Autumn 2016 marks a milestone in my cider life. 10 years ago, as a young, callow, non-furry-lipped chap, I visited Broome Farm, Ross-on-Wye, to see my friend, and legendary cider maker, Mike Johnson. I had been travelling the globe for 8 months and was in serious need of a fix of proper Herefordshire farmhouse cider. What happened next was a pivotal moment in my life: Mike offered me the opportunity to work for him and learn the craft of cider making.
I had first met Mike around 2002, popping in one Saturday afternoon on a whim to see what a ‘proper’ cider farm looked like and to try the odd product. I emerged from the cellar with one large grin, two rosy cheeks, three cider cakes and nine bottles of cider (and an elder brother to drive me home – drink responsibly folks!). Suffice to say that after that moment I was a frequent visitor back to The Broome, often with friends in tow, spreading the gospel on cider. On one memorable occasion, Mike even allowed us to build a cheese. I think we broke the press….
But Mike’s offer of gainful employment in the Autumn of 2006 wasn’t a trivial one; it was the real deal. The role even came with accommodation. It was billed as a ‘timbered chalet amongst myriad fruit trees’. In reality it was a shed in the garden. But as a 23 year old, who had spent the whole of the year living out of a sleeping bag that smelt like the inside of a packet of dry roasted peanuts, The Shed was bloody perfect.
What more could I want from a set of digs that measured 2.5m x 3m: lamp – check; oil heater – check; African fertility doll – check. All the essentials. My decorations amounted to pictures of cats modelling jewellery and a newspaper hoarding I had pinched from a newsagent that read: ‘Man arrested for ironing wife’s buttocks.’ Obviously, a slow news day in the Forest of Dean.
So, I duly reported for duty at The Broome armed with nothing more than a silly haircut, traveller’s tan and shiny new wellies. By the time I left, some 9 months later, the haircut was still silly, my skin had turned more translucent and the wellies were shredded; but my heart had been captured and my soul enriched. I had found my calling in life: cider.
It was a privilege to work for Mike, learning by his side the skill of the process, the knowledge of the fruit and the subtlety of the blending. Of critical importance, and unsurprisingly, of considerable fun, was the ‘quality control’ element of my experience. Living and working on a cider far was always going to lend itself to me becoming more acquainted with this libation. But I wasn’t wholly gratuitous with my cider consumption. A lot of tasting was done in the context developing my palette, and the intricacies of acidity, tannin and sweetness perception. Yeah, who am I kidding?!
The most significant thing I learnt whilst at The Broome, however, was the role and importance of cider and perry in the heritage and culture of my family and of the landscape I am borne out of. Mike encouraged me to make some of my own cider and perry. My Granny’s old farm on the edge of Dymock was once a sea of orchards: apples, pears, damsons and plums. In 2006 all that remained on the farm was a singular perry pear tree: a magnificent Thorn specimen in the Top Meadow.
I made 25 litres of this Thorn perry, all crisp and fresh, oozing elderflowers and grapefruit. To my chagrin, it is by far the best perry I’ve ever made. Beginner’s luck I suppose!? But it set in motion my fascination with my sense of place.
I left The Broome in the summer of 2007, and imbued with my new-found cider passion, amazingly I managed to forge a career in this industry. In 2013 I moved to New Zealand, having been enthralled by the Land of the Long White Cloud on my travels prior to rocking up at Mike’s doorstep.
The Maori people of New Zealand have many fundamental principles, but there are 3 central tenets: whanau (family), whenua (land) and whakapapa (ancestry). And that’s it. That’s bloody it! It’s funny that it took moving 11,500 miles to the other side of the world to find the words to succinctly articulate what makes The Shire, and cider & perry, so important to me.
As is so common in life, everything comes full circle. I have now returned from New Zealand and have spent the last 6 months spending glorious time with my whanau and reconnecting with the Shire – my whenua and whakapapa. Part of this process has been making some Dymock cider and perry this autumn. Alas, Granny’s old Thorn tree didn’t bear much fruit this year, but another, cathedral-like Dymock orchard bore 3 sackfuls of Aylton Red. This is fermenting in the cellar right now alongside a tub of Rock Kernal – an old Dymock cider apple. Bloody lush.
I got so excited by the prospect of making my own cider and perry after a 5 year hiatus that I even made a little film. Granted, Christopher Nolan I am not, but this at least gives a little taster of the process to the uninitiated and the urban-dwelling.