Words by Lucy Studley
In a modern cidery, ancient elixirs are lovingly bottled.
Fowey Valley may be best-known for their craft cider and small-batch spirits, but for Founder Barrie Gibson there’s another side of the business which is a source of great pride. He is passionate about the meticulous production and sourcing of oils and vinegars, a task which brings together two age-old traditions and 100% natural base-ingredients grown thousands of miles apart. On the one hand you have Fowey Valley’s cider vinegar. Made from the finest West Country apples, this raw, unfiltered product has a heritage which dates back thousands of years. To partner this time-honoured tonic, Barrie made it his mission to source the finest olive oil he could lay his hands on. His search took him in person to the island of Sicily, home of ancient olive groves and an oil of such quality as to provide the perfect companion for his cherished cider vinegar.
Ying and yang taste-wise, olive oil and cider vinegar otherwise have a lot in common. Both are unadulterated pressings of precious crops, with widely acknowledged health benefits. And in both cases, the single ingredient and traditional production method distils a sense of place into every bottle. Like wine, annual harvests of apples and olives vary, so recognisable characteristics of oils and vinegars shift slightly from year to year too. For Barrie in south east Cornwall, it all begins with a quality crop of apples. “In producing our cider, and therefore our cider vinegar, we select traditional West Country apple varieties. Many of these classic cider varieties are grown in ancient orchards, including our own in Golant. Apples have been grown and pressed along the Fowey River since around the 13th century, so cider and cider vinegar production have long been cottage industries here.”
Fowey Valley ciders are made from 100% juice – the process starts with milling the apples and pressing the pomace to extract the juice. Yeast is added and then it slowly ferments. Some will become cider; Fowey Valley produce award-winning Castledore and Vintage ciders. But some too will be allowed to continue fermenting, becoming a powerful, appley potion with a punchy flavour and arresting acidity. “Cider vinegar is undoubtedly the king of vinegars,” says Barrie. “It adds a lovely citrus-style freshness to salad dressings, sauces and marinades. Home cooks and professional chefs alike love using it for the instant uplift and extra flavour dimension it can add to even the most humble of ingredients.”
However, the popularity of cider vinegar these days is as much for its health-giving properties as for its taste. Like all good cider vinegars, Fowey Valley’s is a live product which contains the active enzyme known as ‘the mother’ – a collection of concentrated natural proteins and beneficial bacteria. With the importance of gut health becoming increasingly well-understood in recent years, cider vinegar has been enjoying a renaissance alongside products like kimchi, sauerkraut and kefir. As well as adding it to food to flavour and season, many people swear by their daily imbibe of cider vinegar; simply add two teaspoons to a glass of water – beware, it has a kick!
The purported health benefits include improved digestion, boosting the immune system, lowering blood sugar levels and enhancing the condition of hair, skin and nails. Some people put it to work in homemade beauty treatments too; steaming, cleansing, hair rinsing and foot soaking are all common uses for a few drops of trusty cider vinegar. If this all sounds like just another health fad for a generation obsessed with unearthing the latest superfood or wrinkle-beating ingredient, don’t forget our earlier history lesson. Cider vinegar has been used as a remedy or health elixir since the time of the Babylonians and Ancient Greeks; it may be on-trend for millennials now, but it was de rigueur in the time of Hippocrates too.
To complement this powerfully potent cider vinegar, Barrie needed to find the other half of the equation – the gentle ying to soften the yang. He embarked on a mission to find an olive oil which would match it for quality and provenance. Unbeknownst to him, the answer was already in his gift. Barrie and his wife Geraldine had, for more than thirty years, been visiting family friends in Sicily. The Bua family have been farming the same plot for several generations, and in recent years began to supply champagne corks for Fowey Valley’s Vintage Cider, which is made in the ‘méthode traditionelle’ Champagne style. Barrie discovered that the family olive grove was part of a local group – a kind of cooperative – who clubbed together every year to produce extra virgin olive oil from their own trees.
The Bua farm is in south west Sicily and sits in the Belice Valley near the town of Castelvetrano. The local variety here is almost exclusively the beautiful Nocellara del Belice, which is said to be 2,700 years old. It’s rare to find one variety so dominant in any region, but these olives are so prized that all other varieties are eschewed by the local growers. The olives are characterised by their bright green colour and large, plump size; each olive weighs a whopping 6-8 grams. Nocellera are sold at a premium in supermarkets here in the UK.
Complete ripening of this precious crop usually takes place in December, but the harvest in the Belice Valley is early and starts from the month of October. In order to harvest the olives, nets are cast under the branches, which are then gently shaken to persuade the ancient, gnarled trees to part with their fruit. It’s a process which Barrie and Geraldine have taken part in themselves many times alongside their family friends. The harvest should be pressed as soon as possible, usually within 24hrs. The Bua’s and their neighbours transport the fruit of their labours the short distance to Castelvetrano, where the town press operates non-stop during the harvest. It’s a simple process on a domestic rather than an industrial scale, which demonstrates the great respect Sicilians – and indeed all Mediterranean cultures – have for this most precious crop.
Olive oil is a rarity because the oil comes from the flesh of the fruit; every major edible oil (except avocado) is extracted from the seed. To qualify as ‘extra virgin’ olive oil like Barrie’s Sicilian source, the juice has to be extracted mechanically using traditional processes. It must also meet certain strict purity and quality criteria to attain this gold standard of olive oils, including being taste-tested by a panel of experts. “There’s great excitement in the Belice Valley – shared in many other parts of the Mediterranean I’m sure – when the new season’s olive oil is released,” reminisces Barrie. “Its flavour will be slightly different to the previous year, and there’ll be much discussion about how to best describe the new batch. At that point, any left over from the year before will be consigned to cooking, while only the freshest oil is reserved for drizzling on salads and other dishes.”
The Bua family’s oil is always distinctly fruity, with secondary characteristics of citrus fruits, pepper and light spice notes. It’s also reliably silky and light, and the finish is wonderfully fresh. Notable flavour qualities of recent years include hints of artichokes, green apple, tomatoes and delicate young green almond. After it’s pressed the oil is stored in sealed stainless-steel vats; smaller versions of these air-tight containers are shipped all the way to Barrie in Lostwithiel. It’s gradually bottled by Fowey Valley to ensure freshness. The benefits of the Mediterranean diet are well documented, and show that olive oil is one important element in a style of eating which can reduce the risk of cancer, fight inflammation and promote healthy cholesterol levels. Why not go one better, and combine it with cider vinegar in this simple panzanella recipe? If this doesn’t inspire you to grow your own tomatoes this summer, nothing will.