A race against time
Our cider making heritage is slipping away. Seidr Dai's Dave Matthews is trying to catch it...
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.
The Old Cidermakers
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 maker.
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 What?
"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 Snout'."
"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 barrel."
"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 done."
"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 supper.'"
Welsh Fruit Varieties
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 earnest.
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 Society.