Sunday, 13 January 2019

Perry, And All That Jazz Pt.1 - Once Upon A Tree

I've been mulling-over a post about Perry for quite a while now. I've got an awful lot of the stuff in the ciderhouse at the moment, proper vintage perry made from top-quality Worcestershire grown perry pears. Perry that's turned out as good as anything I've made before, and we've been drinking quite a lot of it recently as well as cooking with it and giving a fair bit away. Which probably explains why it's been on my mind...

Green Horse Perry Pear
Perry at its very best is a drink that needs all the promotion it can get. It's a rare old drink that despite the continuing efforts of some world-class producers, and a handful of switched-on pundits and drinks journos, has singularly failed to ignite interest in the way that 'craft' beer and cider has in recent years. Of course there are compelling reasons why Perry may never achieve the profile that enthusiasts such as myself think it deserves. Perry pears are simply not grown on a commercial scale these days. For the most part it's a small-scale 'artisan' passion, a tradition kept alive by the smaller commercial cider and perry makers and teeny-tiny enthusiasts like myself. Most of the fruit used by these small-scale producers comes from very old trees, often solitary behemoths dotted around the old farms of the Three Counties area. Difficult to harvest, and some of these trees are literally hundreds of years old and hence approaching the twilight of their productive lives. Some new planting of Perry Pear trees is going on, but if Perry as a traditional high-quality drink is to survive, maybe even thrive in the future, a lot more needs to be done, and that means creating a demand for the drink that makes it a commercial proposition for growers and producers.

A bottle of vintage perry, yesterday.
So I was looking for maybe half a dozen good quality perries to eulogise about from the comfort of my own home. No dodgy commercial stuff, no Pear Cider, and for my taste, nothing too sweet. Perry has something of a reputation for sweetness. A reputation that can make it a difficult sell for some. Maybe it's memories of Babycham! More likely it's that too many producers 'do' have a tendency to over-sweeten their perries (and their ciders!), and 'far' too many festivals and pubs routinely shy away from the drier styles that do exist. Having said that, it's a fact that some perries do finish fermenting with a degree of sweetness. That's because many pears have quite high levels of non-fermentable Sorbitol in their makeup. My own perry has a touch more natural sweetness than I'd like if I'm absolutely honest, but it's certainly not 'sweet'.

So, I just wanted some good perries to help demonstrate the variety and quality that's on offer. To show what most people are undoubtedly missing. Well that proved to be much easier said than done!

When you make your own, and therefore have hundreds of litres to hand at the turn of a tap, you forget just how difficult it is to get hold of proper pure-juice Perry outside of the Three Counties area. In fact for some people I'd imagine it's not so much a difficult task as an impossible one. If you fall into this category, the answer is of course the 21st century miracle of online sales, of which there are several offering a good range of perries. I resorted to the tried-and-tested method of 'going-west' in search of the best that the Three Counties can offer, and tapping friends and colleagues up for a few freebies of course...

Once Upon A Tree - Medium Dry Herefordshire Perry (5%)
So where exactly 'is' the centre of the cider and perry making tradition? A question that's vexed me for several hours now, and one guaranteed to rouse fierce debate amongst those who care about these things. Which is of course why I ask...

Putley and the Marcle Ridge area of Herefordshire could certainly lay claim to the title (if there were one), located as it is within a dense forest of old and new orchard plantings centred on the regional giant, Westons of Much Marcle. Home to the annual Big Apple cider and perry trials jamboree, which is a gathering place for some of the finest producers in the business, a significant handful of which harvest and squeeze their fruit locally.

Simon Day of Once Upon A Tree is one such local producer. A winemaker by trade, he's been building an enviable reputation for his fine ciders and perries since establishing the company in 2008. I got in early, supplying his draught Tumpy Ground cider to the Raunds Beer Festival back in 2011. Once Upon A Tree ciders and perries are some of the more easily found in the Three Counties area, their bottles a relatively common sight in delis and farm shops which is where I got mine from. In Warwick!

This perry is a bit of a sparkler, pouring (from a great height) clear and significantly less sparkling, which is how I like it. It carries the Protected Geographical Indication label for Herefordshire Perry, ensuring the fruit was sourced entirely from the aforementioned county, and much else of a reassuring quality mark besides. Quite what will become of this PGI when we've dumped ourselves out of the EU is anyones guess, but given the absurd and frustrating regulations around cider in this country (practically anything goes so long as it's had an apple dipped in it at some point!), any promises of a UK replacement should probably be regarded with deep suspicion...

