Quatermass and the Mothers Ruin of Invention

gin, drinks, Foxtail gin, spirit, Summerhouse Studios, David Broadbent Photography,
Foxtail Gin

In the back of a house in deepest Herefordshire there is a small room with a small but ominous looking 22nd century modern day equivalent of the machine age that Professor Bernard Quatermass himself would be in awe of. It sits on a laboratory bench quietly and seemingly innocuous but, once awake it starts to bubble, heat, cool and drip all at the same time using the power of it’s bluetooth brain, the sum of its work far exceeding the value of its individual parts.

gin, drinks, Foxtail gin, spirit, Summerhouse Studios, David Broadbent Photography,

When a scientist and an auditor make gin together, this is what it looks like. The mechanics and the science of distillation are well understood by this couple, Ross and Leigh, who share an analytical background and a love of gin. The creation of the essential parts of gin making are therefore easily and repeatably obtained and stored beside the Quatermass machine by them. But that is just the thing with gin as any Victorian Mother worth her sorry salt would have told you – making gin is easy, making good gin, that’s the tough part.

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The Machine

Ross and Leigh are the team couple behind this newest of gin makers. For a hobby Ross is an extreme runner which seems odd because in every other respect he seems like a sensible and level-headed fella. Leigh, is the shy and retiring one who prefers to tend to the garden where many of the botanical ingredients come from and dream up ever more inventive botanicals. You definitely get the the feeling that somewhere near the lab there is a secret chalkboard full of equations…

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Ross of Foxtail Gin

If this were all it took to make great gin then everyone would be doing it. But it is far more complicated than that. Things that you think would add great and unusual flavours when you find them don’t always translate in the distillation process and some things, you imagine routine and ordinary, knock your socks off in the distillate! It gets even more complicated when you start on the ruinous path of the dark art of blending for this is where the mystery exists. This is where the passion, the experience and the vision becomes reality.

There is no such thing as a short conversation with an expert or an enthusiast and Ross and Leigh are both. Ross waxes lyrical on the process of gin production and their story of how they got here is a fascinating one. All of this delivered in the soft Dublin brogue that tends to make everything seem grand.

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Foxtail Gin

The recent explosion in UK gin making is due in large part to the case of Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs v Sipsmiths.

Sipsmiths of London forged the way for small craft distillers in the UK and, perhaps unknowingly at the time, were instrumental in giving birth to the small-scale gin making industry. HMRC, with a waft of a derogatory hand, assessed this nascent distillery as nothing more than a “moonshine” producer. HMRC where up to that point used only to dealing with large conglomerate distillers, a very convenient situation indeed for both an easy life and tight control on the market and its revenue. They saw this small London operation as a threat and far too time consuming and troublesome to waste their time with. I wonder if those mandarins are still in a job as Sipsmiths slowly took over the London gin scene?

gin, drinks, Foxtail gin, spirit, Summerhouse Studios, David Broadbent Photography,
Foxtail Gin

It took a change in legislation to achieve the granting of their licence in 2009 and nothing was ever the same again. Only a year before our own Chase Distillery had been denied a licence initially which forced them down the road of developing a much bigger operation.

But the renaissance of gin making has opened our eyes to the potential quality of this delightful and refreshing tipple. None more so than in the hands of Ross and Leigh. Their own gin collection (kept only for reference of course) has the volume capacity to keep a London borough of mothers ruined for a long time alone. But it’s what the two gin geniuses do next that is so exciting. They are creative in their blending. Don’t mistake this for random. The blending process is just as scientifically documented as everything else they do but whilst they document their experiments – they do experiment.

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Rosa Gertrude Jekyll – Foxtail Gin

For example, inspiration came from the famous rose – Gertrude Jekyll – just outside the distillery door and so the petals of this legendary rose are now distilled into a jar in the laboratory shelf.

With three gins currently in the product range, nostalgia drove my first tasting choice inevitably to Rhubarb & Custard. I tasted neat gin first to savour the complex flavours and then with just a splash of a good quality tonic such as Fever Tree (a small amount of tonic will develop and enhance the flavours). And there I was, sat back down at my Nan’s kitchen table with my favourite pudding!! So good we put our money where our keyboard is and bought a bottle on the spot! The other two – Premium and Thai inspired are none too shabby either!

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Foxtail Gin with frozen rhubarb ice cubes

With plans for gin tasting days and gin making courses this quiet backwater of the Herefordshire countryside will be a little better known in future.

To find out more about what Ross and Leigh get up to in the “lab” or to book your own gin experience visit their website and follow them on Facebook.

http://foxtaildistillery.co.uk/contact/

https://www.facebook.com/foxtailgin/

gin, drinks, Foxtail gin, spirit, Summerhouse Studios, David Broadbent Photography,
Foxtail Gin

Gin Guild map https://www.theginguild.com/interactive-gin-distilleries-map/

The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire” – Winston Churchill

Stockists

Woods of Whitchurch

https://www.facebook.com/woodsofwhitchurch/

5th CAMRA Gloucester Beer & Cider Festival – Blackfriars Priory.

beer, festival, craft, ale, beer, cider, perry, blackfriars, wyedeandeliconfidential, david broadbent photography,

 

Amidst the background buzz of the conversation of friends and fellow beer and cider enthusiasts alike, the names of quality craft ale and ciders from great small producers punctuated the hubbub like little siren calls in the glorious afternoon sunshine. These sirens shouts popped out of the hum filling the square and rooms of the festival like echoes as those lucky people drinking great craft ale and cider mulled over the taste and colour of the cup presently under consumption.

beer, festival, craft, ale, beer, cider, perry, blackfriars, wyedeandeliconfidential, david broadbent photography,
Ready to go at Blackfriars Priory.

