Features, perry
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Interview with Jim Chapman

I’ve talked before about people who have dedicated themselves to the championing and preservation of perry and perry pears. We’ve been lucky enough to interview a couple of them here, notably Tom Oliver and Barry Masterson.

But few people, if any, can have made such a contribution to the continued welfare of perry pears in Britain as Jim Chapman.

The founder of the National Perry Pear Collection in Hartpury, several-times holder of the record for the largest number of perry pears displayed, conservationist, researcher and historian. Whenever I have looked into perry and whoever I have asked about it, they have pointed me towards Jim – who has provided me with a wealth of information on the subject for which I am immensely grateful. There can’t be many greater authorities on perry and perry pears in the world.

So, having resolved to give my handful of contributions this year a particularly pear-scented inflection, it felt about time to speak to Jim for Cider Review. I reached out with some questions about himself, his work and perry more generally and am thrilled that he kindly responded. Our email conversation is below, lightly edited for clarity.

CR: Can you tell us about yourself and how you came to your work with perry and perry pears?

Jim: Whilst I have always had an interest in orchards, my involvement with the perry pear came about by a combination of an interest in local history, the connection between my home village of Hartpury with the perry pear and the inheritance of a few fields behind my cottage, perhaps allied with perhaps rose tinted 1960s memories of Bulmers flagons of perry. In 1998 I was actively engaged in raising funds to restore a derelict chapel in Hartpury and realised that as well as the village name Hartpury being derived from the perry pear (Saxon Hardepirige) there was also a perry pear called the Hartpury Green. We planted one in the village churchyard and sold others as a fundraiser!

CR: What is it that fascinates you about perry and perry pears?

Jim: I confess to being more interested in the perry pear than most of the perry being produced today, which I find too sweet. Discovering a still and reasonably dry perry remains a treat enhanced by its comparative rarity! More recently I seem to be acquiring a taste for the higher tannin perries, but that may be a result of an ageing palate. My real interest is in the wide range of varieties that reflect the terroir of the locality in which they originated. Today we seem to regard the ten or so perry varieties recommended by Long Ashton as the ones to plant whatever the location.

CR: You talk about varieties that reflect their local terroir. Can you give some examples of particular pears that do especially well in particular places and why? 

Jim: Blakeney Red [is one]. Quoting from Luckwill and Pollard¹: “When grown on the flood lands bordering the Severn this variety yields a perry of poor quality which Hogg and Bull describe as abominable trash … : yet on higher ground in the Forest of Dean the same variety can give an excellent perry”. Oldfield cankers badly in wet ground. If late frosts often experienced, later flowering varieties [should be planted].

CR: What is the origin of the perry pear, how does it differ from culinary pears and how did it reach us here in Britain?

Jim: An alcoholic drink can be made from any pear and up until 16th century a drink of varying quality was made from whatever fruit was to hand, often mixing apples and pears whose main attribute was ease of extraction of juice. Culinary pears, being large and firm, were too valuable as a vegetable which when cooked provided the vitamins needed during the winter months. The pears used for the drink were the chance seedlings found growing wild on uncultivated wastes and commons.

These were seedlings derived from Pyrus pyraster and the wild P. communis that possibly originated from crosses between P. caucasica and P. pyraster in the Caucasus and then spread through central Europe continually crossing and back-crossing between P. pyraster, P. nivalis and the wild P. communis. Eventually they reached this country after the end of the last Ice Age, but probably before the English Channel formed. Perry is made from all three types of pear today along the same route, but is generally then distilled. Having reached this country evolution would have continued; the wild pear crossing with the various culinary and dessert varieties as they arrived here.

CR: Can you tell us about the history of perry as a drink, particularly as a drink in the UK?

Jim: I like to differentiate between the drink made prior to the17th century, which had little to commend it and the perry that was made with care and far greater skill from that time. It is commonly believed that perry pears (and cider apples) were introduced by the Normans, but at the time of the invasion Normandy was a wine producing area with a climate more suitable for vineyards than orchards, as was southern Britain until thirteenth century. Court records in thirteenth and fourteenth centuries record the introduction of mainly hard culinary pears. It was not until Tudor times when our climate deteriorated markedly and vineyards failed that orchards came into their own. Before then who would try to extract juice from a pear, particularly with the rather crude equipment of the day, rather than from easily crushable grapes! 

