Words by Lucy Studley
An artisan cider and spirits producer looks to the future while upholding ancient traditions.
Once upon a time, the Fowey valley was bedecked with apple blossom. It’s an idyllic image, and one which the current generation of cider-makers is keen to preserve in our collective memory. As a historic location in the annals of British cider production, it’s believed that apples have been pressed in barns and outhouses along the river Fowey and its seven tributaries since around the 13th century.
Fast-forward to the Victorian era, and picture the well-to-do ladies and gentlemen who would take special boat trips to marvel at the trees coming into bloom. Just like visitors to Japanese cherry blossom avenues today, only minus the smartphones. These romantic pleasure cruises – tinged with nostalgia for the pre-industrial era – would have meandered past orchards where pigs, chickens and other livestock kept the weeds and grass naturally at bay. Here, the apple wassail would have been a significant annual event, and the following harvest a great communal effort, with apples picked and pressed by hand and everyone rewarded in flagons of heady, apple-scented nectar.
Sadly the south west has lost a huge number of orchards, which were once such an important part of economic and community life, as well as strongholds of environmental biodiversity. As James Waddington of Crafty Nectar explains: “Despite the long history and heritage, Cornwall and Devon are regarded as two of the UKs ‘fallen cider giants’, with both having lost around 90% of their orchards in the last century.”
Today, artisan cider maker and small-batch distiller Fowey Valley are one the few orchards left. Nearly 30 years ago Barrie Gibson and his wife Geraldine began making cider with the fruit of the six trees in their garden, and the harvest brought to them by friends. As a local history enthusiast, Barrie was aware of the importance of cider-making in the area and, like so much else about this enchanting corner of Cornwall, it captured his imagination.
“It was – and still is – a bucolic part of the world, though we sadly have fewer cider presses around now,” says Barrie. Things would have been very different when Daphne Du Maurier’s historical characters inhabited Frenchman’s Creek or Jamaica Inn, or indeed when the fictional Rebecca first arrived at Manderley (Du Maurier lived at Menabilly – a large house near Fowey – for her most prolific writing years).
Like the Du Maurier novels, the Fowey valley was part of the inspiration for The Wind in the Willows – originally a series of letters which Kenneth Grahame wrote to his son as bedtime stories whilst staying at The Fowey Hotel.
Fowey is considered to be the little seaport in the eternally popular tales, the creek at Lerryn is reminiscent of the home of the water vole, and the woods on the shore are thought to be the Wild Wood: ‘Casually, then, and with seeming indifference, the Mole turned his talk to the harvest that was being gathered, the towering wagons and their straining teams, the growing ricks, and the large moon rising over the bare acres dotted with sheaves. He talked of the reddening of the apples around, of the browning of nuts, of jams and preserves and the distilling of cordials; till by easy stages such as these he reached midwinter, its hearty joys and its snug home life, and then he became simply lyrical’
With Mole-like joy in the bountiful local harvest, Barrie and Geraldine began to press by hand the apples they grew and those that they received, paying their willing band of contributors with bottles of cider. Then in 2012, confident that they had fine-tuned the process, they went commercial and established Fowey Valley Cidery in a beautiful orchard in Golant, on the banks of the river Fowey. Working in an old outbuilding, with a small and dedicated team, they took three years to perfect what was to become their flagship product – a champagne-style cider.
The process has increased in scale and professionalism over the years, but the basic concept is the same. Starting with fresh apples only – no commercial concentrate here – Barrie and his team mill the apples into small pieces and press the pomace to extract the juice. This is then pumped into air-tight tanks where yeast is added before being left for about a year to slowly ferment. Some is then bottled as Castledore – a clean, refreshing medium-dry and lightly carbonated cider.
The rest is put into champagne bottles with a small amount of sugar which kickstarts a year-long secondary fermentation. During the third year, the bottles are inverted in racks which the French named ‘pupitres’ and every day or so, they are twisted to encourage the sediment to creep down through the bottle and come to rest on the inside of the crown cap. When that happens, the cap and top of the neck are frozen and the sediment is disgorged, before a small amount of sugar (known as ‘dosage’ in champagne terms) is added to sweeten the cider to Brut level. After a little time to allow for resettling, Fowey Valley’s flagship Vintage Sparkling Cider is ready to enjoy.
Classically dry and with a clean finish, this champagne-style cider makes a great aperitif but is also perfect with light fish dishes and salads. It’s a style which is better known in France, particularly Brittany and Normandy, but it’s growing in popularity in the UK. James Waddington again: “There are a number of small scale and highly passionate artisan producers – of which Fowey Valley is one – who are leading the orchard restoration and artisan cider revival, crafting products such as wild fermented, bottle conditioned and champagne method ciders in exquisite 750ml bottles. This skilful endeavour and craftsmanship is resulting in cider sitting alongside fine wine on the menus of Michelin starred restaurants around the country.”
Another artisan product proudly made by Barrie and his team – Cider Brandy – is also experiencing something of a revival. All of Fowey Valley’s spirits are made from scratch starting with fresh West Country fruit (many gin distillers, for example, buy in a base spirit before adding their own botanicals) which is pressed, fermented and then distilled to produce Eau de Vie. Some of the Eau de Vie is mixed with fresh apple juice to make Pommeau – an apple aperitif. The remainder is put into new American oak barrels, each of which is ‘medium toasted’, meaning that a small fire is lit in each barrel to char the inside ever so slightly.
Fowey Valley Cider Brandy is aged in these barrels for either one or two years, gradually absorbing a mild toasted oak note which mingles with aromas of spice and fruit on the nose, while the palate delivers layers of nuts, molasses and raisins with a hint of liquorice, pepper and clove. With this enticing flavour profile it’s no wonder that it’s particularly popular around Christmas time. Barrie has also perfected other spirits over the years, producing Foy Gin and Vodka – each a masterclass in small-batch distilling.
So, what’s next for this artisan drinks producer, with one foot in the past and the other in the future? “We’ve recently expanded to a new site on the Restormel Estate in Lostwithiel,” says Barrie. “With a wider range of products and greater demand for our cider and spirits than ever before, it didn’t come a moment too soon! We can now let the apples grow in peace back in Golant, whilst we deal with production and cidery guests here. Our approach will remain based on small-batch production and traditional methods, but we’ll have the space and capacity to fulfil more national and international orders.” The new premises houses modern production facilities and a shop stocking the full range of products (informal tastings are available 10am to 4pm, Monday to Friday) including gift hampers.
Visitors to the new Fowey Valley HQ can gain a fascinating insight into the world of hand-crafted cider and spirits with a Cidery Tour or a Cider Making Class, and Gin Classes will be launching soon. Barrie explains: “A lot of people are fascinated by a production process which starts with an apple, and ends with something as complex as our Oak Cask Matured Cider Brandy, or as refined as our Vintage Sparkling Cider. It’s wonderful to be able to offer an insight into these time-honoured processes, and to continue the rich history of cider-making in the Fowey Valley.”