St. David’s Day in Wales this week and I’ve got two articles out to mark Wales’ patron-saint day.
The first is a piece about foodie breaks for spring and my contribution focused on the local flavours and fairytale architecture at Portmeirion [pictured above], North Wales, one of my favourite places to spend time.
The second is the publication of copy-writing work for a tourism client, outlining story angles around the tenth anniversary of the Wales Coast Path — it’s coming up in May.
The 870-mile, long-distance walking trail, launched in 2012, forms the first ever continuous waking circuit of a nation.
The anniversary will be accompanied by a programme of key celebratory events, starting from March 1st, St David’s Day.
According to research by Ramblers UK, some 89 per cent of people find walking amongst nature improves health and mental wellbeing. Walking briskly for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, is one way of meeting medical experts’ recommendations for adult physical activity.
James Marsden is keen to introduce me to Big Mama.
She stands tall in the middle of a restored orchard, looking good for her 300 years, with her mother-tree branches heaving under the bounty of late-harvest perry pears.
I’ve joined James to gather the harvest by hand in Gregg’s Pit orchard, located near Ledbury.
The harvest [pictured above] starts in late September and, depending on the weather, lasts four to six weeks.
Herefordshire is the historical centre of Britain’s cider-making industry — and is in rude health given the renaissance of cider as a premium, organic product.
UK cider represents 45 per cent of the global cider market with orchards generating over £33m annually, according to The National Association of Cider Makers (NACM).
‘It’s labour-intensive work,’ says James, ‘but I work with nature, using the sun to influence the sugars.’
Cider has been produced in Herefordshire since the medieval period with references to ‘sidir’, meaning ‘a strong drink’ found in the 1420 Wycliff Bible at Hereford Cathedral.
As cider challenged wine in fashionable circles during the 17th century, most Herefordshire farmhouses installed grindstones to press the Herefordshire Redstreak apples popularised by the area’s cider pioneer, Lord Scudamore.
Today the region remains the largest cider-producing county in the UK with around 20,000 acres under orchard, growing high-quality cider apples and perry pears.
I set out on an autumnal morning, the countryside dappled with spotlight sunbeams and bursting with ripe fruit, to explore the southern Redstreak Cider Circuit, a self-guided tour of the region’s apple-harvest heritage between Ledbury and Ross-on-Wye.
There’s also a Newton Wonder trail, a northern loop around Hereford, with both 45-mile circuits making for a gentle weekend exploring by bike or car.
The southern circuit pivots around the village of Much Marcle, with its 14th-century church dedicated to Saint Bartholomew.
It’s also home to both Gregg’s Pit and Westons Cider, the latter selling brands like Stowford Press and exporting to 40 countries.
Westons is the new face of the cider business: modern, large-scale and based around a visitor centre with a family restaurant.
I join the tour, poking my head into the distillery where huge wooden vats groan under the weight of fermenting fruit, and the visitors’ centre, which explains the history of British cider through historic cider bottles and labels.
I later drive on along the country B-roads, the circuit leading me through villages made up of black-and-white buildings.
Many of the cider and perry producers on the circuit welcome visitors for orchard tours followed by an al-fresco or farm-barn tasting. Local cafes, restaurants and hotels, meanwhile, offer apple-themed menus throughout the harvest season.
Orchards have been part of Herefordshire’s landscape throughout history but while some producers have scaled up for the mass market, there are plenty of small-scale operators rediscovering the region’s organic cider-making origins.
Back at nearby Gregg’s Pit, I find James on his hands and knees, collecting pears with a headtorch as the light fades.
He makes a small volume of single-variety and blended ciders and perry drinks each year, using pure fruit juice and traditional methods, including a stone press in his garden.
When I pop my head around the door of the Vat House, the heady waft means the fermentation process is in full swing.
James, who is fond of cooking up an autumnal bean stew using Toulouse sausages and cider:
‘I’m trying to create a complex, distinctive drink and see it primarily as a food-pairing product.’
‘Herefordshire feels deep rural and that’s why I’ve made it my home,’ he adds as we sit in the back garden, the sun setting over the fields overlooking May Hill and the Cotswolds, with a glass of méthode champenoise bottle-fermented perry.
Local produce is a major draw for visitors to Wales.
Indeed, there’s a host of local suppliers and independent producers celebrated each year by the Great Taste Awards Wales.
In particular, the artisan food and drink sector has grown in recent years with a turnover of £4.8bn in 2018-19 and 78,000 people employed in the food and farming sector, according to figures from Food & Drink Wales.
This themed tour would be ideal for an autumn departure around the time of the annual British Food and Drink Fortnight, The Conwy Honey Fair or one of the smaller harvest festivals staged across North Wales.
This route is designed to form an overarching narrative on the theme of food and drink.
It describes the rise of independent businesses, highlighting the range and quality of local flavours, and the human story of our local food heroes.
It builds in rhythm from site visit in Llandudno, via a coach-based scenic tour in the Valley and lunch stop, to a town-centre walking tour of Cowny with time for souvenir shopping before departure.
Along the way we will enjoy product tastings, guest talks from local chefs and an opportunity to meet and sample the goods of local independent food producers in North Wales.
If your group would like to join this independent tour, then please do get in touch.