On the trail of cider house jewels

Julian Temperley has typical farmer’s hands – thick, grubby, cracked with dirt. His cider farm lies in the heart of apple country, just outside Kingsbury Episcopi in the Somerset Levels, where streams and rivers wind towards the sea through lush grass and sinewy apple-tree roots.

It is a cold, wet morning when my friend and I visit. There are peacocks, potbellied pigs, motorbikes, rusty tractors, a faint sense of anarchy and a strong whiff of cider. There is also a farmworker called Pigeon Biter, who, with a broad grin and a bright eye, leads us away from the pretty orchards and into a half-timbered barn.

We are to taste the boss’s cider right away. First, a glass of deliciously light, dry sparkling cider. Then a generous tipple of smooth, mellow cider brandy, matured in oak barrels for 20 years at a strength of 42 per cent alcohol by volume. “It comes into its own at the dinner table,” says Temperley. “Enlivening, isn’t it?” adds Pigeon Biter, contemplating the brandy as it chills and warms us at the same time. It is not yet 11am.

Most of Britain’s cider apple orchards are found in this southwestern belt of country, stretching from Herefordshire and Gloucester down into Somerset and Devon. Spread across Somerset’s rolling hills and large flat expanses, there are about 100 cider farms – more than in any other English county, and far too many for us to visit in a weekend.

An old cider press on the farm

Still, it has become easier to navigate from one cider farm to the next. A new map, produced by James Crowden, a historian and cider expert, highlights 30 of the region’s best small-scale, artisan cider farms, all of which welcome visitors and sell from the farm gate. “The idea is for people to spend a few days in ciderland and remember a time when life was less intense,” Crowden tells me. “The map is the English equivalent of the French wine trail.”

Until well into the 20th century, cider, rather than beer or ale, was the traditional West Country drink. Devotees have claimed medicinal properties for the beverage, despite its high alcohol content – averaging 6 to 8 per cent. The 18th-century English diarist John Evelyn wrote that cider was “the most wholesome drink in Europe”.

Temperley grew up in Somerset and moved to Pass Vale Farm in the early 1970s. “We are selling the mystery of the apples and orchards of the West Country, distilled into a bottle,” he says, before signalling us towards his quad bike. “Bottoms on board. Hold on tight.” Driving at 30kph, we pass many of the 40 apple varieties growing in the 150 acres of orchard, including Chisel Jersey and Brown Snout. “The art and craft of cidermaking is in the blending of the apples. English cider is every bit as deep-rooted as French winemaking,” he says.

Head distiller Tim Edwards and Julian Temperley (left) tasting the cider brandy in the farm's bonded warehouse

As well as cider, the farm makes juices, vinegar, plus schnapps and cider brandy, the latter distilled in two rickety-looking stills. Until the mid-1980s, cider brandy had not been made in England for hundreds of years but Temperley was determined to revive the art. The box and label for a limited edition run of his 20-year-old cider brandy has been designed by the artist Damien Hirst as a favour for his friend Alice Temperley, a fashion designer and one of Temperley’s four children. “Damien’s a real foodie,” says Temperley, “and a very nice fellow.”

Temperley takes us into the “cathedral”, or bonded warehouse, at the back of the farm. Inside, 500 large barrels of cider brandy are stored and aged in oak vats. We sip the exotic-tasting Pomona, a blend with a distinct almond scent, then move on to the 10-, 15- and 20-year vintages, which Temperley supplies to some of London’s best restaurants, including the Ledbury and Hawksmoor.

My favourite, though, is the mischievously-named Shipwreck, a brandy aged for 15 years in oak barrels retrieved from a beached cargo ship off Devon’s coast in 2007. The dark golden liquid slips down my throat like caramel but leaves me wide-eyed with its kick.

In the afternoon we follow handwritten signs leading down a narrow track to Wilkins Farmhouse Cider, at Land’s End Farm just outside the village of Wedmore, near Glastonbury. Inside the farmhouse, four barrels of cider are positioned by the entrance: two sweet, two dry. For £10, visitors help themselves to as much cider as they want and snack on pickled onions and local cheddar.

On one side of the farmhouse is the 19th-century press that is still used today. The wall opposite the barrels is covered with photographs and cuttings, including a yellowing page from an old Q magazine interview with the late Clash singer Joe Strummer. Encircled is his description of happiness: “Chilling in Somerset with a flagon of Wilkins Farmhouse Cider.” The rock star connection doesn’t stop there: Chris Jagger, brother of Rolling Stone Mick, lives next door. “Johnny Rotten, Nick Cave, Dave Gilmour – they all come here,” Roger Wilkins, who owns the farm, tells me.

