If you feel that real farmhouse cider can only be made on a farm, by a farmer, then Hartland Cider is for you.
This small family operation is based in North Gloucestershire, about 5 miles south-west of Tewkesbury, in the sort of quiet, smiling countryside of fields and orchards that typifies England's Middle West. I first encountered Hartlands some 7 or 8 years ago, when Bushley Cider closed down and they directed me to their nearest neighbour for my apple-pressing. Flat Farm, on the outskirts of Staunton, was a gaggle of variously-aged buildings; the centrepiece of which was an imposing old stone barn. In here was the cider-making machinery, presided over by one of the most amazing and amusing characters I have ever met.
Ray Hartland (left) looks and sounds as if he has been designed by Central Casting for the part of a West Country farmer in a 1940s Ealing film. Short and stocky, dressed in an old tweed jacket, with a genial red face surmounted by an old cap that I have not yet seen him remove, and with a Gloucesterhire accent you could cut with a hay-knife, he is worth travelling many a mile to meet. During my first visit, a motorist stopped and asked the way to the Haw Bridge Inn.
"You carries on down this road for a couple of mile," said Ray, "through the next village, over the river - and then you stops and turns back, 'cos you've gone too far!" The motorist's face was a picture, and I was in fits.
Cider is in Ray's blood, both by inheritance and consumption. Now 72, he remembers helping to make his first lot of cider at the age of 13.
"The old chap was turning this old scratter (grinder) with two handles, and I said 'I'll help you, Mr Dudfield', but he went a bit fast and the handle knocked me front teeth out!" A stern beginning to the craft, but it didn't put him off.
Ray's father had died when he was 9, so work was necessary from a very early age, and, despite the accident, he spent most of his spare time helping Arthur Strawford, who farmed Flat Farm and later became Ray's father-in-law. In those days cider-making was an important part of local farming operations - it provided a refreshing and nourishing drink for the labourers in the fields and a cash crop for sale - and the Hartlands are still working farmers who make cider.
In September 1994, after 42 years, they were forced to move. By then, much of the running of Hartland Cider had devolved upon Ray's 35-year-old son Dereck. Ray had a life tenancy of Flat Farm from the landlords, Gloucestershire County Council, but when Dereck applied to have the lease transferred to him, it was made clear that he would have to put in a bid with no guarantee of getting it. So the Hartlands bought a farm which rejoices in the rather suburban name of Tirley Villa in an adjoining village, and moved their operations there.
It doesn't have Flat Farm's large and romantic barn but there is a modern house and plenty of outbuildings. Here they produce 5-6,000 gallons of cider a year, and press the fruit of several customers who then ferment the juice themselves. These range from a certain West Berkshire beer writer, who goes away with 25 gallons in polypins and a fund of hilarious experiences, to a local brew-pub which produces a thousand gallons of cider a year from its own orchard.
The Hartlands have about 5 acres of land at their new home, and rent another 16, but they only have one orchard. Consequently Dereck buys ahead, going around the area buying up the crop in the orchards in seven or eight villages, and returning later on ('along of the women', as his father puts it) to pick the fruit. Most of these orchards appear to have been planted to Bulmers's specification some years ago; there are some ancient perry orchards, and some of them are mixed.
While Dereck is enjoying himself with the ladies, Ray stays at home and does the pressing, assisted by his older and less loquacious brother Bill. The apples are minced up in the scratter, to use the local term, and the pulp falls into two half hogsheads. From here bucketfuls are ladled onto the press bed, where cheeses are made of heavy-duty nylon netting lying in a shallow wooden frame. The press is hydraulic and was formerly a paper press.
"When he come here first", said Ray, "there was a doofah on him that tells how much pressure there was, but he went round so fast he frightened me to death, so I took un off!" With or without a doofah - sorry - gauge, the machine exerts enough pressure to squeeze out all the juice, which runs into an old stone trough. From here it is pumped into 6 tall 300 gallon ex-orange juice containers made of black plastic, where it sits for a day or two to allow most of the sludge to settle. After that it goes into 15 more such vessels standing in the barn, where fermentation takes anything up to two months, depending on the weather.
Three ciders are made - sweet, dry, and a medium that is a blend of the two - and a dry perry, all of about 6% ABV. One of Hartlands' ciders won an award at the Big Apple Cider Trials at Putley in 1994, while the perry has triumphed at the GBBF in 1989 and the Norwich Beer Festival in 1994. The perry is a superb drink; rich and tasty and far from being as innocuous as it appears. I know!
For sale the ciders and perry are available in 5 gallon plastic barrels, with a limited amount being distributed by John Hallam of Windsor and Westrays of Staffordshire, but in the farm shop they are dispensed from 100-gallon former sherry butts, at £3.50 per gallon or £3.85 for 5 litres. I asked Ray if these casks impart any taste to the cider when they are new. "I dunno," he replied. "They were new about the same time as I was!"
I suppose it is inevitable that such a richly individual character should fall foul of the bureaucrats that infest our lives these days. Some years ago, Ray infringed the regulations concerning duty-free allowance and was visited by Customs and Excise.
"I asked about my personal consumption", he explained, "and they said, 'How much do you drink?', and I said, 'A gallon a day', and they said, 'Impossible.' After I'd drunk four pints they sort of believed me then!"
"Anyway, I said, 'That'll be 365 gallons a year, but don't forget I shall expect an extra gallon every leap year, mind.' They laughed a bit."
I bet they did!
I look forward to my annual visit to Hartlands with great anticipation. Not just because I get my apples pressed or because I have a chance to sample the wonderful perry, but because of the entertainment Ray provides. He is one of those rare individuals who enjoys life and can make a joke out of almost anything - and carry others along with him. He is a living contradiction of the belief that cider drinkers are sour-natured.
On my visit in November 1993, when the Hartlands were under notice to leave Flat Farm, I took some friends along to share in the fun. While crossing the yard one of the women had the misfortune to put her foot right down past the knee into a post hole which was overgrown with grass and full of slurry. After she was led away to be soothed and sponged down, Ray carried on pressing for a few minutes before observing thoughtfully, "She wun't do that again."
"How do you know?", I enquired.
"Cos we wun't be yur next yer!", he grinned.
Such a man should not have to pay Excise Duty; he should pay Entertainment Tax!
(Sadly, Ray Hartland died in January 1996, and I wrote the following obituary for 'What's Brewing')
Ray Hartland, owner of Hartland's Cider, died of a heart attack on 31 January at the age of 72.
Ray, who is survived by his wife Betty and sons David and Dereck, was one of the most amazing and amusing characters I have ever met, and his death is a sad loss, not just to the world of cider-making, but to all who had ever met him.
That he was well-loved and respected was evident at his funeral on 6 February, when the church of St. Michael and All Angels at Tirley was packed to overflowing with country folk from all walks of life. They had come from great distances in appalling weather to pay their last respects to someone whom the Vicar of Tirley described as 'possessing the rare ability to make a joke out of almost anything in life'.
I wrote at some length about Ray in 'Cider Press' of October last year, and a suitable obituary would be to repeat that - and more. I last saw him just after that, when I went up to Tirley for my annual apple-pressing visit. He was greatly pleased to have been the subject of a feature, and was in his usual jovial form, referring to an incident concerning a post hole full of slurry mentioned at the end of the article.
"How's my girl friend who put her foot down that hole?", he enquired.
"Oh, she's fine", I replied.
"Ah", he said, shaking his head as he ladled another bowlful of apple pulp onto the press. "I never did charge her for the manure she took away!"
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