There cannot be a grander, more historic place to hold a festival to celebrate the great taste of craft beers and cider. Where once the harmonic utterings of Dominican friars echoed around the ancient quadrangle – now lovers of beer and cider, studied the form of the festival card. Some with a plan of just which beers they hoped to sample in half or third measures and some with a more randomised approach.

beer, festival, craft, ale, beer, cider, perry, blackfriars, wyedeandeliconfidential, david broadbent photography,
Runners and Riders. 5th CAMRA Gloucester Beer and Cider Festival, Blackfriars Priory.

Good beer and good conversation are made for each other. Beers were sipped and sampled, occasionally exchanged for taste, held skyward for  comparison of their amber hues now illuminated in the bright blue of the glorious city centre Friday. The combination of the buzz and the wonderful acoustics of the priory square filtered out just about all noise from the city that is wrapped around this ancient monument.

beer, festival, craft, ale, beer, cider, perry, blackfriars, wyedeandeliconfidential, david broadbent photography,
Early Doors on Day One. 5th CAMRA Gloucester Beer and Cider Festival, Blackfriars Priory.

It’s a true oasis in Gloucester city life insulated from the noise and traffic smell of the workday commuting. Friday welcomes many local CAMRA members and beer lovers from further afield. Many locals had used their GL residents cards to proudly claim the discounts on offer but all were glad to be back in the Cathedral to Beer now in its fifth year and fast becoming part of the history of the city itself.

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Stag Day starter. 5th CAMRA Gloucester Beer and Cider Festival, Blackfriars Priory.

Wye Valley Brewery were one of the the main event sponsors bringing the fabulous Lady Marmalade, Daisy Duke and their HPA, Chepstow’s Baa Brewery where there with a best bitter and , in this anniversary period of the crossings,  Two Bridges. The great forest brewer, Hillside were here of course with a couple of light beers, HCL and a new brew Don’t Stop.

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Basking in the Spring sunshine. 5th CAMRA Gloucester Beer and Cider Festival, Blackfriars Priory.

The chosen charity for the event this year was the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge and their events manager David was on hand to tell everyone about the charity but with strict instructions not to sign up any new members under the influence. That would have been a good  night wouldn’t it, to wake in the fug from the night before only to realise that somehow, you had become a member! It’s a great charity, with a great restaurant incidentally, and very close to our hearts so well done Gloucester Beer & Cider Festival.

Spring sunshine at the 5th CAMRA Gloucester Beer and Cider Festival historic Blackfriars Priory.

Beer festivals aren’t a headlong dash into oblivion and debauchery. They are an appreciation and days of revelry mixed with self-education and shared passions, particularly Fridays, which seems to attract many more CAMRA members. Here there is a like-minded convivial group with whom to shared passions for the craft of beer and cider and the industry and skill of small producers across the country.

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Ten deep at the bar. 5th CAMRA Gloucester Beer and Cider Festival, Blackfriars Priory.

Whatever their style all sampled and tasted a fabulous range from Porter through session to light craft beers by breweries such as…….For lovers of the apple, great names and great ciders abounded. Many single varieties were in evidence like Gwatkins’ Yarlington Mill and Weston’s with County Perry.

Visitors ranged from far and wide. Many travelling in by train or with designated driver from the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley and
even a large group from the states visiting Gloucestershire for the first time had heard about the festival and called to check it out and sample the beers on offer.

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5th CAMRA Gloucester Beer and Cider Festival, Blackfriars Priory.

Those in need of sustenance had burgers and hotdogs available in the quadrangle and a really well stocked cheese bar in the refectory. Well stocked and well-chosen with some great local cheeses on offer including our own favourite Charles Martell Gloucester. Accompaniments included chutney and celery and fabulous pickled eggs made near Stroud.

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Dinosaur eggs for sale with cheese. 5th CAMRA Gloucester Beer and Cider Festival, Blackfriars Priory.

Finally some post-match stats for you hot off the press from the organisers. Over 1700 people attended over the two days, with 90 and 92% sales on beer and Cider/Perry respectively – a great success for a great event!

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5th CAMRA Gloucester Beer and Cider Festival, Blackfriars Priory.

Voting for best beers went as follows: IN reverse order ladies and gentleman, boys and girls in third place Imperial Porter. In second place Millionaire Stout and the winner of Best Beer of the Festival went to Stouty McStoutface from Mad Dog Brewing in Monmouthshire.

