Country Matters: Brandy keeps Fifi in good spirits

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WHO ever heard of an orchard saved by brandy? It sounds like a figment of some fevered, alcoholic imagination. Yet go to South Harp farm, near Over Stratton in Somerset, and you will find that very thing: a regiment of mature apple trees, 71 acres in extent, which would have been grubbed out and burnt but for the intervention of the infant Somerset Cider Brandy Company.

In times as tough as these, the success of new enterprise strikes a cheerful note; but the fact that someone can start turning out a product as expensive as brandy, and survive, seems particularly remarkable.

The mainspring of the initiative is Julian Temperley, a genially dishevelled farmer and cider-maker based on the slopes of Burrow Hill, near the village of Kingsbury Episcopi. Determined to revive the art - dead these 300 years - of making brandy from local apples, he began planning in 1984, and started distilling commercially in 1989. He sold his first bottling last year, to general acclaim, and within the past few days has made the big breakthrough of having his product accepted for sale by the Waitrose supermarket chain.

His company now has 67 shareholders, many of them growers. Brave spirits, they forked out pounds 500,000 before the first drop of brandy was sold, and they are likely to have to spend the same again before they see any substantial return on their outlay.

It was the favourable response to his first bottling that encouraged Mr Temperley to forge ahead and secure the orchard at Over Stratton. He already had some 50 acres of his own trees, and he buys in more apples from other farmers; but he saw that if production of brandy was to be maintained at a viable level, he would need another 500 or 600 tons of fruit a year, and when he heard that the land was about to be put on the market, he snapped it up.

Yet his motives were by no means entirely commercial: he was fired also by a desire to save at least one of Somerset's remaining orchards, which are disappearing at a terrible rate. Already most of the perry pear trees have been eradicated to make way for cereal crops such as wheat and maize; and in an appalling example near Combe Florey, only two weeks ago, a pear orchard was bulldozed out of existence with pounds 30,000 of fruit on the trees or on the ground, ready to go to a crusher. So desperate was the farmer to plant winter wheat in November, and claim the subsidy on it, that he could not wait the few days it would have taken to harvest the pears before he moved in with heavy machinery.

His winter wheat may make a profit of pounds 100 an acre, if he is lucky. Spring wheat, planted next March, might have yielded pounds 70. Yet he destroyed a crop worth pounds 500 per acre.

Mr Temperley detects in farmers an ungovernable urge to plough up the ground, even if there is no logic in doing so. 'They seem to have a peculiar attitude,' he says. 'They also have a particular wish to cut down trees, regardless of economic circumstances. I've seen it done time and again - perfectly good apple and pear orchards grubbed out for no sensible purpose. It's not as if the subsidised crops which replace them are any more profitable.'

It is hardly surprising that Mr Temperley has set himself up as a defender of threatened trees. At this time of the year especially, as the harvest pours in, he has apples on the brain. Half his ramshackle farmyard is inundated by a vast, multicoloured pile of fruit, and the smell in his ancient cider shed is enough to knock you down.

Arriving in the new orchard for an inspection this week, he burst into peals of laughter, out of sheer delight. 'Isn't it marvellous]' he cried. 'Isn't it beautiful] How could anyone think of bulldozing something like this?'

I agreed that only philistine lunatics could contemplate such brutality. The trees are 17 years old and in their prime: they should go on producing for another 30 years. They are beautifully set out in arrow-straight rows, above a carpet of velvety turf, from which the fallen apples can be picked up mechanically.

Most of the trees are loaded with fruit - Yarlington Mill apples dark red, Michelin yellow. But the kind that excite Mr Temperley most are Stoke Red, an old bitter-sharp variety, 'brilliant for cider', with slim, greyish leaves like those of a willow. 'I love the look of those trees,' he said fondly. 'You can imagine pigs standing under them.'

Many varieties of cider apple are French, he explained, but several came from Somerset in the first place. Any name with 'Jersey' in it - Chisel Jersey, Harry Masters' Jersey - betrays a West Country origin, as 'jaysey' is the local word for apple.

Mr Temperley claims that Somerset has the best land and the best climate in the world for growing cider apples, and that it is madness not to make the best use of so rare an asset.

'We are the produce of the orchards of Somerset,' he says, in regal fashion. 'We are the apples of Somerset.' He readily concedes that French growers and distillers gave him unstinting help in setting up his new business, but reckons that his brandy is not a copy of Calvados; rather, he says, it is a 'friendly cousin' - smoother, fresher and more appley than its Normandy equivalent.

The juice of this year's harvest, now being crushed, will ferment in vats for at least three months. Some will remain as cider and be sold locally, but the bulk will go on to the distillery. In a building defended like Fort Knox by sundry alarms and 68 locks, two French stills nicknamed Josephine and Fifi will begin work in January, turning out a high-octane spirit about 70 per cent alcohol.

This will then be stored in oak casks for a minimum of three years before blending and dilution start. Several different types of casks are used, including some that have already held sherry, others that have stored bourbon and others that are brand new. The spirit is moved from one to another, as the blenders dictate, and much will depend on their skill.

The present prices - pounds 18 for a whole bottle, pounds 11 for a half - seem no deterrent to sales. Rumour has it that the 1992 bottling - about to be released - is even rounder and smoother than the 1991, and several keen imbibers have put down deposits on bottles of the 10-year-old, which will be ready in the year 2000. According to Mr Temperley, the reason he advertised this was not so much to secure advance orders as to demonstrate that he is making a long-term commitment to his task and 'intends to stick around'. Nevertheless, the number of people who have responded shows what he describes as 'an embar-

rassing amount of confidence in the appeal of Somerset cider

brandy'.

Next Saturday his second vintage will be officially inaugurated by Paddy Ashdown, MP, with a ceremony planned to take place in the newly acquired orchard. One part of the proceedings will be the pouring of a libation round a tree. Just as there is a local tradition that cider makers symbolically return a little of their nectar to the tree, so a potion of fiery spirit will go back to the earth which begot it.

Cynics remark that it may well kill the tree stone dead; but more cheerful punters predict that it will be the first of innumerable such offerings, which will be poured every autumn for generations to come.

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