Food Critic Richard McComb raises a glass or two to the bittersweet delights of artisan cider-making.
There are times when the appreciation of a particular food or drink hits you like a thunderbolt.
It’s a quasi-spiritual moment, as if an impenetrable fog bank has been breached and there, before your own eyes, nasal receptors and tastebuds is revealed the essential truth of the matter.
It took an apple falling on his head to persuade Isaac Newton about gravity, and the same fruit – more specifically its juice – plays a central role in my own conversion.
I am in a cool, beamed cellar, lined with great wooden casks recycled from the wine, rum and whisky trade, inhaling a sweet, musty scent. Old bottles line the walls. After several decades of not really getting it, I get it entirely: the beauty of cider.
Mike Johnson is taking me through a DIY blending tutorial at Ross-on-Wye Cider and Perry Company, an artisan producer in the depths of Herefordshire. Mike wants to demonstrate the range of tastes that can be squeezed from the 100 different varieties of cider apple on Broome Farm, where his grandfather first tilled the land in the 1930s.
We try a single variety Ashton Bitter, straight up, which is as astringent as it is tannic. I take several more mouthfuls just to be sure.
“It’s actually my favourite cider,” says Mike.
“The more you are involved in cider, the drier your taste seems to get.”
I’ll drink to that.
To the Ashton Bitter we add a good slug of Ashton Brown Jersey, which lends the liquid gold a more pronounced bittersweet edge. Whatever it was that hit me at the front of the tongue is now going to work at the back of the mouth. A few more sips are required. We continue.
Next up is the Dabinett. Into the blend it goes and suddenly there is a greater roundness, a sweeter flavour in the mouth. Richness. I take a few more sips. Yes, definitely richness.
Then Mike goes rummaging in the dark recesses of the cellar and pulls out an unmarked bottle. “Tremletts Bitter,” he says, smiling at Phil Long, one of his assistants. Phil smiles back. In goes the Tremletts. I tremble, and drink.
“It is an art to blend them,” says Mike. Practice makes perfect. Blend, taste. Blend, taste. It could go on and on – and later that night it does. But seeing as it is 10.30am, and I am due to focus on the Mappa Mundi at Hereford Cathedral in an hour’s time, we reluctantly put a cork in it.
I have found myself at Ross Cider in the run up to this month’s annual Flavours of Herefordshire Food Festival, the county’s annual showcase for outstanding local produce. The event features more than 70 independent food and drink producers, selling all manner of fruits, chutneys, chocolates, cheeses, puddings, ice creams, sorbets and drinks – which in Herefordshire means cider.
Ross Cider is situated in an idyllic spot in the village of Peterstow, near Ross-on-Wye. The fresh green of the orchards and pasture contrasts with the deep, reddy brown of the newly ploughed fields that blanket several hills. There is a gentle pace to life here and daily reminders of links to the past. Mike grows pears for perry production, which take several years longer than apples to come to maturity. “They say you grow pears for heirs,” says Mike. “They are a long term investment.”
As we walk through the orchards on a bright, early autumn morning, dew clinging to our shoes, Mike shows me a perry tree that has been bearing fruit for more than 200 years. He says: “It’s nice if you imagine the person who planted it and all the people who have sat under it and picked the fruit and laughed. It’s nice bit of history.”
The tall Holmer perry is one of 30 varieties grown on the farm and has been given the local nickname Startlecock due to its reputed diuretic qualities.
Mike, who is 57, doesn’t have to imagine who was responsible for many of the apple trees that flourish at the farm. His grandfather Henry set about planting when he and his wife Alice came to Broome Farm before the Second World War. Henry’s trees, whose numbers have swelled to 10,000 today, still bear fruit. Henry’s original cider orchards covered just three acres. His grandson is responsible for managing 50 acres.
Henry and Alice initially moved to Broome Farm to open a guest-house, a tradition maintained to this day by Mike’s sister Hilary, who runs the farmhouse as a delightful three-bedroom bed-and-breakfast with her husband John Draper. Evening meals are also cooked and the breakfast, of locally smoked bacon and the yellowest of yolked eggs, has to be one of the best in the ancient cider-making Three Counties of Herefordshire, Worcesteshire and Gloucestershire. When we turned up for the night we were greeted with a jug of cider and Hilary’s outstanding homemade cider cake. It’s like going home.
The farm itself has variously been used for a dairy herd, potato and fruit production and sheep. Some alpacas are kept today. It is cider though that has proved to be the saviour of this evolving family business.
