There are ninety listed toilets in the United Kingdom. No don’t laugh, it’s not funny. These are listed toilets, for goodness sake, upon their shoulders perches the weighty bum of antiquity and gravitas. These are toilets deemed to be of special historical significance. We can learn much, it is held, from the preservation of these nannied pisspots. In the reverent words of Historic England they are “marked and celebrated” for their “special architecture and historic interest” and “brought under the consideration of the planning system, so that it can be protected for future generations”.
Well, on behalf of generations both present and yet to come let me be the first to cry two cheers for Historic England – thank Christ and His ministering angels for that. Indeed why, asks this concerned citizen, isn’t this knowledge put into a more public and accessible domain? Surely some spare quango can be dug up to champion and publicise the lavs of yesteryear? The ignorant millions are missing out on educational and edificational opportunities from Sir Walter’s Privy in East Wood to a urinal in Portsmouth.
Thanks to Historic England, these philatelists of momentous loos, not a brick or cistern can be damaged or removed without instant and sympathetic renovation. Poo-stains, I dare say, are utterly sacrosanct; flush too hard and some worthy cardiganed soul with a badge and a membership form will hurry over and squat with great solemnity. And God forbid the Edwardian graffiti be disturbed – thanks to the work of Historic England, schoolkids the nation over can goggle at “Algernon Bottomley St. John-Smyth woz ‘ere” and “write to 3 Chessingdon Gardens for illicit romance” and “Gerald esteems Cecily most comely”.
It’s not only toilets, though they appeal most to my puerile streak. The sheer acreage of eye-watering banality and soul-scrubbing tat that is pointless or boring or ugly or irrelevant, which holds no historical interest, serves no useful purpose, brings no joy or knowledge into anyone’s life but is protected down to the bogroll by grey-faced, immovable councils and committees makes my brain squeal. And this same country, the country that hoards historical bibelots like Pokémon cards, this stuffed attic of ancient irrelevancies and mindless bric-a-brac has absolutely no compunction with bulldozing a 250-year-old pear tree to make way for a train set.
No – I’ve undersold it. This is a tree that has not only stood for a quarter of a millennium, through American independence and French Revolution and Waterloo and Peterloo and God knows how many monarchs and governments and wars and peaces and movements and changes and events – but has, year in, year out (albeit perhaps biennially) continued to produce a crop of increased size and quality. This isn’t an ash or a birch or a sycamore, wonderful though these things are; this is a working, useful, functional tree that has been – or could have been – of annual benefit to humans for as long as Britain has known about Australia. And they’re going to bash it down for HS2 and that’ll be the end of that and not one of these history-hogging toilet fanciers could give a shit.
Trees, particularly old trees, particularly old fruit trees are a far shinier jewel in any national crown than some Victorian bloke’s garden shed or a village green lock-up for Georgian pissants. By the hallowed metrics of “know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” they wallop any abandoned phone box or mouldering milestone you can name. They are a food source, a pixel in biodiversity’s picture, a home for wildlife, a carbon sink and a stunning, awe-inspiring sight to boot. I have never seen the Cubbington Tree and perhaps I now never will, but I’ve seen the Gregg’s Pit mother tree and it is magnificent. When it comes to plants that can be turned into booze, pear trees wipe the floor with every apple tree, every vine and every barley field. They are staggering, breathtaking things in their own right, and the fact that you can drink a perry and know that someone eight generations ago drank perry made from pears picked from the same tree makes my soul tingle. We shouldn’t be grubbing up pear trees, we should be planting more of them and driving trains through the ugly, festering brick shithouses that have needed renovating for a century anyway but have been ring-fenced for posterity by Historic England.
For a example of how to properly treat your fruit trees I commend to you Luxembourg’s Ramborn. They’re a cider (and perry and quince – but we’ll get to that) maker who, like Artistraw’s Lydia, see cider as the natural byproduct of their primary concern: protecting and expanding Luxembourg’s traditional orchards.
The Luxembourgish cider bandwagon is not, as yet, an especially over-crowded one. Ramborn were the first producer in modern times, but the apple (and the pear) have serious pedigree here. Trier, where Ramborn are based, was the northern capital of the Roman empire, and as we know from our Pliny, the Romans were partial to a fermented pome or two. But with production having fallen away over the last century – a story repeated the cider world over – hundreds of tonnes of apples and pears were going to waste every year, and acres of orchard were being uprooted.
Ramborn now work with over 100 farmers and have planted over 300,000 square metres of traditional orchard with 5,000 species of tree. To make their ciders and perries they teamed up with a local co-operative winery and have since had tremendous success on the awards circuit. This is, after all, just a short hop upriver from the German Mosel region, where some of the finest Rieslings in the world are grown and made. Until recently Ramborn has been hard to come by in the UK, but the ever-pioneering Scrattings recently listed a broad spectrum of their range, and I didn’t lose much time taking the plunge.
We’re tasting right across the pome fruit spectrum with today’s offering. First up is their standard Farmhouse Dry Cider, a 330 ml bottle of which will set you back £2.80. Thereafter we’re jumping upwards in price: first with their Bourbon Barrel Aged Cider (£18 per 750 ml), then their Vintage Perry (£16 per 750ml) and lastly their Garden Quince (also £16 per 750ml). As is often the case with small quantities of special international goods, I suspect that there’s a premium on importing them; what these bottles would cost were you to find them in Luxembourg I couldn’t tell you.
