Forget long-haired blokes in Iron Maiden t-shirts swigging from the can – cider and perry are now as artisan as ale. Nick Harman joins a team of top chefs on an outing to the orchards
"Pears can really bite you in the arse," says Tom Oliver, turning around in the driver’s seat to address the bevy of chefs and restaurateurs assembled in the back of his mini bus. We're parked in the middle of a pear orchard and Tom is commenting on just how hard it is to make decent perry compared to cider. For a start, pears don’t roll evenly along the ground when collected by machines; they’re not spherical you see. Obvious really, when you think about it.
Still, the effort’s worth it, as we find when we tumble out of the bus to try some of his perry in the Herefordshire sunshine. It's a drink that’s light, effervescent, gently sweet, redolent of pear and perfect summer drinking.
Perry, fortunately, is not a product that is easily industrialised, apart from of course Babycham. Despite its challenges, Tom believes in perry with enthusiasm, creating small batches of artisan perry fermented for the most part in wooden barrels using natural wild yeasts. "We don’t use any sulphur in our barrels," he explains. "We take chances in order to get a better product." Although, as he admits, this means he occasionally may get 'bitten' and be left with something undrinkable.
The chefs standing around drink steadily include Fergus Henderson from St John, Tom Harris and Jon Rotheram from The Marksman, James Lowe from Lyle's and Jackson Boxer from Brunswick House. They've come here looking for unusual, artisan drinks to serve customers and they're finding them.
Tom's barrel room, an old barn where spiders cavort merrily in the shafts of light that beam through the gaps in the walls, is the perfect playground for the wild yeasts. Here his perry and cider slowly ferment at an ambient temperature over many months. He explains that as each barrel slowly matures he decides which is destined for a single varietal, a blend, a vintage or a naturally conditioned beverage. It's true craftsmanship and thus never entirely the same twice. We sup up and move on.
Over at Greggs Pit, named for the pit in the orchard where lime for mortar was dug for hundreds of years, we meet James Marsden, who bought the dilapidated farm in 1992. "I had a 'proper' job and bought this for somewhere to live and then it all changed," he tells me as we drink by his ancient stone press. Restoring the orchard where the 200-year-old mother tree of the Gregg's Pit Perry pear variety still lives, he found other ancient varieties of cider apple and perry pear trees hidden under tons of scrap metal and planted new trees in the gaps. Soon he was a full-time cider and perry maker.
"We won't scale up," he says firmly. "We want to stay hands-on for everything we do," which includes, he laughs, regularly going down in the middle of the night wearing a head torch to see if fermentation has reached the optimum point.
In autumn they hand collect the apples and pears and the fruit is chopped and left as a pulp to soften overnight. Then it's packed into cloth to form a parcel known as a 'cheese' and slowly pressed out by two people working an enormous eighteenth century stone press. Once the juice for fermentation has been extracted the pulp (known as pomace) goes off to feed Hereford cattle.
James makes single varietal ciders and perry, some from Gregg's Pit perry pear trees, their own unique variety. The drinks come in both bottles and draught, a fact that pleases Jon and Tom from The Marksman, Michelin’s Pub of the Year 2017. They serve resolutely British dishes and like to instil that ethos into their drinks offering.
Rather like Neal's Yard recuperated English farmhouse cheeses in the 1980s, these guys are keeping alive a profound natural food tradition. It’s such a radically different product to the mass-produced one. And it's important to me to find producers like these who are making really amazing things to serve to our guests.
As we meet the cider and perry makers and taste their products over a lunch of excellent locally-sourced charcuterie, meat pies and cheeses, I talk to Felix Nash – the man perhaps most responsible for bringing cider to restaurateurs' attentions with his company The Fine Cider Company. "It's a testament I suppose to the fine ciders themselves that chefs like these here today, those who shift the boundaries, are so interested," he says, munching on a pie. "The best cider makers are more like wine makers. Each season is different and each apple variety has its own characteristic flavours, just like wine grapes. My role as a cider merchant is to find the very best bottles each season; those that are good enough to sit on the tables of some of the best restaurants in the country."
As we eat, the cider and perry makers get up to tell their stories as we drink their drinks. A common theme is how most of them never intended to be drinks makers; they just came to the countryside for various other reasons and simply morphed into their new roles. Another theme is how there is no rivalry between them; each tells of how the others have helped and reassured them when they’ve encountered challenges. They are even nice about the big industrial cider giants who, they say, are decent people who may be making a cider on a massive scale but always have time to encourage the small artisans and share knowledge.
Later on the train back to London, standing and swaying in the crowded carriages (some of the swaying being down to the alcohol taken), Jackson Boxer tells me how grateful he is to Felix for introducing him to the makers. "Rather like Neal's Yard recuperated English farmhouse cheeses in the 1980s, these guys are keeping alive a profound natural food tradition," he points out. "It’s such a radically different product to the mass-produced one. And it’s important to me to find producers like these who are making really amazing things to serve to our guests."
I go to ask Fergus Henderson what he thinks, but he seems to have disappeared. Possibly even missed the train, as he was right with us ten minutes ago on the platform but no one saw him get on. Maybe he's gone back for some more cider; it’d be hard to blame him.
This feature originally appeared on greatbritishchefs.com