Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Platform Cider Tasting

By Leo Owen

Pacing outside WHSmith in London Bridge Station, I can't help but feel the irony of the text message I sent some 40 minutes earlier, warning my now very late date, that I myself was running a few minutes over. I'm starting to worry I'll miss the highlight of the start of a busy evening but thankfully Kirsty arrives and we rush, just making the beginning of the presentation and cider tasting.

As a huge cider fan and a bit of a self-confessed “cider snob” (I hear mistaken cries of “Surely that doesn't exist!?”), I almost pulverised my mousepad hitting “send” in response to the press release. Luckily for me, farmer Barney Butterfield produces a mouth-watering range of ciders and co-owns Platform where some of these gems are served up. Proud of recently being awarded best Scrumpy at the CAMRA awards (Campaign For Real Ale), Barney is keen to explain the cider-making process and some of its history, in order to dispel some of the myths surrounding one of the oldest, most natural tipples.

Ushered upstairs into a room with a farmhouse feel, we circle Barney, sitting in small groups around tables with swilling vats, glasses and water. An impressive wine rack holder takes up most of the back wall but it's the bottles on the table behind Barney that most interest me.

Our first taste is of the Devon Scrumpy, fermented in modern conditions using the most expensive way of pressing apples, this is a clean simple milky honey-coloured cider. Vastly preferable to the average carbonated shite found in most pubs, the Scrumpy may be 0.5% stronger but isn't a patch on the Old Kirton.

Barney warns us that, being straw-pressed, it might not be to everyone’s taste and he's not wrong to put out the disclaimers as it's certainly an acquired taste. Having done the rounds at CAMRA festivals, the artificial toxic colour reminiscent of an orange Panda Pop doesn't perturb me and the sharp acidic initial taste with a stomach-rotting vinegar bite that inexplicably turns to sweetness is bizarrely satisfying. It seems both my companion and I are the 1:10 people Barney normally finds appreciative of this strange beverage – perhaps a clue to the source of our friendship.

Suitably wooed, Barney pulls out the perception-challenger, the Vintage “2 Year Strong Cider”. Fermented in old rum barrels with smells reminiscent of Whisky and the Caribbean, at 8% it's smoother than the previous offering and more of a treat cider, served in a screw top wine bottle.

The final two ciders are more familiar fare for the stereotypical dirty white cider drinker but only in that they are fizzy. Shaky Bridge is a filtered Scrumpy sweetened with sugar that smells and tastes like pure apple juice or Appletiser, while Redvers Buller is a 6% blend of the straw-pressed and Vintage, smelling of Refreshers and aiming to please less adventurous cider drinkers.

Barney recounts sampling 130 ciders when judging at the 11 County Cider Show and we're suddenly worried; our empty stomachs are no match for his potentially lethal produce and as much as I want more, I need food – luckily, downstairs an array of food especially devised to complement the drinks awaits.

Leaving the farm, we enter a trendy chilled-out zone, our speedy entry somehow concealed; Zero 7 perfectly harmonisers with plush but simple décor, combining a luxurious long wooden bar, comfy chairs, a kitsch frieze, giant disco ball and inventive light shades – old bird cages covered in mesh jersey fabric. Being a fashion enthusiast, Kirsty is particularly taken with the lights, recalling modelling for Henry Moore's family some years earlier at Kew Gardens wearing a similar material, in order to appear mummy-like.

A chatty vegan hands out delicious cocktail sausages stuffed with mash, mini cheeseburgers and pork and apple sandwiches. Approving of Kirsty's distaste for meat, she swings the bubble and squeak, sun-dried tomato crackers, fried courgettes and frozen apple crush our way and we're soon supping on cider again. Clearly proud of his produce, and rightly so, Barney introduces himself and an animated discussion begins about how cider is defined and the need for reclassification.

By the end of the evening Barney knows more about worldwide cider availabilities and I finally understand why the producers of mainstream ciders liked Strongbow, Magners and Bulmers push for their tasteless ciders to be served chilled. Leaving Platform for the next item on our ambitious agenda, having tasted Barney's cider range, I almost wish I'd been born a West Country worker with half my salary paid in cider.

For more information, check out www.sandfordorchards.co.uk.

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