Monday, 18 May 2009

The Orchard Centre - Hartpury

On what turned out to be quite a busy weekend, I managed to squeeze in a visit to the shiny new Orchard Centre in deepest rural Gloucestershire. This is the latest venture from cidermaking guru Peter Mitchell of Mitchell F & D Ltd, in partnership with the Hartpury Historic Land & Buildings Trust.

The centre is based in rolling pastureland near the historic village of Hartpury, well worth a visit in it's own right. The trust are active in preserving a number of historic buildings in the parish, including a fascinating medieval Bee Shelter, but they are also custodians of the area's unique orchard heritage. The name Hartpury is derived from the Saxon word for the pear: Hardepirige – hard pear tree, and there is a long history of perry making in the area, as evidenced by the naming of the Hartpury Green perry pear.

So this was the background to establishing a centre of excellence for traditional orcharding and the various crafts associated with orchard fruit, near the village of Hartpury. Cider and Perry making are an obvious bolt-on, and this will represent the initial core of activities run from the Centre. The processing barn will shortly be equipped with a full fruit processing plant, which will enable production of Cider, Perry, Fruit Juices and other products designed to add value to orchard fruits. The idea being that the best way to preserve traditional orchards, is to make profitable use of their crops, and so the centre will act as the UK base for a wide range of courses and associated services, all designed to help people like myself and the wider industry achieve this end.

The Open Day on Saturday was blessed with fine, if blustery weather, and the wide-open landscape made it easy to spot and avoid incoming showers. The smart, traditional oak-framed main building is situated on the edge of what may be the centre's most important project, the Hartpury National Collection of Perry Pears, also known more prosaically as the Perry Park. This is Hartpury Trust member Jim Chapman's pride and joy, over 100 varieties of rare and unique perry pears, planted in pairs across several acres of gently sloping meadowland. Even now the sight of so many fruit trees planted at such wide spacing is inspiring, but when mature, this orchard will be a truly glorious sight, though sadly one which many, including Jim himself, will probably never get to see, since perry pear trees take quite some time to reach maturity!

During the open-day I had a chance to chat with Peter Mitchell, someone I've bumped into on many occasions since attending one of his early cidermaking courses at Pershore College. There were a few stalls to peruse, including one with samples of Herefordshire perry from award-winning producer Tom Oliver, and Gloucestershire apple juices from Day's Cottage.

I also had a very useful chat with Jim Chapman, who kindly put me straight about our own small batch of perry. We've always understood that the pears we used to make our perry were Blakeney Red and Moorcroft, but Jim's much greater knowledge of perry pear growing indicated that this couldn't be so. Moorcroft are an early ripening pear, which would have gone over by the time we harvested our fruit, so in all probability we have made a single variety Blakeney Red. Oh well! we like Blakeney Red perry a lot, so nothing lost there.

The day was rounded off with a visit to another award-winning cidermaker, Mike Johnson of Ross Cider & Perry. The samples were as generous as ever, and I was particularly pleased to try the cider blend which won the top prize at the recent Big Apple Cider & Perry Trials in Putley. A very well balanced medium/dry cider, which Mike & Sophie were busy bottling-up for sale. I also returned with some excellent new-season Blakeney Red Perry to compare with our own. This perry will also join ours at the Red Lion, Middleton, during the forthcoming Welland Valley Beer Festival.

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