Big Apple country

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HEREFORDSHIRE: A trip around the cider orchards proves a way of relaxing and learning for Helen Werin. Pictures by Robin Weaver.

We’re sitting around the table in a bright and cosy Herefordshire farm kitchen. Our daughter Sophie’s on the apple juice from the Dragon Orchard which surrounds us.

We’re on the cider; bottles of it are lined up for our delectation. The bottles are tall, slender and elegant, betraying the winemaking background of their creator Simon Day.

Simon modestly tells us that he wanted to use his skills to “see what he could do” with cider. In his first year he took three first prizes with his bottles of Once Upon A Tree.

He claims that there are no great secrets to winning; “We just happen to have one of the very best orchards providing us with the best quality fruit.”

In Cider With Rosie, Laurie Lee describes that first long secret drink as a boy. He called it “golden fire”. We don’t dare take more than a few sips from each bottle because we’re on the road all day, and the next, following the Cider Trail.

Once Upon A Tree is one of more than a dozen other producers along the route. It’s a relaxing meander around Big Apple country – 9,500 acres (and growing) of orchards which produces more than 63m gallons of cider a year.

It takes us from the foothills of the Malvern Hills, to just below the Marcle Ridge, almost in to Wales and to Hereford where the cathedral even has a cider bible in its chained library.

The ciders have names like Roaring Meg, Making Hay, Autumn Harvest and Putley Gold. Most producers offer orchard walks. Some are ever so slightly more commercial than others and sell local crafts and produce as well.

The most interesting tastings are those from the small producers like former agricultural engineer Paul Stephens, of Newton Court Cidery. We tootle down a country lane, the only other traffic being a few horse-riders and turn in to the farmyard.

In one of the barns is his shop, with shelves of bottles, flagons and five-gallon barrels. The bar, which sells draught cider, perry and scrumpy, is what you might call basic, with hay strewn about the floor.

Certificates and rosettes proclaim first prize for this cider, gold award for that. We wander in to Paul’s 15 acre orchard where cows and sheep graze, amazed that he seems to do an awful lot of the work himself – picking, milling, fermenting and bottling. And it’s not even the peak season for cider-making.

Some of the other producers on our cider route map ask that we ring first to make sure they can be around when we arrive. It’s all very informal and friendly. By the end of the day our boot is rattling with bottles.

We can’t wait to pitch up at our campsite, get the barbecue going and sample a few. Many of our fellow campers at Hereford Camping and Caravanning Club site at Tarrington have come to fish on the lake here, so we have to follow the chinking of real glasses – not plastic, like ours – to find a fellow explorer on the cider trail. He urges us to visit Westons at Much Marcle to get the other side of the cider story. This is a vast, commercial operation turning out 10,000 bottles per hour with its own bottling plant, delivery force and mechanics.

It’s still very much a family business, even after nearly 200 years. Workers are no longer paid a third of their wages in cider though. That was made illegal in 1887, but we’re told that on other farms it continued well after that date.

Can we eat the cider apples? “If you bite into one, believe me, you will spit it right out.”

The ciders are matured, some in enormous oak vessels nearly 200 years old. A couple are called Pip and Squeak. There’s also Darby and Joan, Faith, Hope and Charity, even Donald Duck.

The Cider Museum in Hereford is the old Bulmer’s factory. With hindsight, we should have started our journey here because we get a real feel for how cider-making has evolved over 350 years.

Once it took a day to pick a ton of fruit by hand and some labourers drank nine litres of cider in that time. Now machines with rubber flippers pick 50 tons a day.

At the cathedral we are eager to see the Mappi Mundi, the largest surviving medieval map of the world. The map teems with animals and people, mythological creatures and biblical events. We climb more than 200 steps to the cathedral’s tower. Our panorama takes in Wales, the distinctive Malvern Hills and the Marcle Ridge. I imagine Paul and Simon and the others gearing up for the autumn harvest and all the hard work and excitement that entails.

GETTING THERE

* Non-members are welcome at Hereford Camping and Caravanning Club site, which is open until the end of October. Heated shower block, laundry, shop, fishing, ball games area. Dogs welcome. The Millpond, Little Tarrington, Hereford, HR1 4JA. 01432 890243. www.campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk

* Useful websites: www.visitherefordshire.co.uk; www.ciderroute.co.uk; www.herefordcathedral.org; The Cider Museum 01432 354207; www.cidermuseum.co.uk; Westons Cider, 01531 660108; www.westons-cider.co.uk