Monday, August 18, 2008

Now I'm a cider lover to my core

Free cider and a place to pitch your tent in return for a few hours' apple-picking? Matt Carroll can't say no
Matt Carroll collects Cider apples at Broome Farm

Matt Carroll, pictured in the centre, gathers apples for cider at Broome Farm in Herefordshire. Photograph: Alan Wood

Having grown up in the West Country, I am often accused of being a 'cider drinker'. I wouldn't mind, but I don't even like the stuff. Normally, the slightest whiff of it brings back blurred memories of throwing up in the local graveyard as a 15-year-old. Standing in the cellar at Broome Farm, near Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire, however, I get the feeling I'm going to end up changing my mind.

'Proper cider shouldn't give you any hangover,' says Mike Johnson, the owner, as he hands me a glass of cloudy liquid that looks more like fruit juice than the highly processed muck you find in the supermarkets. Who cares that it's not even lunchtime yet; round here, any hour is cider o'clock.

'There's no added chemicals in this,' he says, poking his ruddy nose into the glass to get a good sniff. 'Essentially, it's a very simple drink. Once you've collected the fruit, you just press it; the natural yeast does the rest.'

Reluctantly, I follow Mike's lead and take a sip. Instead of the artificially sweet fizz I was expecting, I find that it tastes more like savoury apple juice. Delicious.

Lined up on a battered old table in front of us are various bottles with homemade-looking labels, each containing a subtly different blend that's been painstakingly crafted by Mike and his team of merry helpers.

This place is heaven for ciderheads. Surrounding the 18th-century white stone farmhouse are 65 acres of orchards growing 70 different apple and pear varieties - with comical names such as Ball's Bittersweet, Hendre Huffcap and Startlecock (yes, really). 'We call it that because of the effect it has on you after a few pints,' says Mike, as he swaps my glass of Headless Man for a drop of Frederick. 'When you've got to go, you've got to go. Know what I mean?'

I'm hoping I won't.

The bulk of Mike's crop goes straight to Bulmers, which produces commercial cider for pubs up and down the UK. But the rest is plucked from the trees, pressed on site and turned into various traditional blends that Mike sells straight from the cellar. 'Cider apples basically come in four varieties: sharps, sweets, bitter-sweets and bitter-sharps,' says Mike. 'By combining these different tastes and flavours, you can produce a huge range of ciders that appeal to all sorts of palates.'

While wine buffs generally look down their highly cultivated noses at cider, a glass of the latter can be just as complex. The ciders that Mike produces every year, all 8,000 gallons of them, are aged in old rum and whisky barrels, adding even more essence to the mix.

Harvesting begins in late September and this is where I come in. In return for my board and lodging I'm about to spend the rest of the day in the orchard behind the house, picking apples in the late summer sun. It's a tough job (especially after another glass of Frederick) but someone's got to do it. In fact, Mike is finding increasing numbers of people knocking at his door every year, looking to help with the harvest in exchange for a place to pitch their tent. With space for about 300 people, and showers and toilets on site, it makes for a cheap (and potentially boozy) weekend.

I can't quite bring myself to camp; developing a new-found taste for cider is enough of a challenge for one weekend, thanks. With a B&B room going spare in the farmhouse, the prospect of a proper bed is impossible to resist. There are three to choose from - each with wi-fi, brass bedsteads, heavy wooden furniture and views out over the orchards.

As I dump my bags and grab my wellies, I feel as if I'm in an episode of The Darling Buds of May. Even more so when I wander into the kitchen to find Mike's sister rolling out pastry for a pie.

While Mike takes care of the cider production and the main farm (which has been in the family for more than 70 years), Hilary runs the bed and breakfast with her husband, John. Both are self-confessed foodies - which is apparent the moment you pick up the menu. Everything here is homemade and locally sourced - whether it's the cider cake that's dished out at tea time or the Herefordshire fillet steak I'll be ordering for dinner later.

Before all that, though, there are apples to be picked. While some of the fruit is gathered mechanically (using ride-on 'hoovers' to suck up the windfalls), most of it is still brought in by hand - as it has been for centuries. I hitch a ride with cider makers Henry and Gabe, and we head up to the top orchard.

It's complex business. Brandishing a big stick, Henry demonstrates the noble art of 'panking' - or poking the tree until the apples fall off. Once the fruit hits the ground, it's a case of gathering it all up and chucking it into the trailer. As I root around on my hands and knees, to a soundtrack of banter and buzzing wasps, the air thick with the waft of ripe apples and cut grass, I'm reminded of summer jobs as a student, when mortgage and career were still alien concepts.

Every so often we stop for 'refreshment'. Yep, you guessed it: a glass of the good stuff. 'Years ago, farm hands would have been part-paid in cider,' says Henry, as we lean against the tractor and take in the view of rolling green hills. 'Everyone would have got about three pints a day, which they'd drink instead of water."

No wonder the pace of life was slower back then.

Fully loaded, we head back to the farm to start pressing. This, too, is pretty labour-intensive. The apples are put through a 'scratter' (pulping machine) that mashes them up, before being poured onto pieces of mesh cloth surrounded by a wooden frame to contain the goo. After wrapping the mush into a parcel, we place another frame on top and stack them into a tower known as a 'cheese'. This then gets pressed and, Bob's your uncle, you've got 25 gallons of apple juice that's as organic as it gets. All you do then is leave it to ferment.

Several glasses later, during an impromptu 'tasting session' with Mike and the boys back in the cellar, I begin to appreciate what all the fuss is about. Guess that makes me a cider drinker after all.

· Broome Farm in Peterstow, near Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire (01989 567232; offers free camping, with use of showers and toilets, in exchange for assistance with apple picking and cider making. Typically visitors are asked to work for two to three hours a day, during which they'll also get the chance to try various ciders. B&B rooms in the farmhouse cost from £25 per person (01989 562824; The farm also runs a Cider Festival and farmers' market from 29-31 August.

· Further information and photos by Alan Wood at

This article appeared in the Observer on Sunday August 17 2008 on p7 of the Features section. It was last updated at 00:04 on August 17 2008.

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