The Race Against Time
A Race Against Time
Our cider making heritage is slipping away. Seidr
Dai's Dave Matthews is trying to catch
Although I live in Cardiff, my perry and cidermaking fruit
supplies nearly all come from Monmouthshire. In times gone by,
cider and perry from this rural county was highly prized, and every
farm once made cider and perry to quench the thirsts of its
workforce. With the mechanisation of agriculture after the Second
World War, the workforce left for the cities, and the old presses
fell silent. All that is left now is a few scattered fragments of
the old orchards, and a few memories amongst the old timers. If
we're not quick, even these will be lost. Every winter a few more
of the old trees are blown over, and one by one the old fellahs
pass on to the great ciderhouse in the sky.
Cidermaking here in Wales is undergoing a renaissance, helped
and supported by the Welsh Perry and Cider Society. Monmouthshire
is at the centre of this revival, boasting 11 of the 27 (at the
time of writing!) new Welsh cidermakers. If this new wave is
to flourish, it must build upon solid foundations of heritage and
tradition. We need, therefore, to locate, identify and propagate
the old Monmouthshire varieties of cider apple and perry pears, and
we need to interview the old timers to discover the traditions and
customs of cidermaking and cider drinking. There's no time to lose,
so last summer I interviewed three lovely old fellahs who used to
make cider and perry on their farms in the old days.
John Kennedy is 67, and has lived all his life at Perthyre Farm
near Rockfield, Monmouth. The farm is famed for its orchards, and
also for its two indigenous cider apple varieties. 'Perthyre' is a
bitter-sweet apple that takes its name from the farm, and
'Breakwell's Seedling' is an early bitter-sharp apple that was
first propagated by John's grandfather, George Breakwell. These
days the fruit is taken by one Wales' leading cidermakers, so
guaranteeing the future of the orchards.
Fred Lewis is 88, but still active and farming at Steps Farm,
Gwernesney, just outside Usk. Fred has quite a few pear trees, and
these are now lovingly crafted into perry by a local perry
Dennis Davies, 78, is known to one-and-all as 'Uncle Den', and
lives at Ty-du Farm near Raglan with his nephew and family. The
extensive organic orchards of traditional varieties of eaters and
cookers are picked by a local apple juice maker, and the few perry
pears are taken by a local publican / perry maker.
When, and From
"Cidermaking stopped about 1952. We used 'Kingston Black',
'Perthyre' and 'French' amongst others," Den told me, "and
'Frederick' was another, you could eat him too, he was red inside.
You would get a more satisfying drink by using a good mixture of
varieties, rather than just one."
"We stopped about the same time, just after the war," agreed
Fred, "and we too used proper cider fruit like 'Perthyre' and
'Frederick'. 'Perthyre' was an elongated apple nick-named 'Pig's
"Five varieties were used to make our blend," chipped in John,
"including 'Kingston Black' and 'Yarlington Mill'. We called the
'Perthyre' apple 'Sheep's Snout', and Grandfather said that he
could make a champagne cider from them. Grandmother would eat them
and cook them, they tasted like pears. Cidermaking here at Perthyre
Farm continued up until the sixties."
Some farms had their own mill and press, some relied upon a
travelling cidermaker and his horse-drawn tack.
"The apples were piled up in the orchard until Mr Morris and his
cider mill arrived, you had to wait your turn!" remembered Den.
"His mill was powered by a petrol engine via a pulley system, and
crushed the apples up with a pair of rollers. There was a
twin-screw press, and we used long poles to turn the screws and
squeeze all of the juice out."
"We had our own equipment, so didn't have to pile up the
apples," countered John. "The one exception was the 'Joeby Crab'
which was picked at the end of November, and kept until spring in
heaps at the front of the house. Our scratter was tractor-powered
with a belt pulley. We used to bucket apples into the top, and two
rollers with little knobs would pulp them up. We used a twin-screw
press with an oak bed. The 'hairs' were made from horse hair
cloths. We would take days to press it, turning the screws one half
at a time. The juice would run off into half barrels."
"We would shake the pears down, but they were sour when they
were green, and you don't want the green ones," advised old Fred.
"So we tumped them, outside on the grass. A drop of rain won't hurt
them, get the old sun on them, see? Most would come right in the
tump, you've got to have at least 90% of the pears ripe. Local
cidermaker Tommy Hopkins would come down a few times to look at the
pears, and would only mill them if they were ready. The cider mill
was powered by a steam engine. Tommy was a good cidermaker, and he
ran a belt from the steam engine to the mill. To press the pulp we
wrapped cloths around it, and had a stack of about six of them. We
would bring the press down on them, and use buckets to carry the
juice up to the barrels in the ciderhouse. I carried a few pounds
up there! I wish I had a pound for every time I carried two
three-gallon buckets over the bank to the barn! The press was
powered by the steam engine, old Tommy had a hooter on him! Those
were the days, eh?"
As a bit of a cidermaking idealist, I was pleased to discover
that the old farmers added nothing, apart, perhaps, from a drop of
water, to their juice.
