What is Baby­cham?

Baby­cham has even deeper roots than cham­pagne – just don’t tell the French

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - By Henry Jef­freys Henry Jef­freys is a drinks writer based in Lon­don. His first book, Em­pire of Booze, will be pub­lished by Un­bound in 2016. Twit­ter: @hen­ryg­j­ef­freys

Call the Mid­wife is a hit with my wife’s fam­ily in Iowa. But there’s one thing about it my Aunt Heidi doesn’t un­der­stand: what the hell is Baby­cham? It’s hard to ex­plain. Bluntly, it’s a sweet sparkling perry – cider made from pears, weigh­ing in at 6% al­co­hol. But that de­scrip­tion doesn’t do jus­tice to the spe­cial place that Baby­cham has in Bri­tish cul­ture.

It was first pro­duced in 1953 by Fran­cis Show­er­ing in Shep­ton Mal­let in the heart of cider coun­try. It may have once con­tained good Som­er­set fruit, but it’s now made from con­cen­trate, sugar and wa­ter. It’s never been a so­phis­ti­cated drink and func­tioned as a sort of proto-alcopop. What lifted it above sim­i­lar drinks was the charm­ing ad­ver­tis­ing. The logo is a play­ful fawn, a prom­ise of the in­no­cent fun to be had af­ter a few glasses.

There’s a great English tra­di­tion of cre­at­ing er­satz cham­pagne from ap­ples or pears. Bul­mers launched a “Su­per Cham­pagne Cider de Luxe” in 1906 made from the best fruit and, like cham­pagne, bot­tle-fer­mented and ma­tured to give it a del­i­cate fizz. Th­ese sort of drinks have long an­noyed the French. In 1978, the cham­pagne pro­duc­ers took Baby­cham to court for re­fer­ring to their prod­uct as “gen­uine cham­pagne perry”. They lost the case. Rather than su­ing, they should have ac­knowl­edged the debt they owe to the English, be­cause cider – not cham­pagne – is the orig­i­nal sparkling drink. West Coun­try no­ta­bles in the 17th cen­tury were adding sugar to cider, seal­ing up the bot­tles and leav­ing them for a few months un­til bub­bles formed. In France, fizz would have been seen as a fault. Only in Eng­land did they have bot­tles strong enough to take the pres­sure of fer­men­ta­tion.

The cider tech­nique was then ap­plied by the English to still wine im­ported from Cham­pagne. It was later re­fined by the French to cre­ate a drink that would con­quer the world. The orig­i­nal sparkling ciders died out, but are now en­joy­ing a re­nais­sance. The near­est thing I’ve tried is Bur­row Hill Kingston Black Bot­tle Fer­mented Cider from Som­er­set. It’s ex­tremely dry with el­e­gant lit­tle bub­bles like good cham­pagne, but with a tan­nic bite that calls for ma­ture ched­dar. It might be a bit chal­leng­ing for Iowa. Baby­cham, on the other hand, I can see go­ing down a treat.

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