The bulk of the apples are grown under contract for Bulmers and the commercial orchards, now accounting for 40 acres, date back to 1974. However, 10 acres are kept for Ross Cider’s exclusive use. As we stroll through the orchards, with evocative names like Nine Acre, Strawberry, Oak Meadow and Hangmans, the huge variety of the colours, hues and shapes of the apples becomes apparent.
Mike, who has already picked three tonnes of fruit this morning, encourages me to try some of the apples to get an idea about the different taste qualities. He says: “Don’t eat the fruit. Just sink your teeth. Try the juice. It’s all you’ll need.”
He’s right. A tentative bite into an Ashton Bitter releases a sweet yet dry juice. To compare, Mike points me towards a tree groaning under the weight of Fox Whelp. It is overwhelmingly acidic and tannic.
“Here’s my Ashton Bitter orchard,” says Mike, as we walk under the gaze of May Hill, within whose sight the best cider and perry is meant to be grown.
“What? You have a whole orchard for Aston Bitter?” I ask.
“Yes, but it’s only 300 trees,” he replies. Only 300.
The windfall fruit destined for Ross Cider is gathered from the fields, hand washed and sorted before being turned into pulp by a “scratter” machine, housed on the back of a tractor. All rotting or mouldy apples are discarded. If the machinery and the method seems antiquated, all the better. The old-fashioned way ensures quality is maintained. Mike says: “We only use apples when they are ripe. With craft cider, it is really important the apples are in the right condition or you get harsh, tart cider.”
Once pulped, the apple is put into “parcels” in fine mesh cloths built up to eight layers called a “cheese.” The cheese is slowly squeezed using a hydraulic press and the juice is collected, poured into barrels and left to ferment with its own natural yeasts, producing a cider of 6.5 per cent abv.
Big producers often add sugar at the fermentation stage enabling the cider to reach 12-14 per cent abv before diluting it prior to sale.
The harvest is now in full flow and will last into late November. Ross Cider usually produces 10,000 gallons – 2,000-3,000 gallons of perry and 7,000-8,000 gallons of cider. Last year there was a glut of perry pears so production was split almost 50-50 but the figures should return to normal levels for 2010-11.
Mike’s family had always made cider for their own consumption and the decision to start independent commercial production in the 1980s, when output was 1,500 gallons, was motivated by a desire to protect the farm’s income. But to put the business’s bespoke production in context it is worth pointing out that 63 million gallons of cider, more than half the UK’s cider, is made in Herefordshire each year.
Phil adds: “We grow organically based on demand rather than having a master plan. Because we enjoy the variety we make, we are unlikely to follow the route of some makers who effectively produce and bottle a limited number of lines. It may be more economic but it does not make the best of the apple varieties.”
The vast majority of the cider is sold as draught from the cellar but there is a range of pasteurised and naturally conditioned bottled ciders and perrys. There are no artificial flavours or additives; none of the Ross Cider trees are sprayed. “They have to take their chances,” says Mike.
A stream of volunteers visit the farm to help harvest the fruit and learn about the traditional methods of production.
Among the motley crew is Kate, a Canadian, who is spending half a year at the farm, sleeping in a caravan, learning about cider craft with a view to setting up her own business back home. As I join the volunteers later that night for an aperitif in the cellar, Kate delivers a box teaming with freshly picked damsons destined for one of the brews.
A tall, grizzled man with a long, pointy beard approaches me, offering a glass of perry and a welcoming smile. He speaks with an accent that is distinctly un-Hereford. Tomas is in fact from the Czech Republic and is returning to Broome Farm for the third year. The first time he came, Mike let him do a day’s work and gave him a few litres of cider and a night’s free camping in the orchard. Last year Tomas spent Christmas in a caravan in one of the orchards. He didn’t feel the cold, but says the cider helped.
Tomas, who is 30, has returned this picking season with his college mate, Marcel. By profession, they are both teachers but Marcel is only taking a year out as opposed to his friend’s adoption of life on the road. When the harvest is over, they will head south, to New Zealand, then possibly Thailand.
I ask Tomas how he survives financially. “When you have nature and the open road in front of you you don’t need much money,” he says.
“Oh, and the cider is fantastic. Would you like some more?”
In the interests of pan-European harmony, I extend my empty glass.
* Flavours of Herefordshire Food Festival is held at Hereford Race Course on October 23-24. Daily tickets prices: adults £6; concessions (over 65s) £5; under 14s £2; children under 3 are free.
* Details about Ross Cider, including products and activities, can be found at www.rosscider.com
* For information about Broome Farm, go to www.broomefarmhouse.co.uk