The perry is a rich, sweetish, medium-dry sipper, as befits a drink made from a high percentage of freshly pressed juice. I get ginger beer and barley sugar, Melon and citrus, and a slightly vinegary tinge that mellows to tongue-tingly sherbet. I've paired this zesty sparkling perry with the cool West Coast Jazz classic, Jazz Erotica by Richie Kamuca and friends (Jazz Track JT1024)*

More perries coming when I've drunk 'em…

*Music pairing for guidance only. Other styles and genres are available.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Wibble Wobble, Perry On A Plate

Since knocking the whole 'selling our cider and perry' thing on the head, we've found that there's an entirely 'expected' benefit. We've got more cider and perry than we can possibly drink in a season, more than we're likely to drink in several seasons in fact. What to do with it all then...

Well, we do drink a bit, and give away a bit to those who also like to drink a bit. There's still a fair bit left though, so we're never afraid of adding a bit to the Sunday pot-roast, a soup or two, maybe the odd cake or pudding. That still leaves a fair bit though...

Other things that we have more of than we can deal with at the moment are Bramley Apples, Quince, Rosemary, and Leaves. Loads of leaves. All over the place. Which brings me to our latest garden glut-busting recipe, something tasty to go with the Sunday Lamb, and requiring three items from our current over-supply situation.

Quince, Perry & Rosemary Jelly

This recipe can easily be adapted to use apples of course, it's just we have Quince. Lots of Quince. Quarter 4-6 Quince depending on size, and remove the core. Opinions vary on Quince pips, some say include everything, others that they can give an upset tummy. I don't like the taste of pips and can see no good reason to include them.
Chop the quince up into chunks and put in a large pan. Pour in just enough liquid to cover your chunks, water is fine, Champagne might work, but we used our own Medium/Dry Perry for extra orchardy flavour. I wouldn't recommend using anything that's artificially sweetened though, and given that you'll be adding sugar later it's probably best to stick to something drier in style.
Add a Sprig of Rosemary and bring to the boil. Simmer for 30-40 minutes until the Quince is tender. Mash the whole lot until it looks like the mush below.

We're making jelly now, so you're going to need a jelly bag or some muslin to drain the Quince mush through, as shown below. Leave it to drip for a few hours, there's little point in leaving it overnight to be honest, it'll simply attract vinegar flies for very little extra juice gained. I'm sure there's something that thrifty jelly-makers could use the mush for, perhaps a batch of Membrillo, but we used ours to enhance the aroma of our compost bin!

You now need to add Sugar, 450g for every 600ml of juice you've got. We ended up with exactly 600ml. Heat the juice until it starts to boil, then add the sugar stirring to dissolve. Now opinion also vary on the type of sugar to add. Quince being fairly high in pectin already, many favour ordinary refined sugars. We erred on the side of caution and went for Preserving Sugar (not Jam Sugar, that's too high in pectin). At this point add another Sprig of Rosemary, leaves stripped off the woody bits and finely chopped.

Now for the difficult bit. You need to get your liquid up to temperature and hold it there for 10 minutes. 105C is the setting point, and if your cooker is anything like as crap as ours you'll struggle to achieve this. Persevere. Good luck!

It's at this point the dangerously hot syrupy jelly-in-the-making will turn a lovely shade of pinky-red, like an autumn sunset in a Worcestershire Perry Pear Orchard. Speaking of which, we made our jelly to the strains of Elgar's Symphony No.2 in E flatSir Adrian Boult conducting the Scottish National Orchestra. The album sleeve for this recording features a lovely photograph of a Perry Pear orchard in Worcestershire, overlooked by the brooding Malvern Hills. Seemed kinda appropriate...

Jar-up, push a small sprig of Rosemary into each jar, label, and wait for Spring Lamb to appear in the shops.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Having Your Cake, and Eating It...

If I'd known it was Apple Day, I'd have baked a cake...

Well I did and I have, so happy Apple Day everyone. Here's a cake which whilst not strictly appley in nature, is straight out of the orchard and bursting with the kind of local distinctiveness that set Common Ground on the road to Apple Day in the first place.

A couple of years ago I took the hard but necessary decision of removing our three grape vines, scene of a handful of very fine red wine vintages, but in recent years more of a crime scene as plagues of voracious Wasps beat us to the ripening crop. Their place has been taken by a strapping young Quince, a Meech's Prolific c/o piggybacking on an order from our friends at Torkard Cider of Hucknall-in-the-North.

Prolific! Not-half. This is only its second season in the garden and already we've got far more fruit than we can deal with. Hence the standard late-Summer greeting of "Hello. Would you like some Courgettes?" has taken a Quince-like direction.

Quince is a moderately versatile cooking fruit if you accept that everything you cook with it will be slightly dominated by its massive tart and tangy fruitiness. It's a lovely flavour, but I wouldn't pare it with delicate fish dishes for example, or anything delicate for that matter. A cake is ideal though, so...

