Lorraine Child raises a glass to Cotswold cider
Arguably, Oliver Mellors would have had less sexual charisma had he been a martini man. Toying provocatively with an olive in Waterford crystal stemware does not, generally, an earthy gamekeeper make. His image is one of knowledgeable coarseness, a man of nature and instinctive desires, with strong, capable hands. Would James Bond have seemed as sophisticated necking a pint of mild and gumming crisps, salt shaken in, not stirred?
Image is everything, and from that essential hook hangs the identity of many brands, whether niche market or mainstream. Eager chip lovers everywhere dip their single-cooked Maris Pipers into tomato ketchup; dipping said root into salsa rubra is just wrong. But a makeover of one of this region’s archetypal drinks, beloved of Laurie Lee, is up against a tougher image problem. Its reputation for being cheap and strong attracts dependent and anti-social drinkers, empty bottles left like spoors around their territory; a relationship with fresh apples is somewhat blurred.
Craft cider makers are now attempting to transform that image by producing an elegant drink that is made using traditional techniques, with a second fermentation of around 18 months in the bottle, producing a smooth, delicious product. Fruit ciders are booming in popularity, in a market that is worth nearly £3 billion per year. Cider seems to be going the way of gin, with zippy marketing, creative bottle design, and points of difference that will appeal to those who inhabit that bizarre world of self-promo styling to camouflage their less than perfect lives.
The history of cider making is embroidered into the Cotswolds cloth as surely as that of sheep rearing and stonemasonry. Perfect growing conditions for fruit trees abound, in Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Gloucestershire, and northwest of the area, Herefordshire, where the iron-red soil produces bountiful apple orchards. Traditionally, cider was associated with yokels and farm labourers, sickle in one hand and a flagon in the other, whose daily allowance of around half a gallon of strong, chewy stuff quenched the thirst of hard graft in the fields. Farmers either bought cider from neighbouring farms or produced their own, but it had to be good, relatively speaking; casual labourers wouldn’t stay long if the cider was poor. Methods were simple and unsophisticated, known to early Britons in their manufacture of a harsh intoxicator. Extracting the mouth-puckering juice from hard fruit ranged from woodscrew and cast-iron presses to purpose-built cider mills, with a large circular trough and grindstone moved by horse or man.
In the 17th century, a rotary crusher or scratter mill was described by John Worlidge, whose 1678 treatise on cider advocated it in preference to wine; it was “of more ufe and advantage in thefe Northern Regions, than the blood of the Grape”. Apple pulp was placed between layers of cloth called ‘hairs’ – from the original horsehair material – the corners of which were neatly folded over to prevent the escape of juice. Each layer of pulp built into a ‘cheese’. Natural yeasts in the air encouraged fermentation, which improved the drink over time, but much of what was drunk in the fields was reap-hook rough. All ciders start off dry, and the apples are classified into bittersweets and bittersharps, both with a high sugar content. Their names make for lovely reading: Lady’s Finger, Dymock Red, Brown Snout, Hereford Redstreak, Foxwhelp, and old heritage varieties such as Slack-ma-girdle, Netherton Late Blower, and Strawberry Norman, monikers relating to their discoverers, geographic peculiarities or legendary properties.
Cider is prominent in that most rural pagan tradition of wassailing, with its Anglo-saxon roots in ‘waes hael’, a toast to good health. Apple trees were doused with cider for a good harvest in the following year, the ceremony traditionally taking place on Twelfth Night, known as ‘Old Twelvey’, which was January 17 before the calendar changed in 1752, and we lost 11 days in the interests of European unity.
The transformation of fruit, berry and grape into mouth-filling, juicy wines is man’s alchemy with nature. When Laurie Lee pressed pen to paper and wrote of the luscious charms of Rosie Burdock and the intoxication of that first taste of wild orchards, his transcendent tome captured the very essence of the seasons and their heady pleasures. Like liquid sunlight, bottled. N