Cider is becoming more popular. It’s not unusual to find a draught cider pump in your local, particularly if the pub sells real ale.
This month however we are searching out some of the smaller English local cider makers who make their amber delights in the shadow of the orchards where the apples grow.
Cider, Perry – like cider but made from pears, and even apple brandy are all available from the people who actually lovingly brew them from fruit they have grown themselves.
This autumn, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, is a great time to set off to find these fruity treasures and bring home some good English apples in a form you can drink all winter.
An apple a day…
An apple a day keeps the doctor away, so they say and I always try to include a crispy and juicy English apple in my daily five fruit.
But there is another way I enjoy my English apples and that’s in a refreshing glass of cider.
Just as good wines are made from named grape varieties, the best ciders are made from a particular named apple. And what names,
My own favourite apple is the Kingston Black but other cider apples have really exotic names like; Handsome Norman, Greasy, or even Slack my Girdle.
Don’t try eating any of these cider apples. They are usually small, hard and very bitter. That acidity and bitterness is an important part of the characteristic flavour of good cider.
There are hundreds of farmhouse and other small cider makers. Many sell the cider from the farm gate or perhaps in a local pub or two. The romantic way to find them is to drive through the orchards of Somerset, Herefordshire, Norfolk or a dozen other English counties.
In spring these orchards hang heavy with blossom and the perfume can be heady when you walk among the trees. Often though all the cider will be gone. Sold and drunk over the last winter.
Better to head for the orchards at harvest time. You’ll see the cider being made and can enjoy sampling those ciders best drunk young.
A more scientific method is to get a copy of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) publication ‘The Good Cider Guide.’ http://www.camra.org.uk/books The book lists hundreds of cider makers and pubs that sell farm house cider.
Our feature this month visits four places where you can learn a little about how cider and perry is made. Most still use methods and machinery that hasn’t changed in centuries.
The apples are harvested. Often after being allowed to ripen and fall naturally. The fruit is then chopped into small pieces and pressed often using ancient wooden presses. Some of these cider presses are truly enormous indicating the vast quantities of cider that were made in days gone by.
Once the juice has been extracted the fermentation can start. Natural yeasts from the apple skins themselves turn the sugar in the fruit to alcohol. You might be given the chance to taste the young cider before it is put into casks to mature.
Different ciders are kept for different lengths of time. Just like wines some ciders are best drunk young others get better if kept to mature for a year or two.
Two of the places we will visit take the process further and distill the cider to make apple brandy. You may be familiar with Calvados – French apple brandy – if you have ever been to Normandy. In Canada I have drunk Apple Jack, it is all brandy distilled from cider.
The making of Apple Brandy died out completely in England but has been reintroduced and the finished spirit is certainly worth the effort.
One place where brandy is made is the Cider Museum in Hereford it’s a great place to see the whole story of Cider and Apple Brandy.
Perry from pears.
Do you remember Babycham? My wife Ann certainly does, “the genuine champagne Perry” chimed the advert. She loved Babycham, In fact I have to confess she still does.
When Babycham was really popular I don’t think the many of the people who drank it realised it was actually made from pears.
Nowadays serious Perry drinkers probably turn their noses up at the tiny bottles with Bambi’s sister on the label but there is no shortage of good locally made Perry.
Perry pears have just as exotic names as cider apples. What about Honey Knob and Painted Lady, Early treacle or, would you believe Bloody Bastard? – no really it’s just a Perry pear with attitude.
Many of the cider makers we visit later in this feature also make Perry, why not try a bottle or two.
Although none of our visits this month take us to Wales there is a well developed cider industry in the principality.
The Welsh side of the border is rich with orchards and as you would expect they make just as good farmhouse cider from the apples. Welsh Perry is made too and is very good.
Mill House Cider Museum, Owermoigne, Dorchester, Dorset.
Dorset isn’t perhaps the first county you would think of when you are looking for cider. However tucked behind Mill House nurseries in the tiny Dorset village of Owermoigne is the fascinating Cider Museum.
This is Thomas Hardy country and as you look around the Cider Museum you are taken back to country farms of Jude the Obscure and Tess of the d’Urbervilles and the rural idyll of Hardy’s imaginary, but beloved, Wessex.
Indeed Mill House itself featured in Hardy’s ‘The Distracted Preacher’ The novelist changes the name of the village of Owermoigne to Nethermoyton.
At the museum there is an amazing collection of old wooden cider presses some of which are real giants. Huge tree trunks carved into primitive but still useable machines. Apples are still pressed in these antiques and the museum will usually be demonstrating some part of the cider making process.
