There are pockets of rural England which still cling to elements of the past: places where everyday life is shaped by the ownership and produce of the land, the medieval layouts of their market towns and the continuous occupation which constitutes the very warp and weft of tradition. I spent a few days last week in several such places, centred roughly on Hereford, where I had gone specifically to celebrate the harvest of apples and to sample that most excellent by-product of their abundance, cider. But on day one, like a schoolboy in a tuck-shop, I became excited by the wealth of other traditional regional produce to be had and the backdrop of English history against which all is displayed.
In Hereford itself, the Cathedral houses the Mappa Mundi, a pictorial depiction of the known world, drawn up by monks around the year 1300. At its centre is Jerusalem (i.e. Christianity) but the land-masses all around are so unfamiliar that we can only identify them by their labels. Still, considering very few people travelled then, I was impressed by the attempt and especially by the picture of the man skiing in Norway. And at the top of the map is the gate to the after-world where you turned left for heaven or right for hell, a practice which persists to this day at the entrance to modern airliners. The Mappa Mundi was a masterpiece of propaganda, presented by the Church to its congregations as an authoritative guide to world affairs until, more than a hundred years later, further enlightenment was offered in the form of a bible translated, for the first time, into English. It was called the Wycliffe Bible but became popularly known as the Cider Bible because the translator interpreted the Latin word for booze colloquially, i.e. cider. And I have to say that much of the cider I tasted on the tour did have heavenly qualities.
The heyday of English cider production is long gone but there is a revival, along the lines of the craft beer revolution. One of the small-scale cider makers I visited pointed across the valley to the huge factory of Weston’s Cider and told me that their turnover had recently spurted up to £64 million p.a. – depressing news for lovers of the real thing. But he was optimistic, explaining that, despite the watered-down nature of their products, industrial producers had grown the overall market and raised awareness of the beverage, thereby creating opportunities for artisan producers like himself. He was the third producer I had visited, and the most insistent on lecturing me in all aspects, subtleties and variations of the cider-making process which is, essentially, not complex: from what I remember you need only squash the juice out of the apples, wait for it to ferment and then drink it. All else is degrees of subtlety or, in the case of the big industrial manufacturers, cheating.
To a man – and they were all men – the cider producers I encountered were honest toilers at their ‘lifestyle businesses’ but could have benefited from a little training in how to close a sale – I quaffed many a free sample without feeling obliged to purchase anything and, at one unattended barn-shop, could have driven off with the entire stock – but sales-training would be the beginning of commodification, and we really don’t need any more Weston's or Bulmer's.
Not forgetting that apples can also be eaten, before returning home I helped myself to some rare varieties – for free – at Berrington Hall and added them to my haul of cider, plums, damsons, cobnuts, walnuts, organic vegetables, pork pies and other produce from the myriad ‘family butchers’ along the way. My tuck-locker is now full and I shall soon resemble Billy Bunter.
|Windfalls at Berrington Hall|