Wilkins likes drinking. He used to drink, by his reckoning, about 20 pints of cider a day but now he limits himself to “under half that amount”. “The doctor visited the farm recently and said, ‘Roger, you need an MOT.’ But I’ve not needed no pill or tablet for over 40 years.” Anyway, Wilkins explains, bending down and signalling to his knee, “I’ve been drinking the stuff since I was this high.”

Wilkins, 65, was born on the farm. His grandfather, who moved here in 1917, taught him about cidermaking. “I helped him pick apples from the ground before I went to school. He educated me into the cider but, of course, you’ve got to drink cider to know what cider is.”

Ask for a pint of cider in most English pubs these days and the chances are you will get a sparkly, sweet-tasting, amber-coloured liquid. “That ain’t traditional cider. It will have been filtered, sweetened, coloured and pumped with gas,” says Wilkins.

Instead, he says, a good brew should be made strictly from the juice of cider apples, fermented in their own yeast, and matured in an oak barrel. “That’s why the best cider is cloudy and yellowish. I do it all by taste; no scientific kits. It’s real traditional farmhouse, all done by my own palate.”

It is enriching to be shown how to drink cider like the locals. Still, by the time we arrive for dinner at the Swan, a bustling pub, restaurant and hotel in Wedmore, I feel a little like the chap from popular West Country folklore who, having drunk 17 pints of cider in under three hours, remarked, “This be doin’ I no good. I think I’ll try a pint of beer.”

“Cider made the proper way doesn’t give you a bad head,” according to Wilkins. So maybe it is the beer. Because the following morning, there is one low, heavy sky. To clear our heads, we walk in the undulating countryside surrounding our hotel: Burcott Mill Guest House, a Grade II listed building in the Mendip Hills, two miles from the cathedral city of Wells.

Later over lunch at the Oakhill Inn, near Radstock, we order a pint of Thatchers Gold, from nearby Myrtle Farm, perhaps the biggest cidermaker on the new cider map of Somerset.

By late afternoon we are in the company of one of the world’s oldest cider farmers. Frank Naish is 89 and remembers the time when a bullet-spitting German bomber came down the road from Glastonbury, and he had to take cover behind the apple trees. He is too frail for manual labour now, but his 50-year-old apprentice, Paul Chant, is devoted to making cider in the old country ways. “It’s back-breaking work, though we don’t know any different,” says Chant. He pours us each a pint of the farm’s cider. It is strong, very appley, and the freshest I’ve tasted all weekend.

Chant explains that more than 60 varieties of apple are grown here, such as Hoary Morning, Brown Snout, Sweet Alford, and Broxwood Foxwhelp, to name just a few. This is important, he says, because most cider farmers today plant bush orchards with the same easy-to-grow varieties.

A few years ago, Naish was given a lifetime award for services to the cider industry at the Bath & West country show. “It’s Frank’s ambition to keep the cider orchards alive. This will be safeguarding Somerset’s heritage, the old varieties for the future,” says Chant. “If you give up, you’ve had it. So raise a glass.”

The Somerset Cider Map is available from tourist information centres in the area, the producers, and at somersetcidermap.wordpress.com

John Sunyer was a guest of Burcott Mill (doubles from £70; www.burcottmill.com)

Liquid inspiration

Three more for the road

Sherry in Spain Annie B’s Spanish Kitchen, which offers cooking courses in Vejer de la Frontera on the Costa de la Luz, also runs sherry-themed tours, writes Tom Robbins . The four-night trips follow the palomino grape as it is turned into white wine, then fortified, aged and blended to become sherry. Guests visit the key towns of Jerez, El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlúcar, led by Annie Manson, co-ordinator of World Sherry Day. From €940; www.anniebspain.com

Ale in the Dales In 1991, Mark Reid, a manager for a large brewery and an avid hillwalker, decided to combine his passions by researching the best walking routes between pubs in the Yorkshire Dales national park. Six years later he published his first book, The Inn Way to the Yorkshire Dales, detailing a six-day, circular, 76-mile walk through rugged upland scenery and picturesque rural villages, as well as taking in 26 pubs, serving traditional Yorkshire ales. Reid has now created “Inn Ways” in five English national parks, and published guidebooks giving details of routes, places to stay and eat, and all the local breweries. www.innway.co.uk

Barolo in Piemonte, Italy

. . .

Wine in Piemonte Traditional dégustation tours involve driving between tastings – never an ideal combination – but Arblaster & Clarke has pioneered a series of “wine walks” that visit prestigious European vineyards on foot. A week-long September trip to Piemonte, northwest Italy, for example, winds its way between the hilltop towns that give their names to famous wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco. From £1,799; www.winetours.co.uk

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