One of the saddest things about the cider scene is that some outstanding producers, who make ciders and perries fit to grace the finest tables, slip below our radars and remain unnoticed. No list of the best cideries in the UK would be complete if it failed to include Ross on Wye, Tom Oliver or Little Pomona, but I’m convinced that there are other, relatively unknown producers who have earned a place in British cider’s top tier.
Herefordshire’s Bartestree Cider Company is one such producer. For several years now, Dave and Fiona Matthews have been quietly crafting some of Britain’s most exceptional ciders and perries and have picked up countless awards for their efforts. Unfortunately, it seems that this has not translated into much social media attention, let alone the level of recognition afforded to the biggest names in craft cider. Even Adam, who quite possibly holds the world record for the most cider reviews ever published [Ed: I don’t think I’d make top 10! (Meredith Collins would be my guess for the No.1 spot)], has never written about any of their ciders or perries. I hadn’t tasted anything from Bartestree until a few weeks ago, so I have to hold my hands up to being equally guilty of overlooking this producer. Today, I want to right that injustice. I’ll be reviewing Bartestree’s 2019 vintage Hendre Huffcap perry, which is described on the bottle as medium-dry. A 375ml bottle cost me £4.50 from The Cat In The Glass.
Hendre Huffcap has the reputation of being one of the best vintage perry pear varieties, which produces a light and easy-drinking perry. In “The Book of Pears”, Joan Morgan notes that there are a number of different Huffcap pears, most notably including the Hendre Huffcap and the Yellow Huffcap. She writes that they may take their name from a 16th Century term for strong ale, which would “make the head swell and raise your hat”. I have experienced a few hangovers that made me feel like my head was ready to burst, but I’m fairly certain that it has never visibly swelled as a result of drinking either beer or perry. The prospect of looking like Stewie Griffin from Family Guy makes me feel slightly apprehensive, but I’m willing to take one for the Cider Review team.
Bartestree Hendre Huffcap 2019 Batch 12A – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Pale straw with a slight greenish tinge, a little haze and some of the flaky sediment that is almost a hallmark of proper perry. Moderately carbonated, with a finely beaded mousse that dissipates quite quickly.
On the nose: When people use the term “honeyed”, they usually mean that they can identify something faintly reminiscent of honey. This perry has more honey on the nose than a bear in a beehive. I have brewed my own mead and know a bit about honey, and sniffing this is almost exactly like sticking your head into a bucket of the best wildflower honey and inhaling deeply. It has the most remarkable delicate floral sweetness, with notes of beeswax, elderflower, honeysuckle and jasmine, all underpinned with the mellow tanginess of marmalade and the warm perfume of ripe apricots. This stuff is what Winnie the Pooh’s dreams are made of.
In the mouth: Wow. This is almost painfully good. The floral honey, marmalade and rich, ripe apricot are even more clearly defined on the palate than on the nose, and there is just enough residual sweetness to enhance the fruit. The honey has such a profound depth of flavour that I struggle to believe that this perry is only made of pears, and it is beautifully complemented by a slight biscuitiness, which reminds me of freshly baked shortbread. But the really perplexing thing about this perry is that it tastes so generously ripe and honey-sweet, while remaining so weightless and elegant. It effortlessly glides down the back of the throat like the purest cold water, immediately inviting another sip. The fullness of the fruit is perfectly lifted by zingy, sherbet-like acidity, which never becomes obtrusive, but rather keeps every sip light and supremely refreshing.
The overall effect is exquisitely ethereal and strongly reminiscent of the very best demi-sec Vouvray. This perry has the flawless balance and poise of a prima ballerina and expresses flavour with filigree precision. It pulsates with life and radiates sunshine. Yet just beneath the balmy taste of summer, there lurks something deeper and darker; a hard-edged flintiness that works like the shadow in chiaroscuro to bring all those luminous flavours into sharper relief.
As I let it wash luxuriantly over my taste buds, the perry transports me to lazy summer holidays in the Ionian islands. I remember picking plump apricots warmed by the Mediterranean morning sun, while bees buzzed around my head, and greedily devouring them with Greek honey for breakfast. It conjures images of reflected sunlight dancing on the surface of the turquoise sea, while small silver fish dart in the shallows. I recall warm flower-scented evenings and the crystalline purity of trickling mountain streams. I am really there, fully reliving those childhood memories, for just as long as my glass stays full. Finishing the bottle is a bittersweet moment, like being abruptly woken from a beautiful dream.
Ok, so maybe I’m getting a bit carried away here. This is all beginning to sound more like a love letter to the Greek islands than a tasting note. My initial plan was to just write a review and get on with the rest of my day, but this perry stopped me in my tracks and rendered me uncharacteristically speechless. I originally intended to compare it to another single-variety Hendre Huffcap perry, but I think that it deserves better than that. Some experiences thwart our best laid plans and are simply incomparable. At this point, I’m going to take off my reviewer’s hat (which is rapidly rising off my perry-swollen head) and try as best as I can to explain the mystifying experience of being dumbstruck by an incredible drink.
