Tom Oliver is a man with a passion for perry. He is seriously smitten. “To me, there is nothing more beautiful than the sight of sunlight catching on pear juice as it runs out of the press,” he says. We arrived at his farm in the heart of the Herefordshire countryside on a gloriously sunny September day just in time to see the first pressing of the day, and it was hard to disagree.
Tom is one of a small but growing band of devotees who are reviving this most traditional of English drinks and his enthusiasm is catching. He recently won the ‘Flavours of Herefordshire’ Producer of the Year trophy, an award given to the most outstanding producer of any local food or drink. This is no mean feat considering he was up against stiff competition.
“I was really thrilled to get that recognition,” Tom tells me, “especially as there are so many other people around here who are doing similar things. Farmers are having to diversify to make ends meet and many of them are doing so by turning back to tradition and making some top-quality produce”.
He has been making perry for more than 20 years. “I used to make it with various friends, just for our own consumption,” he says. “I’m passionate about the whole process; I love the orchards, the trees—they have always been part of my life—and think good perry is the most fantastic drink.”
In 1999 Tom decided to go into commercial production and, though the business is still in its infancy, it is starting to flourish.
Perry is to pears what cider is to apples. The earliest reference to an alcoholic drink made with pears was by Pliny, and the Romans are known to have brought a pear-based drink called castormoniale to these shores. Perry is a speciality of The Three Counties (Herefordshire, Worcestershire & Gloucestershire) and reached its heyday in the 17th century, when it was held in the same high esteem as the best French wines. Just as traditionally made cider bears little resemblance to the fizzy, industrially produced ciders most of us are used to, so real perry is a world away from Babycham, its most famous commercial relation.
Tom’s story is an interesting illustration of the changing shape of small-scale British agriculture. His is a classic example of a traditional mixed English farm. The concern has been in his family for 4 generations and hop cultivation used to be its mainstay. It also grew oats, barley and grass to support its small herd of beef cattle and a flock of sheep.
Hops are fundamental to the making of the quintessentially English bitter beers we should all be proud of but, ironically, as demand for real beer has grown in recent years, the market for hops grown in England imploded in the face of cheap imports from China, Eastern Europe, New Zealand and the USA. Similarly, it is apparently cheaper for commercial cider producers to import apple concentrate rather than using the fruit that is available on their doorsteps, so our centuries-old cider apple orchards are now under threat.
20 years ago the Oliver’s farm had 10 employees, but its long-term future was looking precarious. Tom left to work as a sound engineer and tour manager for musicians as diverse as Van Morrison, Elton John and The Proclaimers, a job which supplemented the coffers and also allowed him time off to return to work on the farm at busy times of the year. He still tours with The Proclaimers but is always back for harvest time.
Kate Hawkings is a cook and freelance journalist