Telegraph.co.uk - Extract
Cider country: The complete guide
The Wurzels couldn't get enough of it and Julius Caesar liked a tipple, too. Cider may be seen as an English drink, but discovers its appeal stretches from France and Spain to as far afield as South Africa and the US.
By Emily Hatchwell
Saturday, 1 September 2001
Cider country - where's that then?
For our purposes, wherever cider's the traditional tipple. Cider is now made all over the world from Oregon to Cape Town (the cider market in South Africa is the second biggest in the world after the UK). However, to experience traditional cider-making you should head for Herefordshire, Somerset, Normandy in France or Asturias in Spain.
Are we talking scrumpy or Woodpecker here?
Ninety-eight per cent of the 110 million gallons of cider that we currently consume annually in this country is 'industrial' cider. This may be made from apple concentrate. It is sold as Woodpecker, Blackthorn and other mainstream brands that are knocked back by the pintful, or as style-conscious 'badge-drinks' in the bottle-drinking club market.
That apple-derived drinks such as Ibiza can be classified as ciders angers the producers of farmhouse cider, which is made from pure apple juice. In its rawest form, farmhouse cider is made by crushing and pressing apples, and then transferring the juice to oak barrels to ferment for at least six months. In England, if nothing is added to it, this cloudy, still cider is known as scrumpy. But forget that rough liquid you drank from a plastic container as a teenager. Good scrumpy is fruity and very drinkable, and cider producers are now also making some excellent clear ciders.
It doesn't sound terribly glamorous...
Touring cider country might not sound as sophisticated as, say, wine tasting in California's Napa Valley, but it's certainly more original. And whereas you can buy Californian wine virtually anywhere, most farmhouse producers distribute only within a small radius of their farms. Drinking natural, farmhouse cider is also becoming quite fashionable and a glass of good quality cider is even said by some to be as good for you as a glass of red wine.
Tell me some more about cider's history
Europe's three main cider-making centres – south-west England, north-west France, and northern Spain – all have Celtic roots. In this country, cider was already around when the Romans arrived, and Julius Caesar's reputed fondness for the drink might explain why the Romans did so much to improve apple cultivation. But cider-production really took off when the Normans landed, bringing with them new varieties of apples as well as a strong tradition of cider-making. They also introduced the word sidre, which was a roundabout adaptation of a Hebrew word shekar meaning "strong drink".
Cider was easier to make than beer – all you needed was an orchard and a press. It became the preferred drink in apple-growing areas, and was drunk at every meal, even breakfast. Myths abounded about cider's healing powers. Doctors prescribed it for all kinds of illnesses, while women believed that bathing in cider would stop ageing. It even became legal to pay a third of a farm labourer's wages in cider: three to four pints per day, increasing to six to eight pints during haymaking.
In the fast-developing world of the 20th century, factory-made cider left scrumpy in the shade, and many farmers uprooted their orchards to sow more profitable crops. Today, however, both large- and small-scale cider-making is enjoying a revival. In Britain alone we are drinking four times the amount of cider we consumed in the 1960s.
So where's the best place to start?
Somerset has the greatest number of registered farmhouse cider-makers in England. Most are found around the fringes of the Levels, a flat land of big skies and big floods wedged between the Mendips, Quantocks and Blackdown Hills. Certain areas produce particularly good cider, and in Somerset these are located around Wedmore, Glastonbury and Martock.
The suitability of the soil to the type of apple is crucial. Eating and cooking apples can be used to make cider, but Somerset uses only cider apples, with names like Pig's Snout and Slack-ma-Girdle. These tend to be high in tannin and acid and are inedible raw. The blending of apple types is the cider-maker's art, although there is also a new trend for making single variety vintage ciders, particularly of Kingston Black, the most famous cider apple of all.
For a good introduction to traditional Somerset cider, call on Roger Wilkins (01934 712385), whose farm sits on a sheltered slope in Mudgley south of Wedmore. In the business for 45 years, Wilkins is a well-known character among Somerset producers and in his unkempt barn he offers nothing but traditional scrumpy from the barrel (medium or dry). In summer there's often a gathering of locals enjoying a glass of the deliciously fruity cider while they wait to fill up their containers to take home.
