I was standing looking at an ancient pear tree at Hellens in Herefordshire recently. There was so little left of the hollowed-out trunk that you could have almost stood inside it, yet the branches were still laden with fruit. It was part of an avenue of trees plantedback in 1702 – no, that’s not a misprint – that is still productive enough to make several hundred litres of perry every year.
How is it possible that we are not more excited about this historic drink, a national treasure that has been woefully overlooked? The answer is one word: Babycham, or more accurately five – Babycham and then pear cider. Perry is a drink very few understand (it’s basically cider made from pears), and is made from 100% fruit juice, rather than concentrate, as most pear ciders are.
There are perry orchards dotted all around the country, but its heartland is the so-called “three counties” of Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and, particularly, Herefordshire, an area recognised as a praesidium by Slow Food.
This year has seen a particularly good harvest – perry trees don’t fruit every year – with the ground around each tree carpeted with small, scrubby, green pears that look strangely incongruous considering they have such majestic parents. In fact, that’s how they are harvested: the trees are so tall that they can’t be scaled, so growers (or orchardists, as they’re rather nicely known) have to wait for the fruit to drop, or at least be ripe enough to be shaken off the branches.
And then there are the variety names. I defy anyone not to be carried away by the romance and quirkiness of perry pears – beetroot clows top, hendre huffcap, painted lady, snake pole and zealous wick to name a random few. Some are so rare that they number in single figures- for example, there are only six flakey bark trees in existence, Albert Johnson of Ross on Wye Cider & Perry Company tells me.
The flavours, too, are remarkably varied, depending on the pear type, the degree of sweetness and whether the perry is sparkling or still, as well as on whether or not it is filtered and made with indigenous yeasts (the latter attribute makes perry particularly appealing to a growing fan base of natural wine enthusiasts). Most are modest in alcohol, too, with ABVs higher than 7% very unusual.
The other big reason to drink perry, if you need one, is price. You can buy a bottle of organic sparkling perry from a small independent grower for the same price as a mass-produced prosecco. Bit of a no-brainer, isn’t it?
Five perries you really should try
Once Upon a Tree medium-dry perry
£2.50 (500ml) shop.haygrove-evolution.com and selected Co-ops, 5%. Crisp, fresh, dry perry you’ll enjoy if you’re a white wine drinker. Good first step into the world of perry.
Butford Aurora Premier Crus Hendre Huffcap 2019
£9.70 (750ml) butfordorganics.co.uk, 6.3%. Really stunning varietal organic perry with a delicately sweet pear flavour. Drink instead of champagne.
Flakey Bark SVP 2017
£7.50 (750ml) Scrattings Craft Cider Shop, £10 shop.rosscider.com, 6.8%. A more robust style that you could drink with strongly flavoured meat dishes such as roast lamb. Even stands up to a hot-as-hell curry.
Oliver’s Pet Nat Perry 2019
£9.20 (750ml) oliversciderandperry.co.uk, 6.8%. A perry with a rock’n’roll attitude and a bit of funk – appropriately enough from a former roadie. Perfect for natural wine lovers. Lovely with goat’s cheese.
Newton Court Black Mountain Perry
£8 (750ml) newtoncourtcider.com, 4.2%. Light, fresh, gently fizzy – altogether charming. Why on Earth would you drink prosecco instead?
• For more by Fiona Beckett, go to matchingfoodandwine.com