Extract from Part Eight: Alcohol
Perry Pear - Three Counties, England
If lambic beer is the burgundy of Belgium, then perry is the champagne of England, but it’s another drink that has teetered on the brink of extinction, kept alive by the knowledge and stubbornness of just a handful of people. The story of perry is as much about ancient landscapes, tenacious trees and rare fruit as it is about recipes and craft. If we lose this drink, we will not only lose a source of pleasure but also more of the world’s biodiversity. Just a tiny number of producers are carrying on the tradition of perry making today. One of the best is Tom Oliver.
When I visited him, it was late September and autumn had arrived. Oliver had invited me to spend a day with him collecting fruit and (if we found enough) making perry. My timing was good; after years of holding back, one of the rarest perry pear trees in England, a Coppy, had decided to bear fruit. ‘This single tree is so rare it should be considered a living monument,’ he said. ‘For people in the know... it’s as important as Stonehenge or the pyramids.’ To find it, we drove to an abandoned orchard, the location of which Oliver keeps a secret. In this rural part of Herefordshire, all farmers once kept an orchard or, at the very least, a cluster of apple trees and maybe even a perry pear tree or two, to make their own cider and perry. Most of these orchards had been grubbed up by the 1970s as perry went out of fashion and cider became more industrialised. And so, for years, in his spare time Oliver has explored the county, wandering through fields, knocking on farmers’ doors and checking out abandoned orchards, just in case something special had been left behind. In 2010, he made his ‘once-in-a-lifetime discovery’ in the abandoned orchard we were now standing in… From a distance, I could see the last remaining Coppy in all its monstrous proportions – sixty feet in height and width. As we got closer, I noticed a red-and-yellow- coloured carpet of perry pears spread out on the ground around it. From the branches above there hung thousands of small, red, conker-sized fruit. ‘Imagine the weight of all that,’ Oliver said, looking up at the clusters of pears still on the 250-year-old tree. ‘The only thing capable of killing this tree is itself. One year it’ll produce a crop so big it’ll fall.’
We started picking fruit off the ground. The fact that they had fallen from the branches above was proof enough the fruit was ripe for perry making. It smelt sweet and intoxicating under the canopy, a mix of burnt sugar and heady ethanol. ‘That’s bletting,’ said Oliver, explaining how the sugars in the pears were already breaking down. Bletting is good, rotting is bad, he added, and we were just in time. We gathered the fruit to the steady beat of more ripening pears thudding to the ground from above, birdsong looping around us. It was a dewy morning and the fruit was glistening. An artist would have struggled to capture all the colours and shades. After filling five buckets, my back was aching. ‘Don’t worry,’ Oliver said, ‘it’ll be worth it.'
[Later that day] I helped to crush and press the Coppy pears we had collected in the morning along with sacks of other varieties that grew on Oliver’s farm. By the end of the afternoon, we had filled two barrels. When I returned a year later, we sat down to drink a little of what we had made. ‘Lovely slab of pear in the middle,’ Oliver said as we sipped, ‘like soft velvety wine.’ And at the end of the glass he smiled and said, smacking his lips, ‘That’s it. Chewy.’