A similar passion for unadulterated scrumpy can be found at the Rose and Crown in Huish Episcopi, east of Taunton. Better known as Eli's Place after the last landlord, this is a local institution where scrumpy is poured from a barrel in the flagstoned bar – a disarming, walk-in affair where regular cider-drinkers used to help themselves before repairing to their own den, known as the "men's kitchen" (now open to all customers).
What about something a bit more sophisticated?
You mean golden, clear cider in a bottle, perhaps with a little fizz? Many small producers make filtered and lightly carbonated cider, including Perry's Cider Mills (01460 52681, www.perryscider.co.uk), in the honey-coloured village of Dowlish Wake near Ilminster. This mill-cum-museum-cum-shop probably sells more jams and Portmeirion pottery than anything else, but also makes a tasty bottle of vintage cider.
If you really want to impress your friends with your refined tastes, however, then buy a bottle of Burrow Hill cider. This is made in Kingsbury Episcopi by Julian Temperley (01460 240782, www.ciderbrandy.co.uk), a passionate cider-maker and owner of arguably the best cider orchards in Somerset. He produces a virtually unique bottle-fermented sparkling cider, which is made like champagne, by maturing the cider on yeast in bottles for at least 18 months (compared with the usual six months in the barrel). The result is an ultra-dry cider with fine bubbles, a high alcohol content (8 per cent) and a high price (£5.80 for 75cl, double the average), that's earned a place in Fortnum and Mason.
What about Herefordshire?
Somerset cider-makers would say that cider in Herefordshire is notable more for its quantity than its quality. Well over half the UK's cider – 63 million gallons – is produced in the county. That is thanks to Hereford-based H.P. Bulmer (01432 352000, www.bulmers.com). You can no longer go on a tour of its factory, but it's worth clocking the vast Bulmer Strongbow tank, the largest alcohol container in the world, with a capacity of 1.6 million gallons. Bulmer still makes some traditional cider, but seems keener on global expansion; it opened the first cider-making plant in China recently.
Herefordshire promotes its cider more actively than Somerset. The Cider Museum (01432 354207, www.cidermuseum.co.uk) in Hereford covers every aspect of cider-making and also organises cider competitions and other events. There is a Cider Route, too, which takes in producers round the county. The most successful of these is Westons (01531 660233, www.westons-cider.co.uk), in Much Marcle, a long-established but forward-looking family firm which produces everything from scrumpy to cider and lemongrass punch. It also produces perry, a traditional pear cider made mainly in Herefordshire. More subtle than its apple equivalent, perry is generally considered the refined cousin of apple cider.
Why bother crossing the Channel, then?
Cider is the most popular alcoholic drink in Brittany and Normandy, and it is unlikely that they drink it purely for tradition's sake. It is not unusual to see a group of young women sharing a bottle of cider in a bar after work, served in the traditional teacups. Not quite what one would expect to find in Taunton.
To taste the best farmhouse cider in France, head for the Pays d'Auge, a preposterously picturesque region of Normandy in the département of Calvados. Its landscape of pastures and orchards dotted with half-timbered farms is as perfect a rural idyll as you can hope to see.
In France, still cider is unheard of nowadays. Factories may go in for artificial carbonation, but farmhouse producers seldom do. Instead, their cider acquires fizz through natural fermentation in the bottle. It is ready within six months and sealed with a champagne-style cork – hence the name cidre bouché ("corked cider"). What's special about Pays d'Auge cider is that, like the best wines, it has its own Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) to guarantee 100 per cent purity and adherence to strict, ancestral methods.
The tourist office has organised a well-signed, 25-mile driving route, the Route du Cidre. Among the best of the producers featured is Pierre Huet (00 33 2 31 63 01 09), in Cambremer, who makes a light and sparkling cider. At the nearby Auberge La Route du Cidre (00 33 2 31 63 12 27), a restaurant in an old timber-framed barn, Pierre Huet features on the cider menu, which even suggests which type of cider goes best with which food.