All three winners being dark stouts and porters (we started the day with half of Old Moor Porter from Acorn Brewing) is a really interesting indication of where the craft beer market is going.

It’s research Jim, but not as we know it: 

Read our previous article on the event here

Watch our time-lapse of the set up here

http://www.gloucesterbeerfestival.org.uk/

Twitter @GlosBeerFest

Beer Festival Facebook page

The Monmouthshire Food Festival 2017

 

Food Festivals are great fun and, quite rightly, big and very good news. Especially in this fabulous area in which we live, stuffed full as it is with great produce, makers and eateries. So don’t miss The Monmouthshire Food Festival on 20th to 21st May 2017 at Caldicot Castle. Monmouthshire has some outstanding producers and makers (many of which have featured in this magazine) and so The Monmouthshire Food Festival is definitely an unmissable food event. There’s a full programme of demonstrations, talks, tastings and lots of food and drink to try and buy.

The Chef’s Theatre always features many of the finest chefs from across Monmouthshire. They will showcase the finest food the county has to offer in dishes that show both flair and imagination, a positive treat for the taste buds. The Look and Learn Theatre features master classes, tutored tastings and demonstrations on a wide range of food and drinks. Meet the people who really know about the food on offer, the producers.

Bring the kids too. The Children’s Quarter will have lots of activities for our young foodies to enjoy with one or two surprises! Browse the Producers Market which will have stalls with many different products to try and buy. Come and taste beer brewed just a mile from the festival or take home locally made preserves made from foraged fruit.

 

This year the supported charity Guides Dogs for the Blind. Staff and dogs from the charity will be on hand offering visitors a chance to get up close to a guide dog or puppy and find out more about their vital work – and of course help out with a small donation. So don’t miss this event. A food event packed with great tasting food, top tips and help with “how to” sessions it’s going to be fab! All set in the glorious surroundings of Caldicot Castle and grounds.

How about a family picnic in the glorious Caldicot Castle Country Park with delicious food and drink from the food festival? So why not take an empty picnic basket with you and buy your picnic at the show, find yourself a great spot in the castel grounds and dine like Lords and Ladies?  

 

The Queens Head Micro pub, Chepstow

Queens Head micro pub
Lights back on at the Queens Head

 

On the face of it the last thing Chepstow needed a couple of years go in the high street economic climate of the day was another pub. Why then is Glen Ellis’ Queens Heads micropub on Moor Street in this quiet border town, still going strong?

In an age when reality TV delivers anything but reality, people have become jaundiced by tripe served as prime beef steak. This group of people, who are largely immune to advertising, are known by the red spectacle wearing advertising crowd, as the Millennial Generation. Traditional methods of advertising conjury don’t work on this group – a phenomenon so worrying to TV market traders that actual scientific research has been done into this disconcerting group. They are sometimes defined as “native digital” (Forbes magazine) and the first generation to have grown up with digital communication and social media rather than mainstream media. But, whatever age you are, you may be one of them.

People don’t change and they know genuine when they see it. And you could never accuse this great little pub tucked into the row just above the town gate and next to the Police Station of being anything other than good and honest! Walk into the single room bar and it feels like a pub. The wooden bar, tables and seats have the homely warm glow that only good old solid wood can offer, a rough timber post props up the roof while a ramshackle shelf, just about, holds thick tomes on craft beer. The timber floor leads to a decoratively carved bar and the bare stone walls are decorated in beer mats and other treatise to drink good beer. The pub strap line is the famous Hunter S. Thompson quote “Good people drink good beer” – I thank you.

Queens Head micro pub
Queens Head micropub

There’s a good reason for all this architectural pub bonhomie. It’s in the building DNA.  It was The Queen’s Head for many years but was closed as a pub for about 20 years (it had a midlife crisis and became a hairdresser, clothes shop and an office in the intervening years). Glen found it on the property website Rightmove and fell in love with it and the town of Chepstow. Having secured the change of use back to a pub he has just sort of revived it in a way, brought it back to life with a real ale defibrillator in a craft beer paramedic kind of a way. The bar is actually an old church altar, Glen purchased before ever finding an actual venue for his dream micro pub.  The carving IHS in the middle stands for the first 3 letters of Jesus’ name in Greek. The Alpha symbol on the left stands for the first, and the Omega symbol on the right for the last. So, ladies and gentlemen, please step up to the altar of great Welsh beer.

Queens Head micro pub
Queens Head micropub

In many ways what you see today is the manifestation of Glen’s lifelong dream. Now 34 years old and married to Catherine with a 9 month old daughter called Ivy, Glen has worked in pubs since university days. Back in the day when you could choose how you spent the student grant, Glen invested very wisely in an appreciation of good beer and he’s had – important word here – passion for Real Ale ever since.  After university Glen worked at his mum and dads (The Tower Hotel in Talgarth), running the public bar for them which is where all of that academic research became practical experience and customer service.