Quince, Walnut, Honey & Perry Cake (Based on a recipe from 'Thyme' of Southrop Manor Est, Glocs)

Peel, core, and chop three or four Quince, depending on size, and poach for around 45 minutes in a whatever you fancy. I chose some of our own Perry, plus a dollop of honey and a couple of Star Anise. Drain and reserve the liquor.

You'll need 50g of chopped Walnuts, so if your nuts are shell-on as our were (another glut, this time from our neighbours), you may want to put some music on and begin the lengthy process of cracking and extracting. Incidentally, if anyone knows the secret to extracting Walnut innards whole and not in numerous fiddly bits, a 'comments' section is a available below...

Chop your nuts and set aside. In a food processor, blend 325g Caster Sugar with 125g Butter until fluffy. Add 3 Eggs and a dash of Vanilla Extract and beat until combined.

Measure out 360g Plain Flour, 1/2 tsp Baking Powder, 1/4 tsp Cinnamon, and 1/4 tsp Salt. Add half of this to the batter until combined. Add 120ml Milk, then the rest of the flour mix until combined. Fold in the Walnuts and Quince pieces.

Transfer to a greased cake tin and bake at 150C (Fan Oven) for around 1 hour, and 15 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, reduce the Quince Poaching Liquor to a thin syrup.

Check the cake with a sharp knife to ensure the innards are properly cooked through. Let it cool for a bit then turn out onto a rack. Poke holes all over the top of the cake and gradually spoon the syrup over so that some soaks in, some glazes the top, and some trickles down the sides onto the work surface

Phone all your friends, you've got Cake!

Thursday, 18 October 2018

A First Class Return To Dottingham - Pt.2

Nottinghams impressive Motorpoint Arena, as viewed from the main entrance on Thursday afternoon of the 2018 Nottingham Robin Hood Beer & Cider Festival. Beer, almost as far as the eye can see. A comfortable crowd for a Thursday afternoon, starting to fill out as we called it a day at around the time the workers of Nottingham started clocking off and arriving. We'd done our job, the volunteer staff were sufficiently warmed up and ready for the locals, no need to outstay our welcome. Besides, whatever our goals were at the beginning of the session, there was little hope of achieving them by close of play, the choice, as ever, was really quite bewildering...

The Cider Barn, the beer festival 'safe space' for those of us slightly overwhelmed by the huge barrelage in the main arena. A smidgen warmer too, certainly cosier, something of a festival within a festival. Not an exclusive zone though. At least one of our party favoured beer for the afternoon. Nobody said anything...

There was an American cider (above),which was rather good by all accounts. I wouldn't know, I forgot it was on.

I did however try the award winners in this years East Midlands Cider & Perry Competition.

Gold: Sneinton Cider Co Completely Wholesome Apple Beverage - A straightforward sharpish dessert apple refresher. A bit apple crumble, cloudy.
Silver: Three Cats Medium - On the drier side of medium. Clean, sharp, fruity, russet tannin.
Bronze: Oakfield Farm Taste The Orchard - Sweetish medium, vinous cideriness, fruity, sharp, slight apple pips astringency.
Gold: Blue Barrel Colwick Perry - Light, aromatic/perfumed, apricot and melon, with a bit of drying tannin in the finish.

Really good quality in this years winners, and surprisingly none were too sweet to my taste. Well done to the cidermakers who definitely seem to be raising their game year on year, and to the organisers and judges who've clearly recognised this. The whole point of competitions like this is to encourage and reward excellence, and I think we can safely say that based on this years results, the East Midlands competition is working.

Did I mention there was beer at the festival? Loads of it actually, including for me what is one of the best aspects of the Nottingham festival, the numerous stand-alone brewery bars dotted about the place. The outdoor bars have the feel of funky fringe venues to the main event, with bands, food stalls, and unlimited sunshine whilst stocks last. The Nene Valley Brewery bar (above) kept winking at me seductively, their delicious Pulping On Your Stereo a particular favourite that always gets my juices flowing, but we're regular visitors to the brewery tap in Oundle so it's all yours Nottingham.

A snapshot of the comings and goings at our bijou table in the Cider Barn. Just out of shot is the lengthy queue of friends and acquaintances awaiting their turn at the head table and a private audience with top cider and perry guru Ray Blockley of Torkard Cider (mutton chops, Rolex watch). Other notable appearances during the day included the infamous Charnwood Cider Jug Band.

What of the new venue? Well, from my perspective, as someone who generally arrives, stands at one or both of the cider bars, drinks a bit, then goes home, it all seemed pretty-much the same. Facilities are better, staff and volunteers nothing but helpful and professional, yes it's different, but not 'that' different. Thankfully there was plenty of seating available on a Thursday afternoon, as the arena seating itself is really not ideal for social drinking in my view. Besides, I climbed to the top to take the photo below, and felt a bit giddy when I got there...

