Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Cider Tax Rise - Who Cares?

So the worst has happened and the Chancellor - who one imagines is more of a Real Ale man - has slapped a 10% duty increase on cider. Does it really matter? I mean, a lot of people don't like cider or perry, so why should people who do get to pay less tax on their tipple of choice?

Let's look at it from a different perspective. Hands up who likes birds. Or, to be more specific, hands up who thinks it's important to preserve bird species like the little owl, mistle thrush, spotted flycatcher, long-tailed tit or tree sparrow. Or, for that matter, the long-eared bat. Or wild plants and grasses...

Orchards, particularly the standard orchards preferred by many artisan cider and perry makers, are oases in the pesticide-stripped desert of the modern countryside. Orchards are home to much of our remaining unimproved (ie not yet ploughed and sprayed) grassland, and the species of plants, insects, birds and mammals that live in it. Orchards are vital to bees.

Thanks to Common Ground and Apple Day we've come to appreciate our orchards in the last twenty years, but they are only there (for the most part) because their owners make money from the fruit - less than £100 a tonne, but still enough to make it worth carrying on. The fruit is bought (for the most part) by cider makers. No cider makers, no orchards.

As it stands the vast majority of cider in the UK is made by two companies: Bulmers, which is owned by Heineken, and CIC, Irish owner of Magners and Gaymers. These companies make cider because it's a decent business to be in, or will be until Sunday night. At the moment they use fruit - or a proportion of their fruit - from English orchards because it's worth their while, but they could just as easily buy in apple concentrate from somewhere else - Central Europe or China.

I'm not saying they will, but they could. And if they do, orchard owners will have little choice but to grub up their trees and plant something more profitable.

As for the small producers... We'll come back to them

Monday, 22 March 2010

Introducing... The Naked Guide to Cider

This week's Budget may well put a number of cider makers out of business - not the very very large companies of course, but the small producers who champion quality and distinctiveness. At their best, cider and perry are unique, characterful drinks, products made in particular places from particular fruit, by particular people.

Unfortunately governments work on the same scale as big businesses and tend to support them, rather than the small producer. In this instance, the health people are nagging the government to tax strong cider more heavily, in an effort to deter youngsters from drinking so much nasty white cider.

But raising the duty on strong cider will neither stop youngsters drinking nor have much effect on the companies that make white cider. They will either change the formula to bring the alcohol level below the cut-off point (probably 5.5% ABV) or make alcopops instead.

The only losers in this ill-conceived health crusade will be the artisan producers of cider and perry in Somerset, the Three Counties and elsewhere, whose undoctored, full juice drinks are naturally high in alcohol (though far less strong than wine, of course). Producers like Tom Oliver are respected the world over - but not in Whitehall.

British tourists love to drink sparkly French cider in Normandy and Brittany, and the French government recognises this. Whatever its other faults, it appreciates that fine, locally-produced food and drink attracts tourists, and it administers its duty regime accordingly.

The UK Government, on the other hand, sees only the shortest possible view: a nice headline about binge drinking and a few more quid in the coffers - until the cider makers give up and do something else.

So what better time to announce the imminent arrival (well, sort of - it's out in September) of The Naked Guide to Cider? A guide book, and more. Learn how to make your own cider and how to support the best producers of cider and perry - after this week, they're probably going to need it.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Paul Nash at Dulwich

The Dulwich Picture Gallery is an institution that Knows What it Likes. to wit good old-fashioned oil paintings. No anguished scribblings or pickled whatnots in jars, just fine pictures by Rembrandt, Poussin and other luminaries. Walking in to the place one is transported back to an age before Isms, and in context the work of Paul Nash - some of it now a century old - seems almost outrageously inventive.

This is the first decent Nash exhibition since the show at Tate Liverpool in 2003, and he has nothing like the profile he deserves. I suspect that I'm not alone in having grown up believing that Turner was the last British painter that ever lived. I learned about French Impressionists, German Expressionists and American Abstract Expressionists. We had Lowry and Henry Moore.

Yes, things have changed since then. Whiteread, Hirst and co demonstrated that you could both live in Britain and create great art. Yet the work of previous generations has continued to be ignored; Nash, who was both a gifted and committed painter and an innovator, has until now languished in obscurity.

The current show may a bit testing thematically, but at least the pictures are on the wall, and you can see what made Nash both fascinating and highly successful. In the 1930s, when everyone was busy taking sides - Right vs Left, Representation vs Abstraction - he resolutely followed his own path. Like Eric Ravilious, his pupil, Nash found a new way of painting the English landscape, but whereas Ravilious combined his technical mastery of watercolour with a seer's vision to create images of haunting beauty, Nash toyed with the landscape to suit his symbolic needs.

Sometimes the effect is puzzling. Eclipse of the Sunflower, for instance, leaves me wondering if I'm missing something. On other occasions it is astonishing; Pillar and Moon (at the top of the post) is the kind of painting that keeps you awake at night.

Orchard Cow

Just came across this poem by Robert Frost, who lived for a time near Dymock, north of Gloucester. The cow pictured lives in Baltonsborough, Somerset. There are few better places than these for cidermaking.


Something inspires the only cow of late
To make no more of a wall than an open gate,
And think no more of wall-builders than fools.
Her face is flecked with pomace and she drools
A cider syrup. Having tasted fruit,
She scorns a pasture withering to the root.
She runs from tree to tree where lie and sweeten
The windfalls spiked with stubble and worm-eaten.
She leaves them bitten when she has to fly.
She bellows on a knoll against the sky.
Her udder shrivels and the milk goes dry.