Don’t get the idea that this is some sort of beardy man cave though. This is a pub for all, young old, couples, workers – all are welcome and the common denominator is that they like a proper pub for proper people who like their beer to be interesting and taste of something. We chatted to Jon at the bar during “early doors” on Friday. He owns Toytastic the toyshop nearby and calls in for a pint after work. OK, he has got a beard, but otherwise he’s largely normal and very charming. Mike runs Trans Wales Trails, horseback trail riding based near Pengenffordd at the foot of the Black Mountains. He is a regular customer in my Mum and Dads pub at Talgarth where Glen learned his trade craft in working a bar. Mike always calls in on his occasional visits to Chepstow from the hills above Pengenffordd .There’s a northern saying that you can’t stand in a pub there for more than a minute without someone talking to you. At the Queens Head – make that a few seconds and after a few seconds more the regulars will also be congratulating you on your discerning choice of hostelry and telling you what a great pub this is.

Queens Head micropub
Queens Head micropub

Generally and not unreasonably being situated in Wales, Glen offers a wide and ever changing range of beers and ciders from the home nation. He’s a bit of an authority on small Welsh beers in fact and something of an almanac on the breweries they are made in. There’s a “when it’s gone, it’s changed” approach to stock and the result is a roving travelogue of Welsh craft beer, ably assisted and illustrated by a chalk board map of Wales hanging on the wall. It’s not all about Welsh beer though and when the context allows – like the Six Nations Rugby you’ll find suitably partisan guest beers from your own backyard.

There is of course good beer and cider, a warm and genuine welcome from a knowledgeable and enthusiastic landlord and great Welsh beers. But, there is something here that not all pubs have got. There was good conversation at the bar with nice and interesting people. You could hear what was being said because there’s no “musak” or escalating irritating digital pings or distracting light show from a Tardis in the corner offering Las Vegas style riches at the pull of a handle.

Queens Head micro pub
Queens Head micro pub

There are difficult choices of where to start given the range of beers on offer. You could of course go the logical/analytical route and start on the left working your way across during the night or, more responsibly, you could opt for the Queens Head beer tapas. Tapas (sampling the beers in third of pint measures) will be familiar to anyone who has been to a big beer festival, like the upcoming CAMRA Gloucester event (article coming soon). It helps you sample several new beers, without turning the evening into a train wreck. We tried Grey Trees’ JPR, a very nice IPA beer from the Cynon Valley of South Wales (Cynon Valley lies between Rhondda and the Merthyr Valley).

In Italy all bars offer “Aperitvo” to the early evening crowd, often vying with neighbouring bars for the reputation of the best or tastiest. It’s just a complimentary selection of tasty nibbles to go with a few drinks after work. It suits the Italian psyche of food at every opportunity, enjoyment, talking and above all – welcome. The Queens Head does it Gwent style with short dated food on the “offers” shelf from Marks & Spencer’s across the road – plump and tasty sausage rolls the night we were in!

Queens Head micro pub
Queens Head micro pub

When the new M & S opened about a year ago, regulars from the pub started doing their bit to reduce the food waste mountain by bringing in reduced price bargains to share out amongst the other patrons. Thus, the Yellow Label Club was born. In the Queens, as all over Italy, competition has set in and the goal to find the item with the greatest reduction is now a grudge match. Currently in the lead is another Mike who found a Banquet Pie reduced from £25 to £2.50.

There is a movement to “Save our Pubs”, a fine cause and never a more relevant sentiment than now. You can do your bit too – by drinking in them! Occasional aperitivo is one other way the Queens rolls out the welcome carpet. Saving pubs is important because we are only just now realising that the plight of all those great pubs, now gone, was a litmus, a precursor to what’s now happening in our high streets.

Queens Head micro pub
Queens Head micro pub

Going for a beer is many things. Going for a quick beer after work is a specific thing. It’s an opportunity to unwind and put the working day behind you before going home to family. Psychologists would say that it’s a chance for the brain to compartmentalise whatever has happened in the day as “work”, provide a clear separation between work and home and also to stop you boring the pants off the family with tales of the widget you made today that mysteriously appeared with the face of Jesus on it.

Queens Head micro pub
Queens Head micro pub

Perhaps though the Millennial Generation should be redefined? Perhaps they are in realty just a group of cross-generational discerning men and women who use their powers of research to seek out places like the Queens Head they heard about on the grapevine, who don’t need the hype but instead rely on their own ability to go there and use their eyes and quality of judgement to recognize the real deal when they see it.

Queens Head micropub
Queens Head micropub

We’ll be writing all of our Grand Tour Wye Valley postcards from here in the future…..

Head over to Glen’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/queensheadchepstow/ and hit the “Like” button to support the pub. If you are part of the Twitterati – you’ll need this  @QueensChepstow you know what to do.

12 Moor Street, Chepstow. Call 07793 889613

Finest Hour

 

Walk amongst the living remnants of history to enjoy the Great British craft beer and cider of today.

 

beer, craft beer, Finest Hour, Hillside Brewery, David Broadbent Photography, Summerhouse Studios,
Hillside Breweries craft special beer “Finest Hour” in support of the Royal British Legion to be launched at Gloucester Beer Festival.

Beer o’clock comes around awful soon doesn’t it? Yes it’s time to again to say “all hail to the ale” at the Gloucester city centre hidden historical secret – it’s the Gloucester Beer and Cider Festival at Blackfriars Priory on 22nd to 23rd April organised by Gloucester CAMRA.

