Past Life

Lor­raine Child raises a glass to Cotswold cider

Cotswold Life - - INSIDE - Lor­raine Child Con­tact the­[email protected]­in­ter­

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

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