on Saturday morning Reid and his team were hastily erecting tents to replace those blown away in the tempest.
From the grim outlook, a silver lining emerged. “I did a lot of radio interviews,” says Reid. “It turned out people were pretty keen to know whether it was still on. So in a way, all that extra coverage benefited us and got the message out.”
That year, 14,000 people turned up to the Apple Shed paddock ready for a party. This year organisers expect around 18,000.
“Everyone in the valley's family has been touched by, or worked in, the apple industry in some way over the years.”
The apple industry has a long and tumultuous history in Tasmania. The island’s first apple tree was planted by Captain William Bligh, who anchored in Adventure Bay on Bruny Island in 1788. Bligh and his party discovered English apple varieties thrived in Tasmania’s cool climate. They produced hard, rosy apples that found an enthusiastic market in Britain. By the 1870s Huon Valley growers were sending their apples – Scarlet Pearmains, Sturmer Pippins and French Crabs – down the Huon River and onto ships to be sent around the world.
The 1950s and ’60s were the glory days of the Tasmanian apple industry. Springtime apple-blossom blessings and the crowning of the Apple Queen at the annual Cygnet Apple Festival were social highlights of a busy year. The local apple-growing families spent their time among the trees, picking, pruning, processing, spraying, watering, grafting and planting. In 1962 production peaked when Tasmania sent seven million cases of apples overseas. It’s around this time Andrew Smith’s father, Ian, took over the family orchard from his own father, Ron, one of thousands of apple growers in Tasmania.
The crash came in 1973, when the UK joined the European Common Market. Demand for Tassie apples dried up overnight. Thousands of orchardists lost their livelihoods.
A government-led tree-pull program helped growers in financial trouble to leave the industry, resulting in thousands of acres of orchards being ripped up. “It was the unwritten rule you had to pull your orchard out,” says Reid. “If you didn't maintain your orchard there was a risk of disease that could quickly spread to other orchards in the valley. The only apple farmers who have survived have innovated and done something different."
The abundant apples that once spilled from fields, trucks, stalls and ships vanished from the Huon Valley. The decline continued until 2012, when not a single Tasmanian apple was exported. Today there are no more than 20 producers growing apples on a commercial scale. Smith’s survival strategy involved converting his orchard to organic in 1999, and adding the cider distillery in 2012. The latest acquisition is a $250,000 alembic copper still housed in the Apple Shed, which is used to make Calvados-style apple brandy.
The mainland is now the biggest market for Tasmanian apples. Most of Willie Smith’s culinary apples – familiar names such as Royal Gala, Fuji and Pink Lady – are sold to Woolworths.
Reid says it’s small-scale orchardists – “who don't have the relationships with the big national supermarket chains” – who supply the local market.
This means many local markets have a range of apples unfamiliar to mainlanders. You’re more likely to encounter heritage varieties like Jonagold, Golden Delicious and Gravenstein, says Reid, “rather than the clean, crisp, juicy fruits we've been narrowed down to consuming from the supermarket shelves.”
At Willie Smith’s, Reid and Smith have planted orchards of cider apples previously unseen in Australia. Types such as Antoinette, Bulmer’s Norman, Frequin rouge, Kingston Black and Yarlington Mill. Eaten raw, they taste “disgusting” says Reid. Dry and bitter, with too much tannin. Once fermented, though, the result is “some amazing residual flavours” and “a lot of tannin profile”.
While the industry is much smaller than it once was, apples remain an important part of the fabric of Tasmanian society. Much of it has to do with cider, which Reid says is hugely popular in Tasmania compared with the rest of Australia.
Since 2011 the cider industry has grown 11.4 per cent to $310 million, with another five per cent growth forecast for the next five years.
Leading the charge are artisan producers such as Willie Smith’s. It took out Best in Show at the Australian Cider Awards two years in a row for its 18 Varieties in 2015, and French Blend Limited Release Cider in 2016.
Reid says those wins have helped raise the profile of cider made from purpose-grown apples using traditional methods. “That's made more people get excited about cider,” he says. “Which means there’s more people excited about planting new varieties.”
In the same period, China has developed as a new market for Tasmanian apples, prompting a slight recovery in exports, which rose from a low of $400,000 in 2011–12 to $1.54 million in 2015–16.
With the rise in cider’s popularity an in apple exports, Reid is optimistic about the industry’s future. “I made a joke when Willie Smith’s launched that we were going to have an apple-led recovery here in Tasmania,” he says. “Everyone thought it was hilarious.”
He won’t say it, but all that wassailing might just be working.