This cathedral to the art of craft ale and cider making will once again open its hallowed doors of the cavernous hall and welcome beer fans from across the county and indeed the country. We visited last year and had a great time. The live music was good, the atmosphere was wonderful and it was nice to chat to the festival goers and absorb all that beer appreciation and chilled out vibe this festival always promotes.

The sad news is that Hillside Breweries “Anzac” the craft special brewed in support of the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal for last year’s event   is no more. Personally, I think that’s a shame since I loved it so much and always came home with a few whenever I was passing the Hillside Brewery shop at the Longhope hilltop redoubt. You never know what the future holds though – so there is always hope.

Lots of good news though in that the same great organisation (Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal) is the charity beneficiary again this year, and that Hillside have done it again and made another very tasty beer for the event. A little less ABV (3.6%) for this one to sit it firmly into the session beer category – we give you, Hillsides “Finest Hour”, ta da.

Hillsides impressive and decidedly upmarket new labels now also list the hops used in each brew. Hops, which is some case are completely new and could even be called experimental, all sourced from their usual long standing hop grower. Jester, Olicana and First Gold in Finest hour to give it a very pleaseant and subtle note with those hints of the tropical again for the more discerning nose. The symbol of the Poppy Appeal is also proudly displayed on the label so that too is a refreshing change to some of the PC and very weak excuses we hear for the bland nowadays. We? Well we just loved the taste and we think it’s going to be a real hit at the festival and beyond!

Honestly if you’ve never been to the festival before you are missing a real treat. If you like to weave in and out of very local people looking upward with their mouths open proclaiming that they “never knew this was here” you’ll realise just what a hidden treasure Blackfriars is (see our article on last years event). If you appreciate sampling the wealth of craft beers and cider available as an explosive reaction to the mass produced mega-brewery fayre this is the place to be. Or if you just fancy a nice afternoon in the city, chilling out with friends and a couple of beers, then fill your boots – you are going to love it and make space in your calendar for future events.

 

Links

http://www.gloucesterbeerfestival.org.uk/

http://www.hillsidebrewery.com/

Provisional beer list as at 26th March is here http://www.gloucesterbeerfestival.org.uk/index.php/real-ale/ales/

Twitter feed for the festival @GlosBeerFest

Wassailing Again

Pete Symonds, The Butler, David Broadbent Photography, apple, cider, wassail,
Pete Symonds as The Butler

Forest of Dean legend Pete Symonds has finally hung up his wassailing top hat and waistcoat and handed the baton to his successor. For many years Pete has performed the role of Butler at wassailing’s all over the Forest of Dean and beyond. From Twelfth Night onwards his “master of ceremonies” confident baritone voice could be heard ringing around the counties orchards and apple barns. Wishing everyone “Wassail!!” and educating as many of us as possible in the process. But all great things change and Pete is moving on. There couldn’t have been a better bookend to our recent Wassailing piece at Apple County Cider’s Monmouthshire orchards.

In the foulest of weathers well and truly off the Beaufort scale, Pete’s bonhomie was sorely needed for the hardy bunch who had braved the winds and the stair-rod rain of storm Imogen. The resultant flooding which had turned the valley road into a lake and the inclined road to Ragmans Lane Farm into a mountain stream that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Iceland! But brave it the bunch did to see Pete on his Butler’s best form for his last ever wassailing.

Pete Symonds, The Butler, David Broadbent Photography, apple, cider, wassail,

Ragmans Lane Farm is a 60 acre site around a cluster of farmhouse and outbuildings. It is a beacon of permaculture farming training as well as offering a myriad of complimentary agricultural courses. Matt Dunwell, who has owned and run the farm since 1990 had (in the circumstances) set aside the Mushroom Shed for an indoor ceremony – much to everyone’s relief.  Once inside the Mushroom Shed, all the visitors began to overheat under the many layers they had assumed necessary and quickly started shedding outer layers of fleece and down jackets before hanging them on the rack by the door. From the other side of the room the sweet smell of mulled Ragmans apple juice wafted from stove top pots and there was a jug of Kingstone Black cider on hand to fuel the crowd and prime Ragmans own wassailing bowl. In the centre of the shed was an apple tree in a pot. The very healthy looking sapling was very nicely decorated by Matt’s team, who had also provided straw bale seating around the edge of the room, but it was nevertheless an anti-climax.

Pete Symonds, The Butler, David Broadbent Photography, apple, cider, wassail,
Ragmans apples

Don’t misunderstand; the crowd were in good spirits. Pete was imparting about 0.01% of his local knowledge to a couple sipping on Kingstone Black transfixed by his enthusiasm and .com-like access to anything anyone ever wanted to know about wassailing, apples, cider, orchards……Really, someone should record Pete Symonds!