A drink, sometimes referred to as pirrie or piriwhit, had been made from any sort of pear, or more frequently a mix of apples and pears for centuries. It was not highly regarded and largely drunk by the poor. In 1585, Richard Drake, a curate from Little Malvern wrote that some people were so poor that they were forced to harvest the crab pears and other fruit from common land, which they pounded to make drink. Worcester monks spoke of using both wyld peres and grete tame peres (possibly the Black Worcester) for perry but continued to import pipes of wine for their own use.

Various factors led to the development of perry worthy of the name during the 17th century, the deteriorating climate, continental wars making the importation of wine difficult, the development of the efficient stone mill and press, and crucially an interest and pride in the product and expectation that it could replace wine.

CR: How did the three counties come to be so predominant for perry and perry pears?

Jim: Gloucestershire and Worcestershire had grown pears since 1300 (Herefordshire less so), but so did other areas. If there was a large market nearby for dessert fruit, this was more profitable than producing fruit for fermentation. It is recorded that orchards around London moved away from perry to dessert fruit for this reason but why perry was not made in the west country is curious. Somerset, Devon etc focused on cider, whereas here it was both.

CR: When did Herefordshire catch up with Gloucestershire and Worcestershire as an area for growing pears? What caused that? 

Jim: There are more commercial orchards in Herefordshire now, but in earlier centuries proximity to Welsh skirmish raids were not conducive to planting orchards.

In William Camden’s earlier editions of Britannia (eg 1610) he writes of Worcestershire ‘It produces especially pears in great abundance, which …… afford a vinous juice of which is made a sort of counterfeit wine called pyrry, which is very much drunk …’ but of Herefordshire, he doesn’t mention orchards at all. But in the 1695 edition (Edmund Gibson revision) it refers to Herefordshire’s particular eminence in fruits of all sorts and specifically to it providing London with ‘Syder’

CR: Tell us about the National Perry Pear Centre – how did it come about and what is its function?

Jim: In 1991 Charles Martell started a collection of perry pears. Farms across Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire were scoured for the old varieties. 59 had been rediscovered and planted around the Three Counties Agricultural Society showground at Malvern by 1998.

In 1999 I planted a second collection at my cottage in Hartpury, near Gloucester, to replicate and extend the Malvern collection – there being little space for additional planting at Malvern. I then became concerned about the long-term security of a private collection, so gave a 25 acre field to our local heritage charity in which to plant a third collection in 2003. We built the Orchard Centre with Lottery and other funding and this is now Hartpury Orchard Centre, home of the National Perry Pear Collection. Subject to funding being available the aim is to conserve the perry pear, run courses, research and generally promote perry. The ambition is fine but funding in short supply – our advertising budget is negligible and research virtually non-existent.

CR: Tell us about the Perry Pear Collection?

Jim: We aim to grow 5 examples of all worthwhile varieties of perry pear, with some in each of the 3 collections for disease security. Those considered chance seedlings or outgrown rootstocks rather than proven varieties are not included, so don’t start searching for seedlings! The decision on which to include is at present subjective (mine!)

CR: Are there any varieties you’re particularly fond of, or which are of particular significance to the collection?

Jim: Obviously the Hartpury Green as it comes from this village and has been around since 1650. Called Chaceley Green in Luckwell and Pollard Perry Pears, but Ray Williams accepted that Hartpury Green was the earlier use (Evelyn’s Pomona).

I am also interested in red-fleshed pears and have found one that retains a pink colour after fermentation. Beetroot Wick Court Alex and Beetroot Wick Court Ella are the two best for perry, but I am experimenting with many others eg Blood Pear (referred to in Luckwill & Pollard as Bloody Bastard!) Sanguinole and the various Blutbirnes (I collected one from Frank Matthews today!) and Cocomerina. A report by the Department of Biomolecular Sciences, Section Plant Biology, University of Urbino, Italy concluded: “The results, while still in the preliminary phase, have shown that the fresh juice (especially the “cocomerina” pear late type juice) is particularly rich in polyphenols, anthocyanins and flavonoids and consequently showed significant in vitro antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity when compared with other fruit juice.”