People who write about drinks like to analyse them in rather more detail than any normal person would. We describe their production methods and the structural components of their flavour, categorise them according to various taxonomies and rank them against one another. At its best, this kind of writing can be precise, insightful and intellectually engaging. At its worst, it can be pedantic and reductive, like the widespread but inevitably futile attempt to capture the experience of tasting a wine with a numerical score.
I regularly read and enjoy the better examples of such writing. I often try to emulate them in my own cider reviews. However, when it comes down to it, I think that this kind of analysis has insurmountable limitations. No matter how discerning and meticulous it might be, it fails to accurately convey our experiences of tasting truly great wines, ciders and perries, because those experiences transcend our ability to analyse them.
If you ask drinks writers what makes a wine, cider or perry truly great, many refer to structural properties like balance, complexity, depth and persistence. Some would surely add that exceptional wines and ciders express their terroir with the utmost transparency. I think that these are partial truths. They may well be necessary conditions for a drink to be great, but they aren’t sufficient to explain its greatness. In my view, the true hallmark of greatness is that the flavours and aromas are so profound and clearly defined that they induce a powerful emotional experience in the drinker.
Our senses of smell and taste have a peculiar mnemonic quality. All honest and well-made wines, ciders and perries can cause us to imagine their place of origin. Tasting a good cider usually gets me thinking of orchards, and Mosel Riesling always elicits images of vineyards precariously perched on precipitous slopes. But certain aromas are so pure and precise that they are triggers for intensely-felt nostalgia. They have the almost magical ability to travel up our noses to the brain’s memory bank, where they promptly open a file that contains a very specific set of memories. Before we know it, we’re transported back to another time in our lives. We vividly re-experience past events and imaginatively reconnect with people and places that we thought we had forgotten. We have the sense of rediscovering something of ourselves that had hitherto been lost to us. This is surprising and unsettling; it feels strangely poignant and otherworldly. Trying to put such experiences into words is difficult, not least because it’s socially embarrassing to get all misty-eyed and mystical about what you’re drinking. After all, if you tell your friends that your glass of cider moved you to tears and made you relive events from your childhood, you can expect to receive the kinds of looks usually reserved for Flat Earthers and those weirdos who speak to strangers on the underground.
But this surge of memory and emotion really can be set into motion by the taste of a drink, and it’s not caused by any supernatural force. Scientists generally agree that our sense of smell plays a dominant role in the tasting of food and drink. One fascinating thing about scents is that they travel a much more direct path to the emotional and memory centres of the brain (the amygdala and hippocampus) than any other sensations. While other sensations initially travel to the thalamus, which then processes the sensory information and transmits it to the rest of the brain, scents bypass this process altogether and take a shortcut to the parts of our brains responsible for memory and emotion. In her 2018 book “The Scent of Desire”, neuroscientist Rachel Herz writes that memories associated with scents are therefore “experienced as more emotional and evocative” than those associated with our other senses. Anyone who has ever caught a whiff of the perfume worn by a lost loved one will know exactly what she means.
If taste and smell have the potential to be so evocative, then why do some aromas have a profound emotional impact on us, while others just don’t? The intimate connection between scent and memory suggests that the emotional impact of a scent is influenced by one’s personal history. I therefore expect that the experience of drinking Bartestree’s Hendre Huffcap will be different for you than it was for me, because we have lived different lives and don’t share the same memories. I’m pretty sure that you would like this perry, since it’s objectively very good, but I can’t be sure that the experience of drinking it would move you in the same way that it moved me. When all’s said and done, the difference between a very good drink and a truly great drink is largely to be found in the nose and brain of the beholder.
However, I would contend that the clearer, the more distinct and profound the aroma and flavour of a drink, the greater its potential to stimulate emotion and reminiscence across a wide range of people. I’m no neuroscientist, so take this claim with a large pinch of salt, but I’m convinced that eating an unripe apricot from a chilled display cabinet is unlikely to cause us to re-experience tasting sun-kissed apricots fresh from the tree, whereas a Hendre Huffcap perry with an unmistakable aroma of ripe, juicy apricot might just take us back to that moment. And I believe that it is this higher potential to evoke memory and emotion that constitutes true greatness in a drink.
At the most resplendent and rarefied level, drinks can be sublime. Most people use this word to simply mean “very good indeed”, but in aesthetics, the sublime is associated with overwhelming emotion, the ineffable and the awe-inspiring magnificence of nature. It’s a difficult and slippery concept, partly because there are almost as many different conceptions of the sublime as there are philosophers, but also because the sublime always seems to brush up against the limits of what it’s possible to express. Our encounters with the sublime give rise to a rupture between what we sense and our ability to represent it in language.
