By the time you read this, the orchards of Herefordshire will be groaning with apples and pears, just days away from harvest. The best fruit will find its way into the craft ciders and perries sold by Felix Nash, the 28-year-old founder of The Fine Cider Company, an entrepreneurial outfit putting heritage drinks back on the menus of London’s Michelin-starred restaurants. If you’ve enjoyed a good cider or perry at the Clove Club, Lyle’s or Fera at Claridge’s recently, then Nash probably had something to do with it.
Back in May, when the air was thick with the scent of elderflower and the orchards an explosion of blossom, I caught a train to picturesque Ledbury to visit some of Nash’s producers.
Our first date was with Tom Oliver, who combines life as a cider and perry maker with managing musical duo The Proclaimers. Leaning on the gate of a 40-year-old pear orchard, we sipped a glass of his silver-gold Oliver’s Keeved Fine Perry Sweet Season 2016, a delectable marriage of honeyed pear skin and sparkle that went down remarkably easily, considering it was barely 11am.
“Say ‘perry’ to most people and they’ll think of Babycham, but in its heyday in the 1700s, perry was very highly regarded,” says Oliver. Napoleon famously described it as the “English champagne”.
The scarcity of good perry is partly down to the fact that it’s much more of a fag to make than cider. It’s only thanks to artisans like Oliver and Charles Martell (who also created the famously mephitic cheese Stinking Bishop) that it didn’t die out completely.
Cider has been undergoing a revolution too. Oliver estimates the number of producers has grown tenfold in the past 25 years. As the law stands, cider only has to be 35 per cent apple juice, which makes you wonder what some of the big brands use for the other 65 per cent. But producers I met talked lovingly of apple varieties: Brown Snout, Bloody Turk and the fearsome-sounding Ten Commandments.
At Gregg’s Pit in Much Marcle, an 18th-century stone press is used to juice the 37 varieties of apple growing on its two-acre plot. The result is ciders that are sweet and funky, with a mellow farmyard character slightly reminiscent of maple-cured bacon. Much drier are the ciders of Little Pomona, owned by wine pros James and Susanna Forbes. Its inaugural Feat of Clay 2015 – a bronze cider with an electrifyingly tart, tannic bite – is made with six varieties, including Dabinett (“the Cab Sauv” of cider) and Foxwhelp (“the Riesling”).
“So much of our food and drink culture has been wiped out, but these drinks offer a strand through history,” says Jackson Boxer, chef/owner of Vauxhall’s Brunswick House. “There’s a sense of the eternal to it.” You can bet Nash hopes so.