Napoleon called it the English champagne. Now everyone's popping their cork for fermented pears. Mark Mackenzie pedals through the orchards

Herefordshire's main contributions to the national gastronomy, beef and cider, are pretty straightforward. Less well known is a local drink which Napoleon Bonaparte referred to as "English champagne". As you read this, the handful of enthusiasts who still make this regional nectar will be in their orchards, hopping that the harvest has gone pear-shaped; perry pear-shaped to be precise.

At around 7.5 per cent alcohol, perry is a somewhat intoxicating drink, pressed from rare varieties of pear which have been grown in South-west England for centuries. A version of it has long been marketed as a woman's drink, with the slogan, "I'd love a Babycham." But this mass-produced fizz bears little resemblance to the farmhouse staple, which, for hundreds of years was an integral part of rural life.

In the village of Ocle Pychard the Oliver family - Tom, not Jamie - has been making perry and cider for generations, at least since the 17th-century, when Herefordshire's landscape was transformed by the cider-apple orchard with John Scudamore, First Viscount Sligo, championing the redstreak, an apple "whose pulpous fruit with goldirradiate, and vermillian shines".

"Cider and perry was made for consumption by the workforce," explains Oliver, "principally because the water wasn't safe to drink." In the latter part of the 19th century, a labourer could expect to receive as much as a fifth of his pay in cider or perry, about five pints a day, rising to eight during the long hours of harvest. Indeed, the amount a worker received reflected his worth, some getting 16 pints. This bucolic binge-drinking was outlawed at the turn of the last century as those workers who did keep their jobs with the advent of mechanised agriculture did so with ever fewer limbs or digits.

"My grandfather, Cyril Cresswell, made cider and perry until between the wars," Oliver says. "He knocked it on the head when horse power was superseded by the internal combustion engine - after a couple of 'mishaps' he decided it just wasn't safe any more."

A useful way to ease yourself into the county's alcoholic offerings is to hire a bike and head off on the Cider Route. This 20-mile trail starts in Ledbury and enables visitors to sample native cider and perry vintages in between pedalling stretches of blissfully quiet lanes; should a mishap befall you along the way, the local juice should cushion your fall.

The main challenge facing today's perry maker is one of supply, for the perry pear is a delicate creature. It is susceptible to spring frost due to its early flowering and most of the trees are, like their cider-apple cousins, biennial. "In a two-year cycle," Oliver explains, " they'll produce 90 per cent of their fruit one year and just 10 per cent the next." This characteristic can be ameliorated with careful pruning, says Oliver, at least in theory. "Most perry trees are so tall they defy pruning. A variety like the Barland can grow to 80 feet. Some are over 300 years old."

Oliver relies on more than 30 growers for his pears, most of whom deliver by the carrier bag, rather than the truckload. The quality of the 10,000 bottles of perry he produces annually is entirely dependent on the idiosyncracies of the fruit; the Moorcroft, for example, disintegrates the moment it hits the ground.

This year's crop of Moorcrofts is currently being pressed, although the traditional method, beneath an oak beam wound on a thread, has been replaced by modern machinery. To get a feel for the traditional ciderhouse, pay a visit to Dunkertons Cider Mill, an organic outfit a few miles from the village of Pembridge. Inside his collection of bright-red wooden barns, Ivor Dunkerton offers autumn tours displaying the perry-making process, from picking to bottling. "Smell it now, with the bubbles coming out," advises Dunkerton, as he pours me another glass of his best-selling perry.

The taste of the straw-coloured liquid is sweet but not sickly and utterly moreish. Under a late-summer sun, it's easy to see why Grandpa Cresswell gave up serving it in close proximity to keen-bladed threshing machines. The dedication of today's producers is rewarded beyond the county border. Dunkertons' clientele is upmarket - Fortnum and Mason, the Tate Gallery - and international; perry has been recognised by Italy's Slow Food movement, one of only two alcoholic drinks to be included in the movement's Ark of Taste scheme, the other being the French Basque drink sagarnoa.

Dunkerton recently planted the largest perry orchard in these parts for 100 years. A tour of his orchards is well worth it, if only to hear him rattle off the varieties of rare fruit. The new orchard, covering just two acres, has 150 saplings, including varieties once common in the county's markets: Hendre Huffcap; Hellens Early; Judge Amphlett. Such evocative names also feature in the Herefordshire Pomona, a list of perry and cider trees compiled in the 1890s by two physicians, Robert Hogg and Henry Graves Bull. The directory is revered by antiquarians; when one of the 600 copies printed changes hands, purchasers can expect to part with £10,000.

For a cheaper alternative, the Cider Museum in Hereford allows visitors to immerse themselves in cider and perry history by the vat-load. The museum has a copy of the Herefordshire Pomona and those who inspect its precise, delicate illustrations begin to understand the book's exorbitant price. Other exhibits include modern cider presses and examples of a travelling cidermaker's "tack", of the type used by brewers who once roamed the county. Sitting inside the reconstructed ciderhouse, where the potent whiff of fermenting fruit hangs heavy in the air, it's hard to believe any work was ever done in this part of the world.

Give me the facts

How to get there

The author travelled as a guest of Visit England (www.enjoyengland.com/taste) and Rural Retreats (01386 701 177; www.rural retreats.net), staying at Bearwood Cottage, which costs from £592 for seven nights or £314 for two nights.

What to do

Oliver's Cider and Perry (01432 820569; www.theolivers.org.uk).

Dunkertons Cider Mill (01544 388653; www.dunkertons.co.uk).

The Cider Museum (01432 354 107; www.cider museum.co.uk).

Further information

A free guide to the Cider Cycling Route available from Ledbury tourist information centre (01531 636147).

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