Of all the endless surprising, fascinating, funny, bizarre and unlikely stories stitched into the fabric that makes up cider and perry, Flakey Bark’s is, for some reason, the one that I have long found most compelling. And yet, as I write this paragraph, I find myself struggling to reach a conclusion as to quite why that might be.
Rarity is, of course, a factor. A variety of which only six mature trees remain. Made into perry (currently) by just one producer. How can you be even half interested in drinks and not be captivated by that thought? I can’t think of a commercially-vinified grape variety that even approaches that level of scarcity, nor even of a cider apple. When you open a bottle of Flakey Bark you are making a meaningful dent in the percentage of that perry available anywhere in the world. It’s an astonishing thought, and one that of course lends the experience an added preciousness.
But rarity alone – even the extreme rarity of Flakey Bark – doesn’t mark it out as unique, certainly not among its peers in the world of perry. Betty Prosser, which we have encountered before from Cwm Maddoc and which we may be looking at in more detail at some point in the next few weeks is barely more common. Cefnydd Hyfryd, perrified (yes, I made that word up) for the first time last year, is made from half as many trees as exist of Flakey Bark. And of course the Coppy tree, harvested by Tom Oliver, and whose perry has not been seen in bottle for some years now, exists as a lone sentinel; the last mature example of its kind. If you’ll forgive an oxymoron, when it comes to perry pears, rarity is commonplace.
The story of its rediscovery plays a part, I dare say. Flakey Bark is a prodigal pear; thought lost, it was found again in the most unlikely of circumstances. Charles Martell, legendary pear hunter and author of the essential Pears of Gloucestershire and Perry pears of the Three Counties was going up Glasshouse Hill, beneath May Hill in Gloucestershire, in a horse and cart. It was a road he’d driven any number of times by car, but the slower pace of the cart (and why he was in a cart I couldn’t begin to tell you) meant that he had a chance to spot and identify this tiny cluster of trees.
Its character must also come into it, of course, or nobody – I least of all – would give a damn. There is a wonderful paradox to perry pears – even more so than there is to wine grapes or cider apples – that such a marvellous drink is made from fruit which is virtually inedible. Flakey Bark exemplifies that to an almost cartoonish degree. In this video Charles Martell offers the interviewer a pound if they’ll take a bite from a Flakey Bark pear, attesting to tannins of such ferocity that they’ll skin the roof of the mouth. It is one of those pears that invites you to ponder the mindset of the first person to turn perry pears into a drink, like the first person to eat an onion or the person who invented pole vaulting. I mean, skins the roof of the mouth! Even allowing for Flakey Bark having been made into perry since possibly centuries ago, that almost evinces belligerence on the part of its modern makers, and were the trees not harvested by the most belligerently single variety dedicated producers in the world, I wonder whether they’d be harvested at all.
But they are, and after an enormously long fermentation (the pears grown on extremely low-nutrient soil, so spontaneous fermentation is a yeasty arm-wrestle) and maturation sufficient to do what can be done with those razor-toothed tannins, Flakey Bark arrives with us in bottle. The trees are so biennial that the last harvested vintage was 2017, responsible for both that I’ll be reviewing today, but Flakey Bark devotees will be pleased to hear that a 2020 is currently underway. (I’ve tasted it – ten months after harvest it’s still full of sweetness. Babies are fermented more quickly than Flakey Bark).
Our two tasters here come from two separate batches, released about a year apart, both completely unoaked and fermented in plastic. As is inevitable when containers are a certain size and when there is only a certain amount of pressed Flakey Bark juice, of the six blue barrels filled in 2017, three were pure Flakey Bark and three were 90% Flakey Bark with 10% of other perry pears.
Batch 1, released in 2019, still on Scrattings for a ridiculously reasonable £7.50 per 750ml and also available from The Cat in the Glass came from the latter trio, whilst the 2020 release of Batch 2 (on Scrattings at £9 as well as Fram Ferment and The Cat in the Glass) is the pure Flakey Bark. Let’s see what four years of patience has done with perhaps the most iconic perry pear of the lot.
