It was a lovely sunny day out in our garden, reading a book and listening to a podcast on my phone, when the seed of idea took hold, to do a blog and weekly social media post about apple varieties.
The podcast featured Gabe Cook, aka The Ciderologist; and suddenly he started talking about his favourite cider apple varieties and his dream that drinkers would become as familiar with their names and characteristics as they are now with hops and grape varieties.
Gabe talked about the need for basic education about the different kinds of cider and said that learning about key apple varieties seems to be a good way to start learning about cider styles a little bit better. His aim as the Ciderologist is that in the next decade drinkers can name at least one cider apple variety.
And yes, I remember the 1970’s when wine was either a dry or a medium. These days I can talk Merlot with the average supermarket shopper. I can describe the difference between a Sauvignon Blanc from a Cabernet, a Pinot Grigio from a Pinot Noir. Unimaginable in my youth.
And I never knew any names of hops until we moved to Ashton at the start of the decade and Tameside brewery, Millstone, introduced me to US citrussy hops at the first ‘meet the brewer’ at my local pub, the award winning Stalybridge Buffet Bar. Now nearly every display board in a craft beer bar describes its cask and keg beers by named hops or beer styles.
I began to supplement one of my favourite books, Liz Copas’s ‘New Pomona’, with other books about cider apples and perry pears. A weekly apple variety blog was being prepared.
It will take some time to prepare my notes I thought and at least I had thought of a hashtag: 'CiderPomona' – but then ….
Graftwood – Rethinking Cider
…. then I spotted something that made me jump the starter pistol, the new quarterly subscription Cider magazine contained an intriguing credit on the last page: “Graftwood is published by Flakey Bark Publishing LLP”. A prequel was required!
The “Prequel” to my weekly introduction to the apples and pears of Cider and Perry …. well it must be the rare Flakey Bark Perry Pear from the foot of the iconic May Hill.
Flakey Bark Perry – misspelt since 1924!
May Hill, overlooks the village of Dymock in Gloucestershire, and Gabe Cook never tires of telling his Ciderologist audiences, this is where he was born, his roots from birth in Ciderland, or probably more accurately Perryland.
May Hill is an important landscape feature of this part of Gloucestershire. Once the home of British poetry, counting amongst its residents Rupert Brooke, American Robert Frost and Eleanor Farjeon amongst many others.
A bare hill topped by a clump of pines, that can be viewed from throughout the three counties of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire.
Gabe frequently tells the story of the origin of ‘Perry’. A perry pear is so dry and astringent as to be virtually inedible. Centuries ago this was discovered by a group of friends at the top of May Hill, on eating they spat the pear all around the hill, those pips took root and flourished, They later found that the pear must be crushed and the juice turned into perry and the perry pear had entered the mortal World. In the way of all stories, it changes with each telling and often features a Giant, who spits out the inedible pear juice and seeds afar.
Nevertheless, it is for this reason that even today it is said that a perry pear tree will flourish best if it is growing within sight of May Hill. Perry is made from Perry pears – anything else would be a pear cider. These varieties have been cultivated over generations to make excellent fermented juice.
From May Hill Green cheese to Flakey Bark Perry
One of the perry pear tree varieties growing under May Hill was first documented by Herbert Durham in 1924 for the RHS. No one has had the heart to correct the misspelling in the near century since.
Durham claimed he gave it a ‘fancy name’ because of its characteristic bark. The tree tends to a moderate to larger size with distinctive ‘straggling’ thin limbs and their patchy pale colour and the absence of a thick corky bark.
Indeed, its easily recognised and distinctive shape and colouring is what lead to its rediscovery by Charles Martell nearly two decades ago. He is an award-winning famous cheese maker, distiller and self-confessed aging hippy; renowned for inventing the ‘Stinking Bishop’ cheese which took a lead role in one of the Aardman feature films – The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
The cheese, produced in Dymock, 15 miles north-west of Gloucester, is bathed in perry. This produces a bacterium that flavours the cheese.
Less well known is Charles Martell’s role in establishing the National Perry Pear Collection and in thirty years of researching and then writing the irreplaceable book: ‘Perry Pears of the Three Counties’ 2013. And it was he who rediscovered Flakey Bark just over fifteen years ago.
He happened upon these rare trees, spied through the hedge on Glasshouse Hill, a narrow lane underneath May Hill. It was a lane he had often travelled, usually by car, but on this occasion he was riding on a horse and cart, and no I don’t know why, you’ll have to ask him!
From high up in the cart, Charles Martell suddenly spotted, just on the other side of the hedge, a clump of four old trees, recognisable by their quirky straggly shape and colour.
In fact, if you log onto Google Maps you can follow the lane yourself and try to spot this same clump of large trees – I couldn’t.
These are the last trees known to Ross on Wye Cider and Perry Co. who now appear to be the only producers of Flakey Bark Perry.
Picked by their friend Rob, who helps them during pressing season, Ross Cider turn these remaining few pears into a delicious wild ferment perry.
They currently sell an elite range single variety Flakey Bark Natural Perry 2017 vintage, 6.8% in a 750ml bottle. It is dominated by delicate but powerful astringency and bursting with tannins. It is complemented by slight sweetness and the gentle process of bottle conditioning. It has iconic wild ferment aromas, funky beyond compare.
Indeed, this perry featured in one of the most memorable cider tastings we organised at the beginning of the year – see blog post Feb 14th ‘Mixed to the Max – an evening of diverse ciders and Saison’.
At this tasting we were serving to some incredible palates; three brewers, an experienced bar professional, a craft beer expert and Jim, whose impeccable tastes curate the Independent Salford Beer Festival. At the first sip of Flakey Bark a key moment was shared, there was an exchanged response.
This type of a ‘moment’ in drinking, has been well described by Albert Johnson in the editorial in the first issue of Graftwood: “Drinking cider and perry, in the company of friends, serves as a catalyst to great moments. It is the sip, and then the shared look, which cannot be described.”
It was Jim who made the shared glanced and uttered the words ‘oh my days’. Anyone who knows him will tell you this is his Paul Hollywood phrase; you know that rare moment on British Bake off when Hollywood leans across the baking table for that rare handshake.
Known for its intense astringency, Cath Potters notes about Flakey Bark Perry from that night recorded: ‘There are estery and farmyard aromas, then it starts with a light tangy flavour, low bitterness and then the dry taste takes over. It just grips your mouth and certainly does its damn best to dry it out A unique variety for its high astringency, but which retains the natural sorbitol sweetness of all perry pears.’
Flakey Bark Perry is made with care and reflects the philosophy of Ross Cider. Every quality craft Cider or Perry you drink should reflect the Cidermaker, the orchard, and the terroir. If made with respect, it deserves respect too.
And the cheese, well you will have to read the June 6th blog post – ‘May Hill, a hill, a cheese and a perry’.