It’s not unusual for people to be lost for words when you ask them to give their impressions of a drink. If you attend a wine tasting with complete beginners, it can be hard to get them to provide more detailed descriptions than “nice”, “fruity” and “smooth”. This is simply because they are not used to putting words to the flavours and aromas that they are sensing. With time and practice, most people can acquire the vocabulary to competently express those sensations.
The difficulties that we face when trying to express the sublime are different. They are more like encountering a natural wonder and knowing that no matter how hard we try to describe our experience of it, our words will fail to do it justice, or feeling a powerful wave of emotion that we just can’t adequately communicate. If you have ever observed monumental waves crashing on the shore or stood on a mountain top watching the sunset and found yourself overwhelmed by the breathtaking beauty of the world, then you have experienced the sublime and you will probably be familiar with the struggle to convey it in language.
I am fortunate enough to regularly taste wines, ciders and perries that I know are very good. These drinks provide me with a great deal of pleasure, and I hope that I’m reasonably competent at writing fair and objective-sounding tasting notes that describe and analyse them in detail. What these drinks don’t generally do, however, is send me into the kind of waking reverie that I experienced with Bartestree’s Hendre Huffcap. Perhaps my palate is jaded or maybe the sublime is inevitably elusive, but I find very few drinks so intensely emotive. On the rare occasions that a drink genuinely moves me, I put down my laptop, stop writing my review and let the experience wash over me. These encounters with liquid greatness are too uncommon and extraordinary to deserve anything other than my undivided attention. This is the point at which any pretence at objectivity fails. I can’t provide an objective analysis of such an unusual and intensely personal experience. These kinds of experiences are the province of philosophy, art, music, literature and poetry, not of technical tasting notes.
In the literary world, perhaps the single most famous account of the relation between taste, memory and emotion is the passage in Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” in which he describes how the taste of a madeleine evoked his childhood memories of being given them by his aunt on Sunday mornings. This passage is so beautiful and significant that I think everyone should read it, so I’m going to quote it in full:
“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”
For Proust, the madeleine is a symbol of involuntary memory. It represents how our consciousness amasses memories without realising it, and how those memories and their associated emotions can be unexpectedly triggered by our senses of taste and smell. This famous passage is staggeringly lyrical, immersive and psychologically accurate. It makes for much better reading than a shopping list of flavour descriptors or an in-depth analysis of the word “minerality”.
Writing like Proust is hard. Most writers, myself included, will probably never manage it. Even coming close would require tireless devotion to one’s craft, unwavering attention to one’s memories and emotions, and a commitment to expressing them with total, unvarnished honesty. No wonder that so many drinks writers would rather just stick to the same formulaic writing style, with its recycled descriptions and joyless technical analysis of faults and attributes.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that drinks writers should reinvent the English language, avoid describing flavours or dispense with all analysis in favour of stream-of-consciousness reminiscing. When I read a review of a drink, I want to be told about its flavours and how sweet, tannic or acidic it is. As a frequent buyer of wine, cider and perry, I’m well aware that this kind of information is ultimately much more useful to the consumer than knowing what the writer used to have for breakfast as a child. But I still think that drinks writers could benefit from channelling a bit more of their inner Proust. A lot of reviews and tasting notes already contain plenty of analysis. What they need is more romance, more poetry and more emotion. Let’s face it, those of us who are passionate about drinks are closet romantics at heart. We try to come across as impartial and analytical in our writing, but we’re secretly driven by the desire to discover astounding, mind-blowing drinks that seduce and enthrall us. Many of us chase those experiences with an almost mystic fervour, to the detriment of our bank balances and in spite of the heartbreak that inevitably ensues when our rarest and most expensive bottles fail to meet our lofty expectations. We are not being honest with ourselves when we reduce this quasi-mystical quest to a tasting note and a score. Besides, the role of a drinks writer is to inspire as well as to educate. We write because we want consumers to taste and fall in love with the drinks that excite us, and we are much more likely to achieve that goal if we try our best to convey how strongly we feel about the drinks that we find captivating.
When I read cider writing, I want to hear about the ciders and perries that make your eyes widen with astonishment and transport you back to past experiences of beauty. I want to hear about experiences that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end and that fill you with joy and gratitude. And if you have tasted a cider that recalled the putrid stench of the toilets at your school or gave you horrific flashbacks to your summer job at a slaughterhouse, then I want to hear about that too!
Life is short and not always pleasant, so I think that we should celebrate our experiences of the sublime, wherever we might happen to encounter it. I can’t be sure whether or where you’ll find it, but I recently found it in a glass of Bartestree’s Hendre Huffcap. Even if no-one else shares my rather idiosyncratic feelings about this perry, the mere fact that it impelled one slightly cynical cider enthusiast to write about neuroscience, Proust and the sublime is a testament to its exceptional quality. Now I wish that I had bought a bigger bottle.