Good thing you’re not a teetotaller”, opines Simon Day, proprietor of Once Upon A Tree, award-winning producer of cider, perry and apple juice since 2008, as he pours me a taste of his 2008 Blenheim Orange Limited Edition cider from Dragon Orchard. The funny thing is, I didn’t realize that cider is alcoholic -some as much as 8.5%. What’s more, cider is generally stronger than beer, I’m told. While visiting a few orchards and cider makers in rural Herefordshire county in northwest England, I learned a thing or two about this renaissance beverage, from scrumpy to perry.
Herefordshire, a border county between England and Wales, is not only known for its black and white timber framed cottages, Hereford cattle, and natural spring water from the Malvern Hills, but hands down it is England’s apple county. A visit to the Cider Museum in the capital town of Hereford will reinforce that town’s claim to being “The Apple of England’s Eye”.
Hop fields and apple orchards line the low-lying, fertile landscape of the parish towns of the Marcle ridge, including Much Marcle, Putley, Pixley and Little Marcle. The geography makes for ideal growing conditions; protected from the elements by the Black Mountains in South Wales to the west, the scenic Malvern Hills closer to the east, Marcle Ridge to the south, and May Hill to the south east, in the county of Gloucestershire. Herefordshire produces over 70% of cider supplied to the U.K.
At the train station in Ledbury, a historic market town, I’m greeted by my amiable hosts, owners of Little Acre Bed and Breakfast in the hamlet of Much Marcle. They set me up with my bicycle, which will be my mode of transportation for the next day, and show me to my quiet room with an idyllic view of rolling fields and a lone farmhouse in the distance. I could live here in a heartbeat.
After a light nap I’m whisked off to dinner at the local Crown Inn Pub in the neighboring village of Woolhope, tucked away on a narrow, winding, rural lane, sparsely populated by the occasional cottage enroute. It’s so dark here you need to carry a flashlight to make your way to the entrance. It’s St. Patrick’s Day and the area is a buzz with Cheltenham Festival fever, an annual horse jumping race showcasing the best horses from across Europe.
I’m here to taste my first glass of cider. I order Premium Organic cider from Westons Cider, the largest maker of cider and perry in Herefordshire. After my first sip, I’m disappointed to discover that it tastes like beer! I try two other firsts – pork scratchings, which is essentially deep-fried pork rind, and rabbit. I drink the cider to help wash down the tasty, crunchy pork scratchings but it fails to win me over. I hope for better things to come during my tour of Westons Cider the next day.
Westons Cider in Much Marcle has been making cider and perry for 130 years. Perry is made from pears and is sweeter than cider. There is also pear cider, which is a blend of dessert pears and perry pears. Westons, which began as a Hereford cattle farm, is now the largest employer in the region, with over 150 full-time staff.
After my tour, I order lunch at Westons Scrumpy House Restaurant-Cafe. I need some food in my stomach before my cider tasting. The Old Rosie sausages, cider and onion gravy, and creamed potato for £9.75 is a winner. The gravy is made with Stowford Press (sparkling) 4.5%, and the sausages are made with Old Rosie Cloudy Scrumpy (still) 7.3%. The waitress recommends the Vintage Organic cider (7.3%) to go along with my meal. I’m beginning to like cider.
A tad tipsy from my tasting, I climb on my bicycle and negotiate the narrow, hilly country lane in search of Jean Nowell’s cottage. Jean is one of the founders of The Big Apple, a seasonal Herefordshire apple festival, which just celebrated its 25th year in October. You could say that Jean was born into the cider making business. Her father was a cider maker and she says there was always a barrel in the basement. “We had it when we wanted it.” Now widowed, she and her husband started to make cider after she found an old scratter stone mill in the yard of what is now Lyne Down Cider & Perry. After her husband past she sold the property to Lyne Down and moved into the cottage next door, where she is now.
“It’s a very satisfying thing to do; to plant an orchard and see it come into bearing”, Jean tells me as she offers a glass of her cider; traditional, or scrumpy as it is coined, and goes on to tell me about the annual Blossomtime festival.
At Blossomtime, which is held in Putley during the first weekend in May, about 50 professional and craft cider makers will participate in a peer-judged cider tasting competition. There are orchard walking tours and cycling trails to enjoy the orchards in full bloom, as well as tastings, baked goods, poetry walks, and a performance by the Leominster Morris dancers.
Jean asks me how I like the scrumpy. I reluctantly divulge that it’s too vinegary for me and she admits that it’s for the cider purist. “It’s rough and sharp,” she says. She makes three barrels of it every year; one to give away, one to sell to festivals, and, of course, one to enjoy for herself.