I went to Switzerland last week to see a friend from New Zealand. One day, after cosuming a beautiful carafe of Chasselas (Switzerland makes wine – who knew?!) and eating a meat-heavy lunch in the hills above Lake Geneva, I decided to take a constitutional to kick start the digestive tract. On my wander, I spotted something familiar but entirely unexpected: a perry pear tree. You can spot these behemoths from 100 paces – surely no other fruit tree grows so big? A look at a specimen of the fruit further confirmed my suspicions: non-pyruvate shape, pronounced lenticels and fleshy stem. The coup de gras in my conviction was achieved after taking a nibble and having a tannin-induced splutter. This was a perry pear! A little taste of home, but 1,000 miles away. Fabulous.
The truth is, I don’t like pears. Well, not boring, normal pears, anyway. You know, Conference, Comice, Williams etc. There’s something about the estery aroma and the slightly grainy texture that makes me go a bit squirly. I think I might have been forced to eat them at nursery school and I’ve still got issues. But give me a pear variety that’s centuries old, squat & cankerous, bitter as sin and so astringent it’ll turn your mouth inside out, and I’ll purr like a kitten (apologies for the disturbing mental image).
I am, of course, referring to perry pears. These ancient denizens of the 3 Counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire (and possibly a few of square miles of Monmouthshire) continue to enthral me without fail. All multitude of shapes, sizes, colours, skin texture and perverse names, these pears have been chopped and squeezed for centuries to produce the original ‘wine of the west’. Quite different from its robust and rambunctious cousin, perry is far more gentile and refined. Typical aromas can consist of tropical fruits, citrus, elderflower, jasmine and…wait for it….pear! And there are a multitude of flavours to be borne out of these humble fruits, too: some are lean, fresh and brisk; others deep, bold, rich and fruity.
This diversity should not be surprising, I suppose, given there are hundreds of different varieties, each with their own story and heritage. Blakeney Red, for example, originiating from the eponymous village on the banks of the River Severn, was the most widely planted perry pear variety. This is due to the fact that not only does it make a bold, tannic drink, but it was also a tasty stewing pear – a great dual purpose variety. Most incredibly, however, this humble pear was also the source of the dye for Khaki Army fatigues used by British Forces during The Great War.
The variety Gregg’s Pit is named after a particular property in Much Marcle, Herefordshire, where the Mother Tree still makes award-winning perry; whilst Judge Amphlett is named after a respected Worcestershire Assize Courts Judge from the early 20th century. Other names are just wonderfully descriptive, either capturing something of the appearance of the fruit or its effect upon one’s constitution. Names such as Flakey Bark, Startlecock, Merrylegs and Lumberskull are fantastically evocative and need little explanation! There is a even a Dymock Red pear, named after my home village. Now that’s pretty lush.
I was privileged enough to be present at the ‘rediscovery’ of a thought-lost variety, Hampton Rough, back in 2011. Eminent perry pear hero and award-winning cheese maker Charles Martell, invited me to an old pear orchard on the edge of Dymock, armed with a ragged old map and a vague recollection of a conversation with the last person who knew where this variety existed. With a bit of furtling, and good old intuition, we followed our nose and came across a tree that had been headworked with a variety called Turners Barn, yellowy/reddish in colour. But sprouting from underneath the graft line were pretty, lime-green pears, possibly the last few specimins of this variety in the world. Now that’s pretty cool.
Perry is the epitome of British terroir – the taste of a specific piece of landscape and heritage. In this case, that landscape is centred near to the point at which the aforementioned 3 Counties confluence. Here resides a marker in the landscape, known as May Hill, easily identifiable by the clump of trees at its summit, planted in 1887 to commemorate the Golden Jubilee for Queen Victoria. Merely referring to May Hill as a marker, however, does not do it justice. It is the site of Iron Age earthworks and has been long revered as a place of magic and mysticism. And crucially for me, my little village of Dymock sits but 5 miles from May Hill’s summit.
The old saying goes that if you’re within sight of May Hill then you truly are in Perry Pear Country. There’s something about the soil, topography and climate of this small radius that makes it perfect for these pears. There is another theory, that after the Genesis, the Gods sat atop May Hill, lording over the splendour of their creation. A small pear was handed to the Chief God by a small Godling, with the proclamation that it was the elixir of life. After taking a bite, the Chief God gurned in horror and disgust and spat out the fruit, informing the little Godling that this harsh, bitter fruit was not in fact the elixir of life, but was, in fact, rather horrible.
The little Godling (carefully) chastised the Chief God, stating that the pear needed to be squeezed to extract the juice, from which the elixir could be distilled. But of course, by this point it was too late: the Chief God had spat out the pear and the seeds has scattered across the land. And from the ground rose magnificent and majestic perry pear trees. I like this version the best.
Everything about perry is hard work. The trees take generations to grow (giving rise to the phrase ‘plant pears for your heirs’) and the remaining traditional trees are several stories high and several hundreds of years old, making picking the fruit somewhat challenging. The pears can sometimes be literally the size of marbles. Some are perfectly ripe for one only day of the year; some have to be picked and left to soften up for 2 months. And if you’ve managed to get this far, the drink itself can be fickle and tricksy, being prone to all sorts of infections and James Brown levels of funkiness.
All of these factors contributed to perry’s demise as a commercially viable product and today it remains well safeguarded within the hands of artisan producers such as Ross Cider & Perry, Oliver’s, Newton Court and Ragged Stone. Through the skill and dedication of these folk, there are perries being crafted that are the equal to any white wine, whether it be a sparkling and celebratory, or still and served with a meal. Wine of the West, indeed.
If you’ve never tried a perry before, seek one out; you’ll be pleasantly surprised. And how about instead of taking a bottle of wine next time you go for dinner at a friend’s, take a perry and regale the room with your hitherto unknown, but suddenly rather substantial, knowledge of this ancient drink that you have blatantly just ripped from this blog.
This was only supposed to be a quick yak about finding a bitter pear in Switzerland whilst walking off wild boar sausage-induced indigestion. But there’s something about this drink that invokes a deep seated passion and fervour amongst those of us who have the privilege to live within spitting distance of May Hill. This is the story of my landscape and my heritage; which makes it part of the story of me. And it’s a bloody good chapter, I tell you.