Country Matters: Itsh only shider, but I'll drink to it

Click to follow
CIDER at pounds 5 a bottle? Cider with the cork wired into place, and instructions to watch myself as I release the pressure? Pow] I see what they mean - and, boy, this is a cracking brew. Fermented in the bottle, alive, crisp as a nut, full of fizz, and, with 8 per cent alcohol, it is not much less potent than table wine.

In producing it at his home in Devon, Alex Hill is seeking to demonstrate the truth of his belief that 'the apple is in no way inferior to the grape'. He points out that as long ago as the 17th century, landed gentlemen in Herefordshire and the West Country put much time and effort into the production of good cider: they planted orchards, researched varieties of apple and, when the manufacture of thicker glass enabled them to bottle their cider while it was still fermenting, raised their art to such a pitch that in London some of their products began selling for more than the finest French wine.

In those days, and until the beginning of this century, every farm in Devon had its own apple orchard, and almost every one its own press; everybody made cider, and everybody drank it. But then there set in a long decline; all but about 15 per cent of the orchards were grubbed out, and almost all the individual cider-makers went under. Those that survived were the giants like Bulmer, Gaymer and Taunton Cider - and now, ironically enough, such is the demand that there are not enough English apples to go round. As a result, the big firms import large quantities of concentrated juice from the Continent.

Good as it can be, mass-produced cider has to be pasteurised (to make it keep) and given artificial sparkle by carbonation. This means that it bears the same relation to live cider as keg beer does to real ale - and now a revival in the live stuff has started, as small makers resuscitate ancient traditions.

One of the pioneers was James Lane, of Gospel Green in Sussex; another was Julian Temperley, of Burrow Hill, at Kingsbury Episcopi in Somerset, who makes not only excellent cider but also Somerset cider brandy, a smooth English relation of Calvados. Now comes Alex Hill with an operation of his own run from Bollhayes Park, a little white farmhouse in the hamlet of Clayhidon, just over the border into Devon.

Another glass, fizzing merrily, helps your correspondent recall that Mr Hill was not always a countryman. For 10 years he worked as a motorcycle messenger in London, hurtling round the capital for six months at a stretch, and then taking time off to travel the world. Among his destinations was Hungary, which he liked so much that he kept returning - once on a push- bike, which he rode the whole way from Tooting.

During his travels he spotted a simple wine-press with slatted wooden sides and solid cast-iron base. Back at home, he found so many friends admiring the device that he imported a few,

borrowed his sister's car, looked up wine-making shops in the Yellow Pages, and set off on a tour, during which he sold 12 presses, all from cold calls.

Consulting the Yellow Pages for the country as a whole, he saw that there were 500 wine-making shops in Britain - a real market. He waded into that, only to find the home-brew business collapsing under him. Skilfully restyling his little Hungarian barrels 'fruit presses', for juice-making, he began selling by mail order, using

a room of his house in Brixton as an office, and a railway arch in Battersea for stock.

Then he and his wife, Bee, a social worker, decided to clear out of London and head west. They found Bollhayes - originally a 17th-century Devon longhouse, with cattle living at one end and humans at the other - by opening a map, sticking a pin into Taunton and prescribing a 15- mile circle round it.

They arrived with little more than the aim of living and carrying on their business in more agreeable surroundings; and Mr Hill steadily expanded his trade into many forms of equipment for making and handling cider: barrel taps, pumps from Germany, bottling machines, collapsible bags-in-boxes from France. But once he had settled in cider country he was soon taken with the idea of making the stuff himself.

Don't blame him. This sort of beverage induces a definite glow . . .

To his chagrin, he owns only one acre of apple trees, though he would dearly love to buy more land and plant it. For the time being, in October and November he buys in apples from nearby farmers, who pick up the fallen fruit and deliver it in bags at prices ranging from pounds 70 to pounds 100 a ton, depending on the amount available.

Together with his assistant, Grant Tomkins, he then presses the apples and sets the juice to ferment in vats, in the normal way. In spring, when his eye and nose tell him the moment is ripe, he racks the cider off into barrels, adds a carefully measured amount of sugar and champagne yeast to start secondary fermentation, and bottles the mixture in heavy, champagne-type bottles sealed with crown caps and polythene plugs to keep the contents away from the metal.

The bottles then lie on their sides for at least a year before the remains of the yeast are removed. To do this, the cider-maker dons protective visor, apron and gauntlets for protection against explosions, and shakes each bottle to distribute the yeast evenly, before loading it into a special oak rack. There it lies, slightly down at the head, until the yeast settles; then someone has to give every bottle an eighth or quarter turn once a day, gradually increasing the tilt, until it is standing almost on its head.

After a month or so all the yeast has settled as congealed sludge in the neck of the bottle. This is then frozen by brief immersion in a brine solution chilled to -25C - after which the handler flips off the cap, and internal pressure blows out both plastic plug and sludge, leaving the neck of the bottle clear, ready to be topped up, properly corked and wired.

With the process so labour- intensive, it is not surprising that the end-product costs a good deal. At the moment Mr Hill regards his cider-making as an expensive hobby, but he hopes that in three years it will start to make money.

Sho do I. Whoever shaid that the grapple was inferior to the ape? Not me, I can assure you. After all, thish is only shider. Or izzhit? Could be champagne. For Bollhayes read Bollinger. In any case, shtand back while I addresh myshelf to the cork on another flagon.