What is Babycham?
Babycham has even deeper roots than champagne – just don’t tell the French
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.