The folk music track of The Life of Riley band of Morris and Penny (the latter being, Pete’s accomplished and now blooded successor) set the scene against the chatting crowd, waiting for proceedings to begin. Impatient for action, the kids had already started and were careering around the cider apple tree centrepiece in a dizzying blur. Matt suggested that we all brave the weather for the traditional orchard procession. Cue furtive glances out of the windows and door and he didn’t, let’s say, have the most enthusiastic take up. But with overwhelming enthusiasm, and his offer of wellingtons to anyone without, the crowd had nowhere to go but the orchard.

Pete Symonds, The Butler, David Broadbent Photography, apple, cider, wassail,

Just what it all needed really. Although now wet and windswept the assembled “good healthers” exhaled their collective sighs relief at being out of the storm and the rest of the ceremony continued in the welcome warm and dry.  Good music, lots of singing, party poppers (to represent the traditional shotgun noise), adorning the tree with toast, all handed out by the wassailing “fair maiden” and the blessing for the health and wealth of the orchard for the coming year and the ceremony was bought to a close so that the Ceilidh could begin.

Bringing the wassailing year to a close, and in a final personal and heartfelt thanks, Matt paid tribute to Pete Symonds’ contribution to the Ragmans harvest and ethos in the many wassails conducted at the farm. There were attempts to get him to commit to one last year, but to me he did not look like he was going to budge on retirement.

And the anti-climactic sapling – well that will takes its place in the orchard planted in Pete’s honour as a thank you.

Pete Symonds, The Butler, David Broadbent Photography, apple, cider, wassail,

Wassail!!

wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,

 

Lots of fun being invited to the very first Apple County Cider wassail ceremony at the cider orchards at Newcastle in Monmouthshire at the weekend. For this inaugural event, there was a modest but very enthusiastic crowd too on a cold, but stunningly beautiful, Monmouthshire day. Just a short walk from the roadside car parking and we were into the orchard proper. Stark and bare at this time of year the orchard was mid-winter prune but the mistletoe was on full power with bright white gelatinous berries glinting in the afternoon sun.

 wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,
Penny Plowden. The Butler. Wassail with Apple County Cider

Wassailing is a one of those fabulous pagan ceremonies that date back thousands of years. The name Wassail is thought to originate either from the old Norse Scandinavian language “Ves heil” or the old English “Was hal” in either case a hearty toast to good health. Mix in a little bit of medieval German drinking tradition and, well anyway you get the picture…Fabulous English pagan tradition that Christianity (like so many of our other traditional ceremonies) put up with, adopted and adapted.

 wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,
Dogs can Wassail too.

Wassailing is a ceremony to wake up the trees from their long winter snooze and to give them life and vigour just as spring is about to spring (very early as it happens this year). Actually, the history of it is far more complicated than that it would seem  with any number of geographical variations. Wassail, is more accurately, the name for hot mulled cider drink which accompanies the festivities and Ben & Steph Culpin had a large pot of their cider on the burner with their secret mulling recipe on a gentle simmer. The smell of the mulled cider on the breeze was just fantastic.

 wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,
Wassail with Apple County Cider

No pagan tradition seems complete without a tipple or indeed music, singing and generally being pretty hopeful that, you, having a good time and paying respect to nature will pay off with a bumper harvest. You start to see the attraction of paganism….? On accordion the magnificently bearded Morris Wintle played some lovely traditional music and with him (as Life of Riley folk band partner), Penny Plowden, in her own very first act of, master of ceremony of the wassail, led the singing and read the traditional wassail texts. Dressed in her black school teachers gown and blazer with top hat decorated with ribbon and of course, the traditional black face (no-one seems sure why, but probably just a notional “disguise”).

 wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,
Wassail with Apple County Cider

And so, what could be nicer than a couple of hours outdoors in a fabulous orchard, drinking mulled cider, respecting tradition and having some exercise with a processional walk around the orchard behind the band. We wished everyone “good health” and drank a tipple to, hopefully, a great harvest and another great year for this young but fast becoming famous Welsh craft cider maker.

 wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,
Wassail with Apple County Cider

The band and the crowd moved on to The Bell at Skenfrith where to the musical score provided by the Life of Reilly in Ceilidh music and dancing mode the pagan well-wishers dined on confit belly pork, mash and cider jus or roasted sweet potato, apple, chestnut and blue cheese pie followed by apple crumble or apple tarte tatin.

 wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,
Cider maker Ben Culpin. Wassail with Apple County Cider

An Inn Reborn

A40, The Crown at Whitchurch, David Broadbent Photography
The Crown at Whitchurch

 

We’ve been very busy conducting some investigative journalism in the Dean Wye lately. We’ve been looking at pubs! We’ve got some great articles with a very different slant lined up for you this year including our quest for our favourite and very best pub!

All in this very good cause, we called in for a chat with the new owners of the Crown at Whitchurch. You’ll have noticed if you have passed by recently that they have a jazzy new sign in the car park and a sparkling paint job to the exterior. This though is no, superficial facelift. There is serious change afoot in The Crown at Whitchurch and this is just the start of bringing a traditional coaching inn back to its former glory.

Coaching Inns have been around ever since people starting moving around. A place to stage a long journey and relax, get something to eat and drink, recharge those batteries, chat to fellow travellers and smell the sweet malt and hops from the on-site brewery in the sheds out back. Coaching inns existed because of the road and when journeys were long and arduous, the road needed the coaching inn. So useful was the concept that small communities started to build up around them. No Roman way station on the least travelled backwater road would be without one!