"You could add water to the apple juice," said Den, "to get it
to the strength that you wanted. Usually spring water was added,
but never any sugar or meat. The barrels were down in the cellar,
and were either 100, 150 or 200 gallons. We would buy port wine and
whisky barrels from the local pubs. We carried the juice down there
in buckets, and poured them into the barrels using a
sort-of-half-barrel with a stem that fitted into the bung hole. The
tops were left open while they was working, and bits would come out
over the top, to drain out of the cellar. Once it stopped working,
we'd bung it up. When we wanted to drink it, we'd use a wooden tap
to knock a cork into the barrel."
"We added nothing!" scoffed John. "It was pure juice, no added
sugar, meat or water. It was fermented in 40 and 120 gallon rum
barrels. My Grandfather's pride and joy was to tap the first barrel
of the season on Christmas Day."
"Well, we did add some water, perhaps six gallons into a 50
gallon cask, but no sugar, rats or meat," commented Fred. "No water
at all was added to the perry pear juice. There were seven or eight
casks, all 50 gallons, but one long one was 90-odd gallons. We
would fill them up, and leave it to work. All bits came out of the
bunghole over the top, leaving the cider clear inside. We would
keep a drop of spare cider back, to top up the barrel or else the
bits were not brought up. The ciderhouse was separate to the other
farm buildings, and you could hear the seven or eight casks working
when you were yards away. When it finished working, we would hammer
in a wooden bung, and seal it with a bit of cement. The cider would
be ready by Christmas, when we would hammer a wooden tap into the
"Cider was given to the farmhands, especially during the
harvest," recalls Den. "They would pour a jug of cider from the
barrel, and drink it from the jug. Callers to the farm too, they
wouldn't think of using a glass. Bottles and jars were taken out to
the fields during haymaking. If old hands were asked to help,
they'd ask 'What sort of cider have you got there?' In those days
'Roadmen' had a patch of road to keep tidy, and they'd help with
haymaking for cider. It was a pleasant way of getting the haymaking
"Yes, our workers could have cider whenever they fancied it,"
agreed John, "and it wasn't part of their wages. It was drunk from
anything that came to hand, but a stone container with a cork in
the top was taken out for haymaking and corn harvesting."
"We had a big-ish family, who drank some," said Fred, "but a lot
was given away to the farm workers, especially during haymaking. We
had itinerant workers calling, who would do anything for a bit of
bread, cheese and a drop of cider, some would lodge for the night.
All of the cider would be gone by the following year."
"Champagne perry is better than champagne, but it has to be made
properly," old Fred told me, really getting into his stride. "You
have to catch the pears when they're just turning yellow. We made
it in a 50 gallon cask, not bottles, and if you did the job right,
you'd see the sparks rise when you poured it into a jug. Mother
would dip her toast in it! It knocked champagne into a cocked hat.
You'd only need half a glass, and you knew you'd had it!"
"Oh yes," agreed Den, "we didn't add any water to perry either,
it could be really strong! Mr Ricketts was a farm worker, who was
always doing jobs to get some free cider. One day, at around
Christmas time, he was drinking the perry that was just tapped. He
was so drunk that he didn't know where he was going! He grabbed the
gatepost at the farm entrance, and was afraid to let go! He had to
be taken home. I've heard people say that perry was effective!"
"I used to collect bird's eggs," Fred told us. "Carrion crows
made their nests at the very ends of the branches, which were too
thin for me to climb along. But after drinking two glasses of
cider, I got up there and collected the eggs!"
"My sister is small, she didn't grow tall because she got on the
cider too soon!" chuckled Den. "Father let her have a taste of the
cider, Mother had a job of getting her to take milk! She wasn't
very old, she still likes it now! My Father told me an old saying:
'Cider for breakfast, cider for dinner, tea for tea, cider for
Martyn Evans is the Fruit Officer of the Welsh Perry and Cider
Society, and he and I have tracked down around twenty varieties of
Welsh cider apple and perry pear. Apples such as 'Frederick' and
'Perthyre' are common and commercially available, but award-winning
perry pears such as 'Berllanderi Green' and 'Welsh Gin' may only
exist as a single old tree. To ensure their future we've taken
cuttings, and have established a Museum Orchard on an estate in
north Monmouthshire. We planted two trees of each variety, like a
kind of leafy Noah's Ark. All of the varieties are available from
Dolau Hirion Nursery (applewiseattinyonline.co.uk), and replanting
with these old varieties across Wales is now beginning in
Last February we visited John Kennedy at Perthyre Farm, to see
if we could find the Joeby Crab. John is now registered blind, so
finding a couple of trees in a five acre orchard just using his
memory was, on the one hand, a tad tricky, but on the other hand a
tremendous privilege. We were amazed, what with it being February,
to find plenty of fruit still on these Joeby Crab trees, so I shook
some off with John's walking stick, and took them home. They
produced a couple of pints of dark, rich and tasty cider. Next year
we'll take some cuttings, and harvest the trees properly to make a
lot more Joeby Crab cider! Let's hope that the old trees don't blow
over between now and then. It really is a race against time….
Interviews with the old cidermakers first appeared in 'The
Panker' - the newsletter of the Welsh Perry and Cider