Cider with Barry. And Henry

Aspall is famous for cider vinegar. Now it wants you to try something a bit stronger
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Walking through the heavily laden apple orchards at Aspall Hall in Suffolk, it is hard to imagine the awful dilemma that faced the Chevallier Guild family in 1994. English apples were not making money. After nearly 300 years, it was more cost effective to grub up their orchards and import cheap foreign apples, than grow their own to make Aspall's organic cider vinegar and apple juice. John Barrimore "Barry" Chevallier Guild and his younger brother Henry had taken over the family business from their father. It was time to bite the bullet.

Walking through the heavily laden apple orchards at Aspall Hall in Suffolk, it is hard to imagine the awful dilemma that faced the Chevallier Guild family in 1994. English apples were not making money. After nearly 300 years, it was more cost effective to grub up their orchards and import cheap foreign apples, than grow their own to make Aspall's organic cider vinegar and apple juice. John Barrimore "Barry" Chevallier Guild and his younger brother Henry had taken over the family business from their father. It was time to bite the bullet.

Growing apples was in their blood. One way or another, they had to make their orchards pay. If their great-grandfather JB Chevallier could export cider to the whole of the Indian subcontinent, and their grandfather could be one of the founding members of the Soil Association (admittedly because his sprayer had broken), then surely they could also succeed?

"They were just too beautiful for us to destroy," explains Henry. "We walk through them every day to work," echoes Barry, "we had to take a risk and keep them." Fifteen of the 90 acres of organic orchard are given over to cider apples. Bitter-sharp Kingston Black's are grown alongside bitter-sweet Yarlington Mill, frost-resistant golden Medaille d'Or and aromatic Dabinett. The remaining orchards have about 15 different dessert and culinary varieties including Laxton's Superb, Lord Lambourne, Chivers Delight, Blenheim Orange and Howgate Wonder. Greensleeves, with their large juicy yellow apples, are planted along the rows as pollinators.

The Chevalliers have made cider at Aspall Hall since the arrival of Clement Chevallier from Jersey in the early 18th century. In 1728 he planted 12 dozen apple trees, imported a large circular granite trough with a horsedrawn stone wheel from Normandy and founded Aspall Cyder. By the time Barry and Henry's father took over the estate in the Sixties, it was becoming increasingly difficult to sell cider as the big breweries muscled in, so most of the fruit was sold instead. He realised that diversification was the key to survival. Apple juice and cider vinegar seemed the most obvious areas to try, so he took the plunge and invested in a high-tech Swiss apple press. The vinegar was more problematic as traditional acetors are very expensive. His solution was unique - he bought a system devised by Rod Greenshield to treat effluence from rubber plantations microbiologically. As you need alcohol, oxygen and nutrients to make good cider, the system constantly pumps fresh cider and air into a tall tank that already contains the vinegar culture. As the liquid converts into vinegar, it is pumped out, allowing fresh cider to be pumped in. The resulting vinegar was superb.

The brothers started as they meant to go on. They settled themselves on the lawn at Aspall Hall, drink in hand, and discussed how they should develop the business. Fortunately, their interests complemented one another as Henry wanted to concentrate on the practical aspects of making cider, vinegar and apple juice, while Barry felt happier developing the business through sales. "We knew that we had to modernise further," explains Henry, "but we didn't want to lose the artisanal aspect of our work."

As they methodically reviewed every aspect of the business, it was clear that the quality of their organic apples was a key selling point. Henry took a cider-making course and brought in a consultant to review their vinegar making.

"Cider makers are always horrified when they discover that we actually use rare cider apples like Kingston Black and Medaille d'Or for our organic cider vinegar," chuckles Barry, "but they give it a really intense appley taste." The brothers worked on their blends and allowed the cider to mature gently before acetification. Given that nothing nasty survives in vinegar, they bottled it unpasteurised to keep its subtle aromas. Their efforts were rewarded when their vinegar won the Condiments category of the 1998 YOU Organic Food Awards. Orders began to pour in from Sainsbury, Safeway and Waitrose.

Their freshly pressed apple juice business was already thriving. Carefully blended, it was pasteurised and packaged according to each customer's demands. "It may seem odd," says Barry, "but the best time to drink English apple juice is now, during the main apple season, when the apples are pressed as soon as they are off the tree. Even a day's delay can make a difference to its flavour." However, what really obsessed the Chevallier brothers was the idea of reinstating a family brand of cider. British cider-making has been taken over by the big beer breweries. Sales have slowly declined and specialist ciders have suffered from its reputation of being a cheap alcoholic drink popular with adolescents.

Undaunted, the Chevalliers started to ferment trial batches of Aspall Cyder. No commercial apple pulp and water for them. Instead they pressed different blends of dessert and culinary apples and fermented them in their outside vats. The hotter the weather, the faster the apples fermented, so the old black vats were shaded from the sun with airy tents of blue sheeting.

Each batch of cider needs three months of gentle fermentation to ensure a refreshing medium dry cider. "We followed the East Anglian tradition, which doesn't use cider apples," says Henry. "It has a much more appley flavour." Meanwhile, much time and energy was spent developing the bottle and label. After a supermarket buyer rightly explained that their initial choice looked too much like a beer bottle, they stumbled on the perfect prototype - an elegant Thirties cider bottle which was used by their great-grandfather. They are now discussing its sale with the main supermarket chains, so if you want to try it, tell your local branch.

The Chevallier brothers, meanwhile, are already on to the next scheme to sustain their ancient orchards. As they walk around the family estate, they have visions of developing a visitors' centre. Imagine strolling under their 100-year-old apple trees, followed by a tour of the original 18th-century apple press. As they talk their dreams expand: a visitors' centre, a shop and perhaps even regular tours. There is no doubt about it, the Chevallier family spirit still runs strong. Anyone for Aspall brandy?

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