Ross on Wye Flakey Bark 2017 – review
How I served: Room temperature (You could chill this ever so lightly if you wanted though)
Appearance: Lightly hazy lemon’n’lime. Spritz of fizz.
On the nose: This, to me, is the meeting place of fruit and earth. Broad, ripe and fleshy with pear, peach and dried lemon – even a smattering of ginger cake – but underscored by a burlier slatiness. In the two years since its release this nose has developed beautifully. Already bold and deep for perry, it is now even more so; the fruit has dried and richened without losing any ripeness.
In the mouth: Beautifully softened tannins let that wide, soft, pillowy fruit take a fulsome lead, underscored again by an intense rocky-earthy sense of the outdoors. Super juicy now – so much so that you don’t notice it’s totally dry. Ripe orchard fruits, stone fruits and yellow citrus jellies. Juicy melon too. This has matured into something so appealing and approachable.
In a nutshell: Deep, ripe, juicy-fruity perry that conjures a sense of the outdoors. A bargain.
Ross on Wye Flakey Bark 2017 Batch 2 – review
How I served: Room temperature
Appearance: Pure gold. Almost rose-tinted. A touch more mousse.
On the nose: Bigger, more defined aromatics than batch one. Less soft in the expression of its fruit, more intense and hefty. Richer and deeper, and its fruitiness accordingly takes a more tropical, baritone expression. Canteloupe, ripe mango, apricot. Bizarrely I’m reminded (a tiny bit) of the way certain very old whiskies – eg Clynelish, Tomatin – express tropical notes, perhaps because here they are underpinned by that trace earthiness, that waxiness. Firmness. Vanilla. A saline minerality. A brush of rough pear skin. Gorgeous, mesmerising depth. One of those noses that defies unpicking rather, despite my flimsy, flailing attempts.
In the mouth: Again it’s a ripe, round and immensely juicy thing despite being fully fermented. Deeper and fuller-bodied than batch 1 and with more robust and muscular tannins which endure (though are not at all astringent) despite four years’ ageing. That tropicality of fruit has endured too, and presents in fresh, dried and jellied form, shot through by that Flakey seam of almost smoky meatiness and slate. These sorts of drinks are why pretentious writers like me believe in flavours that spring from the earth – beneath the fruitiness of this drink are layers of complexity that just scream of the outdoors somehow – of rock and earth; of slanting rainwater and the scents that rise after it has fallen.
In a nutshell: Time has done wonderful things here. A huge, robust, deep, profound and autumnal perry for sipping slowly as you look outwards somewhere in the wilderness.
Flakey Bark arrives with us through fate and belief and through bloody-minded belligerence. It was sheer luck that those last few trees survived and luckier still that one of the two or three people in the world who could have recognised them happened to go by in a horse and cart. It was luck, so far as the drinker is concerned, that the makers who secured the harvesting of the pears are the country’s most single-minded single variety obsessives; the people most likely to ferment the perry as far as it wanted to go and to then bottle it (mainly) as a solo act. It is luck that this rare and iconic pear, this mouth-stripping, truculent, inedible piece of barely-even-fruit makes a drink that tastes profound. And it is luck that there are people who care deeply enough about Flakey Bark that it is now not only grafted in the museum orchard of the National Perry Pear Centre in Hartpury, but is one of a number of rare trees that the Perry Pear Project, helmed by Kertelreiter’s Barry Masterson, is propagating in Germany. It’ll be some years before they mature, but Flakey Bark, its story, and the marvellous drink it produces, will live on.
So perhaps that’s why Flakey Bark’s narrative cuts so keenly. Perhaps it is because in its surface is reflected the story and fortunes of British perry altogether. A drink that has endured, despite everything, against the odds. That has been believed in by this clutch of stubborn-minded makers in an overlooked cranny of England and Wales. That could so easily have been lost altogether, but which emerges now, blinking in an unexpected light, on the surest footing it has found in years. The story of Flakey Bark – the story of perry – is an unlikely triumph of chance and hope. It is faith poured into your glass.
Thanks to Albert for the photo of the Flakey Bark tree, and to Barry Masterson for the image from Luckwill & Pollard’s ‘Perry Pears’ and the picture of Flakey Bark babies.