When we started to move the roads because we needed bigger high capacity highways two things happened; the vital importance and the necessity of the coaching inn was retained and service stations where born, which we all know serve only the best quality food with great service and at a very reasonable price……Mmmmm; The second was that all those lovely old traditional wayside inns were left stranded, beached like ocean going vessels when the tide had gone out, along way, and for good. Those with a village live on, but those without – who knows how many we’ve lost.

A40, The Crown at Whitchurch, David Broadbent Photography
Comfy and inviting bar. The Crown at Whitchurch

Walk into The Crown at Whitchurch and you get an instant feeling of homeliness. In fact before you get in, that feeling starts. Its position, which would have dominated the old village cross roads, looks imposing and no less so today, even with the A40 traffic whizzing by. Outside under the veranda red and black chequer laid tiles hint at a Victorian innovation, the steel table and chairs cast interesting shadows in the low winter sun and the main door has that solid weight of history hanging off the hinges. Once inside the interior is surprisingly open plan, yet still very intimate, the bright and well stocked bar to the right isn’t the thing which catches your eye first, it’s the sexy Swedish log burner glowing attractively in the heath. Around it there is a shabby chic mismatch of furniture, comfortable and upholstered on a pleasing theme. A draughts board is set out ready for play on a small table below a small window and it’s invitingly snug cushion. The large window fills the bar with light and the bar itself glitters with Wye Valley Brewery beers and a chic stage-lit spirits collection – we can hear the cocktail shaker now!

Wye Valley Brewery ales. The Crown at Whitchurch, David Broadbent Photography
Wye Valley Brewery ales. The Crown at Whitchurch

To the left, the very simple and very pleasant restaurant again with an eclectic collection of tables, chairs and tableware, awaits seated diners, although this is set for refurbishment before Easter.

A40, The Crown at Whitchurch, David Broadbent Photography
Very inviting. The Crown at Whitchurch

And so just how do you breathe life back into a coaching house? Step one; have a lot of passion about it. Step two; have a vision. Three: get a good team behind you who share your passion. Nicola and Tom do not lack passion for the place! And so has the team. They already know most of them well because most of them are family, no we actually mean family. Apart from Nicola and Tom, there is Samara (daughter) as front of house manager and so it goes on, Tom’s brother and niece, Nicola’s son and other daughter and a niece on patisserie! We not even sure that’s all of them!

A40, The Crown at Whitchurch, David Broadbent Photography
The Crown at Whitchurch

Back to what’s happening for 2016. As we’ve said the bar sparkles with the glittering hand pumps of Wye Valley Brewery Butty Bach and Dorothy Goodbody as well as locally made ciders and all the components of a great cocktail bar on the back. The main craft ales are feature beers and so change regularly – always worth a re-visit then. At the moment food is great pub food but Nicola tells us that Owain Jones, their 25 year old Welsh but South African classically trained chef is chaffing at the bit to do more. It show’s in the specials, Owain is putting his classical training and previous experience (Llangoed Hall restaurant) for inventiveness to good use. He’s already established a great Sunday Roast – not to be missed – and in the week we visited the bar special was confit duck! For the upcoming Six Nations Rugby, (which The Crown will be showing) there is a bar menu in tune with the playing nations. Great homemade Fish and Chips and Aberdeen Angus burgers for the England Scotland match for example. They are also just starting their Phileas Fogg inspired world tour too. “Around the World in Eight Weeks” kicked off with Indian and Mexican so check out their web site for what’s next before it’s too late and you’ve missed the balloon.

A40, The Crown at Whitchurch, David Broadbent Photography
Old Ross Road. The Crown at Whitchurch

With a full refurbishment of the already pretty restaurant planned to open at Easter, no doubt Owain will allowed to go for it – we definitely look forward to seeing what he comes up with and we’ll be bringing you a full report on the menu tests.

A40, The Crown at Whitchurch, David Broadbent Photography
Huff!

All in all we like what’s happening at The Crown at Whitchurch. So do the customers and the bar and restaurant is beginning to establish it’s own steady and loyal band of locals and visitors. Nicola and Tom have clearly thought out what they want to do and how they want the place to look which is reflected in the décor. The plan for their 21st century coaching inn (the bar is as big as the restaurant) is to develop it as a great pub but also a great place to eat.

A40, The Crown at Whitchurch, David Broadbent Photography
Front terrace. The Crown at Whitchurch

When you walk in to The Crown at Whitchurch It has a very welcoming colour scheme and it’s also very light and airy. But somehow it doesn’t feel overly trendy, it’s not trying too hard, it feels…….well, nice….., comfortable, familiar……., like home, like a place you would want to sit, have a drink, something to eat and wait for the next stage coach instead.

 

What about these beauties!