What about Spanish cider?
The Basques are serious cider drinkers, but neighbouring Asturias is the real cider capital of Spain. All over the region, cider houses or sidrerías serve local cider (sidra natural), and many ordinary bars offer it too, particularly in summer when the locals drink vast quantities of the stuff –justified, partly, by its low-alcohol content (3.5 per cent).
Spanish sidra natural should be poured in small amounts from above the head into a glass held at waist height. This aerates the still cider and improves the taste, but only if it's drunk quickly before the bubbles subside.
And does cider rule in the United States?
Not quite. Ask for a glass of dry cider there and you'll get a blank look. Cider to Americans means apple juice, although they usually call this "sweet cider", a term apparently invented by prohibitionists to make them feel better about not drinking the real, alcoholic version known as "hard cider". Hard cider is becoming more popular again, and there are more small-estate producers than there were, but in terms of quality it's not a patch on English cider.
In John Irving's novel, Cider House Rules, set in the 1920s, the lead character, Homer, ends up working on a cider farm in Maine. New England was the country's first cider-producing region – apple seeds were brought over by the Pilgrims – and it is still home to some of the country's best-known brands, including Woodchuck, made in Vermont.
When's the best time to explore cider country?
If you're keener on tasting than seeing the harvest, then it doesn't matter when you go since most producers' stocks last a whole season. Even so, cider is a refreshing drink that goes best with lazy summer days. Many people say summer is the best time because you can taste the new cider – particularly relevant in Normandy, since the longer the cider ferments the drier it gets. Cidre bouché has had it after about a year. Traditional English scrumpy has a shelf life of a week or so once decanted from the barrel, while English bottled cider is normally pasteurised and has a shelf life of a year or more.
For orchards awash with apple blossom, visit in May, while the harvest starts as early as September, peaking in October and November. Most producers are happy for you to watch them at work, but it's best to phone ahead.
Make sure it's not your turn to drive if you go tasting. Cider is not that strong in France (around 4 per cent), but is usually nearer 6.5 per cent in England.
Is cider the only drink they make in cider country?
Excellent apple juice is available, of course, while at the other end of the alcoholic scale is fiery apple brandy, or Calvados. Pays d'Auge Calvados has its own AOC status which, uniquely, requires double distillation and ensures the quality that makes the region's apple brandy the best in France. It is aged for anything from two to 50 years in oak casks. Many cider-makers on the Route du Cidre produce Calvados, too.
There is no apple brandy tradition in England, but Julian Temperley (see above) is hoping his "Somerset" brandy will become the English Calvados. His two stills, Fifi and Josephine, have already produced award-winning liqueur. He also produces an exquisite, smooth and fruity version of pommeau, a popular apple aperitif (18 per cent) in Normandy, made by blending apple juice and young Calvados.
But for the most sophisticated take on cider drinking try a kir normand, a simple mixture of French cidre bouché and cassis, which is a world away from the abomination of a drink that is cider and blackcurrant.
Cider with Rosie
The village of Slad, in Gloucestershire in a deep, lush valley just outside Stroud, was the setting for Cider with Rosie, Laurie Lee's elegy of boyhood in the Cotswolds between 1917 and 1934. Behind a haystack, he kissed Rosie ("once only"), and had his "first long, secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys... wine of wild orchards, of russet summer, of plump red apples... "
You wouldn't know Laurie Lee (1914-1997) had ever lived in Slad, but for his grave in the churchyard, and, across the road, the Woolpack. This small, atmospheric pub has a snug with Lee memorabilia, including photos of the author above his favourite seat, and his collection of beer bottles (full) from around the world. Drinks include Weston's Old Rosie scrumpy, and a Cider with Rosie cocktail, which, the barmaid says, "contains every spirit under the sun."
Jim Fern (01453 753104), a boyhood friend of Lee's, leads guided walks through Cider with Rosie country.