There are always a few brews to sample and the helpful staff are the people who make the cider themselves so they really know what they are talking about.
The museum sells its own cider and some from other local makers. Apple and pear juices are also on sale and a large selection of books on cider and other country crafts are offered for sale.
A real bonus is that the museum has a large collection of Dorset and other country clocks. The large barn lined with grandfather, grandmother and other long case clocks would be worth a visit on its own, combined with the Cider Museum it makes a great day out.
The Cider Museum is open from 10am to 6pm from Tuesday to Sunday.
Wroxham Barns, Hoveton, Norfolk.
When Gaymers the huge cider producer in Norfolk moved away from the county it could have been the end of the long cider making tradition in the county. Norfolk made its first cider as long ago as 1204.
In fact the long lasting tradition is being kept alive by a number of farm house producers using the products of the many orchards that still dot the flat Norfolk countryside.
Today one of those producers, the Norfolk Cider Company, is unusual in using mainly cooking and eating apples to make its Norfolk Cider and this results in a sweeter less astringent flavour than West Country Ciders offer.
Because of the higher sugar levels in these sweeter apples the alcohol content is high It can be as high as 7.5% and this can make it more like an apple wine.
These Norfolk ciders have won many awards and are very easy to drink. The company also make some superb apple juices which are free of additives or preservatives.
The small company shop at Wroxham Barns offers a chance to sample both ciders, perry and juices. There are some examples of presses and other cider making equipment. Books on cider are also on sale.
Wroxham Barns offers all sorts of shops and stalls many selling and demonstrating local crafts and selling local food and other produce.
Also on site is an excellent restaurant that offers wonderful food all cooked using local Norfolk produce. Norfolk and apple juice are among other local brews that are served with meals.
Wroxham Barns are a popular day out for people visiting the area. There is good parking for motorcaravans. It is open seven days a week but it’s a good idea to ring the Norfolk Cider Company if you are making a special journey as they take their touring cider exhibition to many country shows.
Somerset Cider Brandy, Kingsbury Episcopi, Martock, Somerset.
Cider Brandy in England dates back to at least 1678. This craft died out and disappeared for hundreds of years and it wasn’t until 1989 that Her Majesty’s Customs issued the first licence to distill Cider Brandy that had been issued for centuries.
It was granted to Julian Temperley who still makes the brandy at Kingsbury Episcopi today.
The cider, raw material for the brandy is made at Burrow Hill from local apples and they have been making cider for more than 150 years. Then it is distilled in the old stills (below).
The orchards grow more than 40 traditional varieties of Cider apples. Among them are ones called Harry Masters Jersey, Stoke Red and one called Brown Snout.
The Burrow Hill Cider is pretty special. Some is matured like Champagne. Kept for two years in the bottle and then the neck is frozen so that the yeast can be disgorged in a plug of ice.
It has a wonderful light sparkling taste and is a real treat; as different from ordinary cider as a Premier Cru is from a bottle of plonk.
The brandy too comes in various qualities or rather ages. The Brandy is matured in old oak barrels. Some of the Barrels come amazingly from ships wrecked of the coast of southern Britain.
There are many other products to chose from when you visit the distillery. What about local morello cherries in eau de vie made from local cider.
My own favourite is an Aperitif made from a mixture of apple brandy and fresh Kingston Black apple juice. I keep a bottle in the fridge.
Visitors to Kingsbury Episcopi can see the cider being made and the copper stills which distil the brandy.
The distillery is open for visits every day except Sunday from 9am to 5.30pm.
Windmill Vineyard, Hellidon, Daventry, Northampton
What’s this then? A vineyard in an article about cider, and in a midlands county not usually thought of as a home of cider apple orchard?
Doreen and Thomas Hillier-Bird planted their vineyard in 1978 and at the same time they planted an orchard of cider apples.
Wild crab apples are gathered from hedgerows nearby to add to the mix and give acidity and tannin to the raw orchard juice. This makes the finished cider fuller bodied with a richer taste.
You can visit the hilltop Windmill which as well as offering splendid views also offers a Scrumpy style cider, several perries and two rather unusual brews.
Cyser is a mixture of apples and honey from hives in the orchard fermented into a drink rather like mead. They also make Pyder, an mixture of apple and pear juices fermented to make a drink somewhere between cider and perry.
There are also many wines and vinegars made from grapes from their own vines as well as many other fruit flavoured drinks.
In season the Windmill is open from Wednesday to Sunday from Noon to 6pm. The Windmill is well signposted from the A361 and the A425 between Banbury and Daventry.
This article was syndicated as part of a series I wrote on English food and drink in a number of the Times Warner magazines in 2005.