FOOD & DRINK / Tipple that's the toast of Somerset: Kathryn McWhirter finds a cider brandy from the West Country to be the equal, perhaps the superior, of its finest Calvados cousins

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BEFORE you scoop up a bottle of Calvados on the way back from your next French holiday, pause for a moment. Britain now has its own version; and I think, having recently tasted 30 different French ones, that the British newcomer tastes better (pure and fresh, deliciously appley and spicy) and lighter, despite its 42 per cent alcohol.

Somerset Royal Cider Brandy began years ago as a dream in Julian Temperley's south Somerset farmyard. And for him the dream has clearly lost none of its romanticism since the first brandy was bottled a couple of years ago - despite the pounds 1m he and others have invested in it, the roaring sales and the lucrative prospects. He certainly looks much more of a cider-maker than an entrepreneur: he is relaxed, his jeans are grubby from the farm; chuckling with pleasure, he gives the appearance of being slightly vague. His sentences trail out, his stories wander off.

And you could not wish for a more romantic setting: Pass Vale Farm with its lovely old buildings nestles under a little hillock on the edge of Kingsbury Episcopi village; sheep and lambs graze under the apple trees, chickens and sheepdogs roam the farmyard, pestered by the last of a brood of children.

In the dark cider house, behind massive oak doors, the excellent drinking cider is stored in huge oak vats (no numbers, they all have names - Big Fat Vat, Huge Vat, Newton Abbot Vat) and is sold draught from wooden barrels. The distillery is in an old dairy on the other side of the village, which, to satisfy Customs and Excise, is defended by window bars, double doors (immediately behind each locked door is another), security alarms and 68 locks and seals.

In a room the size of a squash court, two gas-fired stills bought from the widow of a Normandy Calvados producer look battered and dull. 'Josephine' and 'Fifi' can distil 2,000 gallons of cider a day. The day of my visit, Julian was about to dismantle one still and take it back for repair to a Monsieur Simon near Pont-l'Eveque. He needed a proper coppersmith who was experienced with stills, if the repaired bits were to last for years.

Pont-l'Eveque, just south of Le Havre, is in the heartland of France's Calvados country. This cider brandy takes its name from the region of Normandy where it is produced. Like Champagne, the making of Calvados is governed by strict geographical rules. Production can only take place in the departments of Calvados (south of Le Havre) and Manche (south of Cherbourg); the prized Calvados du Pays d'Auge is from a small area around Pont-l'Eveque.

So strict are the Appellation Controlee authorities about the origin of the apples (all must come from within the defined Calvados region) that farmers and distillers need signed documents in order to trundle them down the road. The cider also has to be made within the area, and then distilled there by the following April at the latest. Cider brandies made elsewhere in Normandy or Brittany are only allowed to call themselves eau de vie de cidre.

'On the whole the French have been marvellous,' Julian says. Before starting, he made several trips to Normandy and Brittany with, as guide and interpreter, an old Somerset friend who now lives in Normandy and renovates houses. 'The people we met asked after our soil, then our apples, then invited us to lunch.' He also read up on distilling, and spent a lot of time with the late Bertram Bulmer, the only person producing cider brandy in this country, although in tiny quantities at the Hereford Cider Museum. 'We've nicked ideas from anyone who has anything to steal and put to it the apples and soil of Somerset.'

'The French have different apples. Similar, but different. We use 40 separate varieties for lots of different flavours, and we blend them together before pressing. But we've experimented with distilling single varieties, to see what each one has to offer. It's amazing how different the spirit smells. When we distilled Cox's, for instance, the spirit was very neutral. What we go for is a big assortment of cider apples - Tremlett's Bitter, Brown Snout, Dabinett, Somerset Red Streak - picked really ripe in November and December, with more tannin. That gives the brandy more body and flavour. We finish pressing at Christmas, sometimes after, and it bubbles away, turning into cider, until the end of January.'

Distilling at Kingsbury Episcopi starts in January and finishes in May. There's a saying in France that you can't distil while the cider blossom is out. It is no use distilling cider that hasn't made the grade, Julian insists. Any faults in the cider will be magnified and distorted by the still. There can be no rotten apples, no sprays, no preservatives, no wooden vats even. The distilling cider is made in fibreglass tanks, which are easier to keep squeaky-clean. The cider is all made on the farm - outside cider-makers, Julian says, wouldn't stick to the stringent standards.

The spirit that comes off the still is water-clear. Like Calvados, Cognac or Scotch whisky, Julian's brandy gets its colour from ageing in wooden barrels. The Calvados authorities stipulate a minimum of two years in the barrel, but some, especially in the Pays d'Auge, are aged for six years or more. Barrel-ageing makes the brandy less fiery and more mellow, and introduces interesting new flavours and complexity from the wood. But if ageing is too lengthy, or the wood is old and musty, the result (in many expensive examples of Calvados) can be harshly woody and varnishy, stripped of any fresh apple flavour the youthful brandy may have had.

So, although Julian went to France to learn about distilling, it was to Scotland that he went for information on barrel-ageing. Now, four years into his own production, he is learning for himself, experimenting with different barrels to see what tastes they impart to his brandy. Stacked three-high in the locked and sealed barrel-store next to the distillery are old bourbon barrels (a favourite of the Scots), barrels from southern Spain that have held sherry or brandy, and some new ones, the 'very spicy' Hungarian barrels and the 'oaky and lemony' Limousin barrels from France.

Local people have been 'incredibly supportive'. Somerset cider-makers sell the brandy, and half the 35,000 bottles a year are sold in the county. And the bottle labels of each vintage have been designed by West Country artists. This tradition began with the late Elisabeth Frink, who agreed to paint the label illustration of the first 1991 vintage in exchange for the promise of a dozen bottles. (The sculptor already had her name down for half a dozen when Julian asked her.) 'It was a huge gift,' he says. 'The painting must be worth quite a number of thousands of pounds. Any local artist now will be proud to follow her.'

The 1992 label on sale at the moment was painted by Patrick Reytiens, a Somerset stained-glass maker, and the 1993 bottling will have a painting by Lucy Willis, a watercolourist who lives in the middle of the Somerset levels.

'I didn't start this to make a fortune,' Julian insists, 'just to see whether it could be done in Somerset. It was high-risk, and this is only the beginning, but it looks as if it will do well - and, incidentally, make a fortune. People have invested money not to make money - they've essentially invested in a dream rather than a product. I want it to be seen as something the people of Somerset can be proud of, part of Somerset's heritage.' And for once, it looks as if the dream will come true.

The 1992 bottling of Somerset Royal Cider Brandy Costs about pounds 20, or pounds 11 per half-bottle. The many stockists include: John Lewis stores, selected Waitrose, selected Majestic Wine Warehouses, Adnams of Southwold, Avery's of Bristol, E H Booth of Lancaster, Eaton Elliot of Alderley Edge, Eldridge Pope of Dorchester, Fortnum & Mason, Harrods, Justerini & Brooks of London SW1 and Edinburgh, Perry's of Illminster, The Wine Society and York Beer Shop. Other stockists, farm gate sales (Saturdays only, until 6pm) and mail order from: Pass Vale Farm, Burrow Hill, Kingsbury Episcopi, near Martock, Somerset, tel 0460 40782. Julian Temperley is also taking orders for a five-year-old brandy, due in 1995, and a 10-year-old, to be released on 1 January 2000.

(Photographs omitted)