It was good, very good in fact for what is in effect a debut in a new venue, and knowing Nottingham CAMRA and their work ethic, I've no doubt they'll be looking to make it even better in the years to come. I'm still no great fan of beer festivals, but the Nottingham CAMRA event is still special, and it's still on for a couple of days, so I recommend you get along and help make it the success it deserves to be. That way I can go again next year...

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

A First Class Return To Dottingham - Pt.1

It's been nearly three years since my last post on this blog. Whaddaya mean you hadn't noticed!... With the award-winning Rockingham Forest Cider micro-business mothballed for the foreseeable future, it seemed to me there was little that hasn't been said before, or is being said bigger and better elsewhere, to warrant blogging just for the sake of it. So generally speaking I don't, and I won't. So it takes something truly special, something new and inspiring for me fire up the Blogger page, try and remember the password, and put index fingers to keyboard in the name of cider and perry.

Turns out Nottingham Robin Hood Beer & Cider Festival is that special thing. A highlight of the October drinking calendar for several years now, but in a shiny new 'inside/outside' venue for 2018. Thankfully the cider bar remains unspoilt by this necessary progress, featuring as it does the same awe-inspiring range of truly 'real' ciders and perrys that we've come to expect from probably the finest festival cider bar in the country, maybe even the world! No concentrate concoctions, no fruity cordial pseudo-ciders, and absolutely no Rockingham Forest Cider neither! Whilst we do have substantial stocks of cider and perry 'resting' in the ciderhouse, it's all reserved for personal consumption these days. We couldn't sell any of it even if we wanted to, which frankly we don't, so that's alright then. But I have to say that when it comes to the annual Nottingham jamboree, it's a great shame, because this is one of only a handful of cider bars that we've always felt proud to be a tiny part of...

So the festival has moved. Not very far geographically, but by the best part of a thousand years in time! From the historical grounds of Nottingham Castle, a site first occupied around the time of the Battle of Hastings, to a brand-spankingly newish arena where the battles are generally confined to the rough and tumble of ice hockey and comedy wrestling. The impressively appointed and bewilderingly named Motorpoint Arena.

Now here's an admission, and quite a big one at that in the context of this post! Despite ample evidence to the contrary on this blog and elsewhere, I'm not, as it happens, the greatest fan of the beer festival experience [pauses for gasps]. In fact I rarely visit them unless there's a 'very' good reason. Don't get me wrong, I know that at their best, beer festivals can be a rollicking good day of social drinking, great music, and excruciating queues for the toilets, and I'm certainly not here to talk down the experience. I've lived and loved CAMRA festivals as much as, if not more than most, but in recent years my tastes have changed.

When it comes to drinking beer, I've very little interest in the kind of wide and wild variety that's de rigueur at all but the smallest festivals these days. I just want one that I like, and more often than not I want it in the convivial comfort of a well-run pub rather than a hall full of barrels and comedy t-shirts. I've not so much kicked the festival habit, as gone full circle and ended up back where I started, the pub. From a peak of maybe a dozen or more festivals a year, eagerly anticipated and thoroughly, sometimes overenthusiastically enjoyed, I'm down to just two, and one of those is more for the social side than anything else. Nottingham is a bit different though...

The cider bar at the Nottingham festival has for some years now been truly a site to behold. Huge! Huge I tell you! Carefully and lovingly curated by a tight-knit team of knowledgeable enthusiasts (left - artists impression), the choice on offer is really quite staggering, and with the added value that to the best of their knowledge, it's all very much the 'real' thing. Which is to say there has always been an insistence that the ciders and perries exhibited at Nottingham are as traditionally made and un-mucked about with as possible. This is a massive attraction for me, and in truth, the Nottingham Festival now represents one of the very few occasions where I'll happily spend the day drinking ciders and perries exclusively, such is the difficulty finding a range of drier pure-juice styles in pubs locally, and even at many beer festivals.

Another major draw for cider enthusiasts like myself is the burgeoning range of East Midlands produced ciders and perries, a range which has grown from what seemed an impressive number at the first Castle festival (right), to almost 70 varieties from 25 producers this year. That's a festival in its own right, and I look forward to trying this years award winners, albeit with a trembly bottom lip given that we've enjoyed a little bit of success in competition ourselves back in the day...

I'm hoping to meet up with some fully active cidermakers in the new 'Cider Barn' area of the festival, and your long wait for a post on this blog will be rewarded in time-honoured public transport fashion, by two coming along at once. I'll be taking my camera and trusty dictaphone along, and recording the whole shiny new event, with a particular emphasis on the cider, for posterity and your reading pleasure.

Footnote: For those of you who think there may be a typo in the title of this post, ask your parents...