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Not just craft in the beer as these elegant new Forest Oak pump handles newly installed in the Speech House Hotel show. All from a chance meeting between Paul Williamson at Hillside Brewery and the Forest of Dean Wood Turning Group no doubt over some sort of sampling opportunity. And so the challenge was laid down to the group members to get creative with the lathe and bingo the winning entry was installed on the famous forest hotel bar. It wasn’t easy though as the members had inspired and the competition was tough.

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We chatted to Paul Hannaby at the wood turning club who told us; The club meets at Weston-Under-Penyard village hall on the third Wednesday of the month. We have twenty five members and the club is thriving with a full and active programme. The beer pump handles came about from a chance meeting with Paul at the Dean Heritage Centre. The brewery thought it would be a good idea if the woodturning club could make some beer pump handles. Paul thought that wood was likely to produce a handle more in keeping with their artisan beers. A subsequent brewery visit and tour was organised to confirm dimensions (of course – Ed) and the challenge was made even more interesting by the brewery prizes of local ales for the best handles. A total of eleven handles were entered in the competition. The brewery team loved them all. They eventually selected their favourites and a prize of a case of 12 bottles of beer was awarded for each of these handles Every other handle won 6 bottles. First prize was taken by Jeff Belcher who accepted the case of beer graciously.

Both businesses, Hillside and The Speech House, are both committed to sourcing locally wherever that is possible and so the first fine pair of handles are a real pleasure for both Peter Hands and Paul. In fact, Paul was so impressed these handles will used to pull beer from any of the pubs who stock Hillside beer. A real case of a craft handle to pour a craft ale – now, how many local artisan glass blowers do we know?………..

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All images supplied by Hillside Brewery

 

 

 

Exclusive – New Single Variety

Not everything that tastes fantastic looks fabulous.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall wrote a great piece, intended to compliment another of his insightful food investigation programmes, for the BBC recently. It was unequivocally about food waste. The waste caused domestically was examined but one of the other main themes was about perfectly good vegetables that go straight from farm to skip! Why? They aren’t pretty enough for the supermarkets root vegetable fashion parade and ever present size and shape guidelines. Interestingly echoing the same point we made out in why the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley is a bit like Tuscany piece.

We spent a great morning, albeit an early start on a misty October dawn, in Monmouthshire with Apple County Cider inspecting and photographing the individual apples for their single variety Dabinett and Vilberie award winning ciders – and they have the Golden Fork Great Taste trophy to prove it!

Apple varieties. Apple County Cider
Apple varieties. Apple County Cider

If you have ever been to a craft cider producers you will know that any preconceived romantic notions of wooden barrels, rickety small outbuildings and ancient machinery are , well just romantic. More likely is a somewhat more workaday air – which incidentally, we here at WyeDean Deli Confidential are hopelessly romantic about anyway. The raw materials don’t get much better in the fashion stakes either. Cider making varieties, taste sharp and sometimes very dry (Dabinett has a dessert apple flavour at first with a very dry note on the back of the palate) and they look anything but appealing. They are small, perfectly formed – but small, and the cider maker doesn’t care much for how they look – scabby, with chunks missing is just fine. Piled up in the cider yard they look for all the world like a Waitrose sound stage back lot of the extras that didn’t quite get the Director’s nod. We watched them getting their first wash of the process from the elevated water contents of a large mechanical digger bucket from about ten feet high. It made them glisten but they still looked about as far away from a dessert apple as you can get.

But the skilled cider maker, as Ben Culpin has already proved himself (against stiff national competition) to be, can see the whole Act and Play and not just Scene 1. Ben is interested in the backstory and the bitter-sweet sub-plots, essential if you are intending to make a block-buster with appeal and longevity rather than a B movie. It’s the complex taste and personality, not the look, that is in demand. It’s a bit like, instead of casting Hale Berry in the female lead you choose ______________, sorry we bottled offending anyone – so insert your own suggestions in the space provided!

Ben Culpin. Apple County Cider
Ben Culpin. Apple County Cider

Tell you what Ben, don’t go for the easy option of using any apples you can get and then blending. Why not try and make stunning single variety ciders and a perry in a traditional method and then trying wowing the public and cider glitterati and winning national awards for your work? Oh, you did that already! Anyway, there is the crux of it. It’s all about the taste. In Ben’s and Steph Culpins’ case, the quality of the taste of the craft product they are happy to call Apple County Cider.

Apple varieties. Apple County Cider
Apple varieties. Apple County Cider

It is sometimes frustrating (identifying cider apples can be a very nuanced hobby!) but always very rewarding to see the varieties in the growers orchard. The difficulty of identification can be easily demonstrated by “Googling” images for any apple variety and trying to work which, of the half dozen different results, is the right one! WyeDean Deli Confidential always brings you the news and back story to makers, growers and suppliers. Although we can’t say too much, we think that there may be news in the not too distant future of a possible new variety from the Apple County Cider yard……Exclusive alert!! You didn’t hear it from us but we think that a single variety Yarlington Mill cider will soon be added to the Apple County stable. If you do, and we recommend you do, visit their cider shop you’ll find all the same great taste in farmyard chic but always remember it’s really about the taste. Stock up for the holidays.

Apple varieties. Apple County Cider
Steph Culpin. Apple County Cider