If you read Haritz Rodriguez’s article about Ciderlands, then you know the background and the planned events. So the arduous (wink, wink) task falls to me to inform you on what actually occurred and my story begins on a crisp autumn Friday evening.
An evening full of cidery promise...a party at the cider museum with a Three Counties Cider Bar, Txotx (pronounced choch) barrel, international cider showcase, wood fired pizza and museum tours...plus much more. The atmosphere was welcoming, open and joyous. I have to admit to having never visited the cider museum before (embarrassing) and I most certainly have to go back, there was so much happening that I missed out on the tours. The bar was incredibly well stocked with the finest the three counties has to offer fully represented. A fantastic curation from Jeremy (Hereford’s first Pommelier).
Mid way through the evening the inside area opened up for an hour or so for the international delegates to share the ciders from their ‘ciderlands’. I sampled acid-led ciders from Japan, made with culinary and eating apple varieties. Stunning perry from Austria, marketed like wine, as well as a full quince creation from Ramborn in Luxembourg. There was Sidra a-plenty with both Asturias and the Basque regions represented, Haritz joined me for a #fineciderfriday tasting a wonderfully sharp and tropical Sidra from Zapiain and Hawkes Txotx barrel got everyone on their feet to catch some Basque inspired liquid made in London.
The following morning I had the privilege of joining the international delegates for a full day of some of the best cider tourism that Herefordshire has to offer. First stop was Ross-On-Wye market town, where we were led around important landmarks by town ambassadors for the history of both cider and tourism. I have visited many times before, but the tour gave me the opportunity to see this lovely town through a different lens. The birthplace of tourism, a church bell forged with a tankard of cider and a town that was once home to almost 100 pubs.
A short drive up the road led us to Ross-On-Wye Cider and Perry, where Mike, Albert and John were all on form, sharing the history, methods and creations (87 last year) that led them to win BBC Drinks Producer of the Year 2019.
The sampling started with a dichotomy of bitter sharp (Foxwhelp) versus bitter sweet (Tremletts Bitter) which we were then instructed to blend and marvel at the harmony created. We then tried a number of perries and ciders, including Raison D’Etre 2017 and the Pet Nat released this year.
Albert and Mike shared their current approach to their orchards following the end of the Bulmers contract, which is to expand their range of varieties considerably “better to have 63 varieties of one row, rather than 63 rows of one variety”. They have even started propagating trees, hoping to create their own Broome Farm variety. A walk back through the orchards to the Yew Tree Inn led us to our delicious lunch.
Next we joined the Big Apple weekend events and first stop was Hellens Manor, where cider apple and perry pear displays drew in the curious eye with their variety of shapes and colours. A perry pressing demonstration with a very old stone mill and wooden press brought nostalgia to its visitors, at least for a few moments until you realised the work required, but the reward looked delicious.
Morris dancers provided energetic and at certain points cringing entertainment; I had no idea how wildly and forcefully they swung those sticks about. A talk from Charles Martel and Jim Chapman gave us insight into the history of the perry pear, and how they grow best within sight of May Hill (challenge accepted), a walk along the pear tree lined entrance was enchanting with trees over 300 years still standing the test of time.
The final stop was at Greggs Pit where the charismatic James Marsden enthralled us with stories of his cider journey. 2019 brings their 25th vintage to what started as a form of therapy whilst enduring a career in Government (a picture I am too familiar with). Their plan always being to stay under the 7,000 litre cider duty exemption and 2014 finally brought retirement from the day job. Wild yeasts, low nutrient orchards, minimal intervention and time, all key elements of their methods.
Greggs Pit is a most idyllic spot, perched on a hill overlooking beautiful countryside, the small-ish orchard close to the cider barn is a bubble of peace and beauty where as I wandered during some free time the outside world slipped away.
James’s final comments gave centre stage to current affairs and the climate crisis we find ourselves facing globally. His records have shown that early varieties of perry pear are ripening 2 weeks earlier than 20 years ago, and in general sugar is up and acidity down. The change was echoed by Haritz who has seen similar patterns in Spain.
The evening brought the Cider Banquet at the Green Dragon Hotel where a hundred strong party sat in the marvellously decorated banquet hall for five courses of fine dining, matched with equally fine ciders and perries. Introductory speeches from the Mayor and Mr Ciderology himself brought a rousing start to the evening festivities. Pledges to enhance cider’s position in local tourism and heartfelt pride for Herefordshire’s part in the ciderlands movement were met with cheers of support.
You can see from the menu that there was some exquisite food on offer, but the stand out for me was the second course. Ross Flakey Bark Perry 2017 and cured chalk stream trout, on their own both delicious, but combined simply marvellous. All the beautiful little notes of flavour enhanced by the marriage of the two, there was a rich minerality to each mouthful.
At dinner I was sat next to Kjetil Widding from Norway, and in between talking about the food, cider and looking at pictures of orchards on the shoreline of fjords (very jealous) we also discussed the challenges faced by craft cider in Norway, a mainstream fruity concentrate dominated market, similar to the UK. Cider (and perry) as a global drink faces the same challenge of mainstream domination leading to certain perceptions and attitudes wherever you go.
As I reflected on the weekend and the aims of Ciderlands it occurred to me how important it is for the future of cider as a global drink to come together, share experience and expertise, support each other with common challenges and celebrate the differences that make cider (and perry) such an inclusive drink. That is what Ciderlands is all about and I can’t wait for next year’s events, wherever they may be (fingers crossed a Norwegian fjord).