Ramborn Farmhouse Dry Cider – review
On the nose: There’s a nice, zingy, if uncomplicated malic greenness here. Very fresh and apple-forward – certainly not what you’d call ‘farm-housey’, to my nose. There’s a lemony, orange-pith character too, behind which is a light, yeasty, metallic tang.
In the mouth: A very close follow-through flavours-wise. Bright green apples, lemon and a touch of wild strawberry. Just a trace of tannin and a lick of acidity, with that metallic tang in amongst it. Pretty crisp, fresh, balanced. It’s not a showstopper, but it’s very solid.
Ramborn Bourbon Barrel Aged Still Cider 2016 – review
Colour: Mid Gold.
On the nose: Gadzooks. They’re not kidding about the bourbon – let me count the ways: coconut, vanilla, butterscotch, charred oak. Werther’s Originals. I’m rather straining for apple in all honesty – there’s maybe a little but it’s buried under the aromatics of the barrel.
In the mouth: There’s almost more oak – and a massive amount of booze (a whopping 9.2%) – on the palate. “Balance is for wimps”, it roars, braining you with vanilla, bounty bar, bubblegum and woody wood. A little tropical fruit … but that might be largely the barrel too. The alcohol’s very high and a spirity aspect has crept in. One wonders how much bourbon was left in the staves when they refilled it with cider. It’s too much for me I’m afraid.
Ramborn Vintage Luxembourg Perry 2017 – review
Colour: Bright bronze.
On the nose: Rather tight actually, have to really swish this around and warm it up to get the aromas going. Dense, very ripe pear and stone fruit. A little musty woodiness – slight oxidation – and a dab or two of honey, fig and Christmas spice. Needs time after opening to really unfurl.
In the mouth: Absolutely enormous structurally. Big, burly fruit, mousse and some of the most intense tannins I’ve ever encountered in a drink. An absolute mouth-stripper, though body and fruit still come through. Ripe apple, honey and toast. Still a bit of that slightly musty oxidation, though ‘cardboard’ would be unkind and inaccurate. There’s a little sweetness, but it’s no match for those hulking tannins, which take a chalky turn at the death. Don’t go near this without serious protein.
Ramborn Luxembourgish Garden Quince – review
Colour: Bright Gold.
On the nose: So good. Thrilling, zingy, tropical, brisk, intense. Billowing, super-clear and whistle-clean quince aromas; a little rosewater and violet. Absolutely delicious quince nose all round, to be honest.
In the mouth: I really must taste this next to Queen of the Brue. The flavours here, though enormous and fulsome and ripe, seem softer than the Pilton. Rounder, pillowier, less diamond-edged. That’s not a criticism, incidentally, and I suspect it comes from the Ramborn’s slight element of sweetness. It’s more approachable. Nice support from the unintrusive mousse. That sweetness is just about covered by the acidity, fruit and light smear of tannin. It’s pretty gorgeous, heady fare. Packed with pineapple, quince jelly, lime juice, florality and pith.
I think I must have picked the most full-on of Ramborns. No shrinking violets or easy-sipping softies among this bunch – every one was loaded with flavour and intensity and muscle. Drinks turned up to eleven. But when you thrown constant haymakers like that it’s almost inevitable that not all of them will land, and I think that was the case here.
The Farmhouse Dry’s an easy recommendation. Faultless, clean, good fruit, £2.80. It’s not going to send you into rhapsodies, but at that price it doesn’t need to. It’s very decent. Go for it with my blessing.
The bourbon cask was my least favourite. I love a bit of oak – and I certainly love a bit of bourbon – but the fruit was completely overwhelmed by booze and cask here, and I found it rather heavy-going. It’s not faulty, per se, but it was too much. I’m not sure I’m brave enough or another round.
The Vintage Perry. Blimey. Ramborn’s “house” perry, which is very tasty and brilliant value at £2.80 is all sweetness and fruit and innocence. This one, made entirely from perry pears, smacks you in the chops with tannin with every sip. You don’t acclimatise to them, you yield to them at best. It’s a food drink – Ramborn’s Adie compared it to the Sagrantino of central Italy, and he’s bang on. Without protein it’s a beast. That said, I suspect that I would have loved it had it not been for that slight element of oxidation. Which surprised me, given that this has spent its life in (I assume) a stainless steel tank, but it’s there nonetheless. Did it get in at pressing? Bottling? Who knows. But it just takes the edge of what would otherwise be a thing of grandeur and enormity. Still good, but I’m not sure I’d quite got another £16. (For the record, and for full disclosure, this bottle was actually a sample from Adie. But I bought another from Scrattings before tasting it.)
Quince was my favourite by far, another huge win for this fabulous fruit. It is ridiculous that quinces aren’t subject to the same duty as drinks made from apples and pears, given they are part of the same family. It’s putting makers off playing with them, and they’re absolutely wonderful. I have spent the last year being thoroughly smitten by them, and this drink does nothing to quell my ardour. At the time of writing Scrattings seem to have a couple of cases. I fully advise you to jump on them straight away – otherwise I’ll grab a load myself. It’s easily worth what’s asked.
All in all, Ramborn is an enterprise I am happy to endorse wholeheartedly. For their admirably full-on approach to drinks making, and most of all for their care for and stewardship of their natural resources. There’s a lot, I think, to be learned from these folk. Do give them your support if you can.