[I am also interested] in comparing the continental perry varieties with our own and trying to discover the influences of those recorded as imported in the 17th century by Hartlib, Beale et al.

CR: Have you added any new varieties recently?

Jim: The use of DNA has sorted out a lot of confusion, we have lost some, for example Sweet Huffcap in the Brogdale collection is actually Hellens Early (or so present scientific knowledge tells us), but that is on the basis of 12 markers – in Europe they use 15 I think – and what will be the story when we learn the full genome.

One we have gained using DNA is the Buttersend Pear, or Hartpury Red as I am calling it, another Hartpury pear that Long Ashton had decided (incorrectly according to the DNA) was Blakeney Red. We have included one new perry variety, the Wigborough, vouched for by Liz Copas and James Crowden. The owner cut down the tree because the falling fruit and leaves spoilt his polo. Thankfully locals noticed and took grafts before it was destroyed.

Most years I add two or three new varieties to my own orchard generally out of curiosity, currently about Harvest perry made from early ripening sweeter pears and crab apples, a process mentioned by Worlidge. These may become included in the National Collection if they prove worthy.

CR: Is any perry made from the collection’s trees?

Jim: Yes, Chris Atkins (Ragged Stone) has recently moved his production to the Orchard Centre and uses our pears and will I hope in due course take over as curator of the collection.

CR: What is the general state of perry pears, trees and orchards at the moment?

Jim: A big subject, where to start? Every year we lose a few more ancient perry pear trees, hopefully most now conserved in the collection, but what a loss to the landscape. How often are perry pears planted as landscape features in the current dash to save the planet? – why not, as descendants of Pyrus pyraster, they have a good claim to be indigenous (Rackham). They are large, long lived etc., so lock up a lot of carbon. The same can be said for most traditional orchards – the only priority habitat that earns an annual income that doesn’t threaten its existence.

The main issue when planting orchards is commercial. It is unrealistic to plant an orchard that takes 25 years to produce a worthwhile crop and whose trees grow out of reach for convenient harvesting. Perhaps ELMs (Environmental Land Management – Ed) may help? Certainly it would help if perry received the premium it deserves if it is made with the care and skill it deserves. Until then bush cider will probably be the orchards of the future.

CR: What’s your view on the future of perry and perry pear trees? What would you like to see happen?

Jim: This follows on from the previous question. Perry deserves to be treated as a luxury premium product like wine, but this premium needs to be earned by the attention given to its production. The bottle should always declare the variety and those drinking it encouraged to contrast the perries made from different varieties. Consideration should be given to the terroir of the location when choosing the variety to plant. Usually this is made easier by finding out what varieties are growing locally. Long Ashton recognised that Blakeney Red planted in some soils made good perry and in others, rubbish. The same no doubt applies to most other varieties. Unfortunately the theory is easy to lay down, but who wants to plant an orchard of relatively unknown pears, particularly if aiming to sell the fruit, and where is the knowledge and research to help the decisions – lost when Long Ashton closed? This is my ambition for the Orchard Centre, but we are looking way beyond my lifetime.

CR: Do you have any favourite perries and perry makers?

Jim: Perry makers I had better not answer, but some clearly give more thought and care to making perry than others. I tend to avoid those who have a range of ciders, but just one token perry – it deserves better than this. I dislike sweet perry and am not keen on sparkling ones – a little bottle conditioning is pleasant, but bottle fermented is wasted on me – I dislike champagne as well! And which variety? Rock probably produces my favourite perry – at least the one made by Chris. There I have mentioned one producer, but there are thankfully a good number who can be considered craft perry makers.

Huge thanks to Jim for taking the time to share his expertise with us. You can follow the National Perry Pear Centre’s work here, and I’d encourage all readers to do just that.

¹Authors of ‘Perry Pears’, published 1963

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In addition to my writing and editing on Cider Review I contribute to other drinks sites and magazines including Graftwood, JancisRobinson.com, Full Juice, Distilled and Burum Collective. I share my home with several hundred bottles, one geophysicist and a small fluffy belligerent called Nutmeg. @CiderReviewAdam on Twitter and Instagram.

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